Category Archives: Buddhism

When Silence Would Have Been Better

Jesuit theologian William Johnston did a fine job of translating Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece “Silence” into English. The book is now set to become a movie, directed by Martin Scorsese. I am sure sales will soar.

Johnston died five years ago. I met him several decades earlier, in 1982. Here is an anecdote from our meeting.

SilenceBorn in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, Johnston later traveled to Japan as a Catholic missionary. It was there that he became enamored with Buddhism, particularly Zen, to the extent that he wrote a book titled “Christian Zen.” He also became a teacher at Tokyo’s Sophia University, a very fine Catholic institution.

I had arrived in Tokyo in 1976, and was also attracted to Zen Buddhism. As a journalist, I began writing about it, and with Buddhist scholar John Stevens I co-authored a book, “Zen Guide.”

Doing research for this book, I several times attended Zen meditation sessions at Sophia University that were run by Johnston and other Catholic priests there. (I should mention that my co-author John Stevens was pretty scornful of attempts to fuse Zen and Christianity, so none of this made it into “Zen Guide.”)

Here is how I described it in another book of mine, “Journey Out Of Nothing:”

I attended one of the services, and was underwhelmed. A dozen-or-so participants sat on tatami mats in a small room, spent a short time in meditation, and then a priest recited a short liturgy, said a prayer and gave a brief homily. I could not see the point of it all.

After the service a group of several young Spanish and Latin American priests prepared a delicious meal – including squid cooked in its own ink, which I was able to taste for the first time – and we ate together, and drank Spanish red wine.

The handsome young Latin priests were a lively bunch, noisy and cheeky (a Catholic friend later told me that most of them ended up marrying Japanese girls). And I should confess that we were all drinking a lot of that excellent Spanish wine.

This was in 1982, and the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina was then raging. At one point in the evening a Spanish priest turned to a young Argentinian priest and in a loud voice pointed at me and shouted repeatedly (in English): “He’s British. He’s British. Don’t you want to fight him?” It was meant as a humorous attempt to rile his colleague, but it came across as something of an aggressive taunt. (I was not British. I’m now a naturalized Australian. Back then I was a New Zealander.)

The young Argentinian was clearly embarrassed, as the Spanish priest wouldn’t stop. He kept shouting, “He’s British,” and pointing at me. I too became embarrassed. I was sitting right by William Johnston, so to try to defuse the situation I turned to him and said the first words that came to me: “I suppose as an Irishman you support Argentina in the Falklands.” It was meant as a light-hearted quip.

His immediate response: “As a human being I support Argentina.”

To which I replied: “Oh, as a human being I support the British.” As I said, we had all been drinking a lot of red wine.

Johnston looked at me for a moment with what seemed to be stunned silence, and then he launched into one of the most aggressive tirades of abuse against the British that I have ever heard. I forget the details, but I know it encompassed his upbringing in Belfast and the discrimination he encountered there, followed by his later years as an Irishman in Liverpool. I recall that at one point he was even fuming about British actions in the 16th century during the Spanish Armada.

Now it was I who was stunned into silence. I was not a Christian and had in fact been raised in an anti-Christian household. Yet, somehow, I still had something of an old-fashioned image of men of the cloth – possibly from hardly ever having met any – that they were quiet, humble, hard-working, peaceful and eternally gracious. I was quite shocked by this torrent of abuse.

I was a spiritual seeker back then, but fortunately I was still deeply into the Zen phase of my journey towards Jesus. I suspect that, had I been investigating Christianity, then that tirade from Johnston, the former missionary, would have lost me. It was only some years later, in 1993 that I found Jesus (or should I say that He found me?) here in Australia.

Buddhist Extremists and My Novels

Military Orders - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013So you haven’t heard of Dorje Shugden, the extremist Buddhist group now in the news for their opposition to the Dalai Lama. Well, that’s not my fault. For I made them the villains of my thriller “Military Orders.”

The title of a lengthy post this week on the Foreign Affairs website sums up the group – “Meet the Buddhists Who Hate the Dalai Lama More Than the Chinese Do.”

That’s what happens when you write novels that are based on current events. These events are apt to overtake your novels.

I have already written about how soccer riots in Egypt mirror events in my thriller “The Coptic Martyr of Cairo” and how the burning of churches in West Africa was foreshadowed by my novel “Festival in the Desert.”

A few excerpts from the Foreign Affairs post sum up its tone:

Dorje Shugden is an obscure trickster spirit, believed to have originated in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in the 17th century. And though the spirit’s followers in the Western world probably number only a few thousand, they’ve been surprisingly successful at generating attention for themselves and their campaign to discredit the Dalai Lama. 

…Besides protesting the Dalai Lama during his trips to the United States and Europe, Shugden followers produce websites filled with anti-Dalai Lama material and write and distribute pamphlets, articles, and books denouncing the Dalai Lama. Consider, for example, “The False Dalai Lama: The Worst Dictator in the Modern World,” published in October 2013.

The book describes its purpose as helping people to “understand the deceptive nature” of the Dalai Lama, who stands accused of “destroying pure Buddhism in this world.” If that weren’t enough, it depicts the Tibetan spiritual leader as a “Muslim” who is firmly in the grip of a “fascination with war and Nazism.”

One might think, given Beijing’s well-known hostility toward the Tibetan spiritual leader, that the book is a work of calumny sponsored by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. But its publishers are, in fact, enthusiastic Buddhists. Specifically, the International Shugden Community, a California-based organization representing a small religious sect whose members worship Dorje Shugden, and whose website claims its mission is “exposing the dark side of the Dalai Lama.”

My thriller “Military Orders“ has a somewhat fantastical plot about a plan by a Christian church to “hijack” the next selection of a Dalai Lama – after the current incumbent dies – and install in his place a secret Christian. During my research for the book I learned about Dorje Shugden, and they seemed to fit my plot perfectly – opposed to the Dalai Lama, but also no friends of Christians. They made excellent villains.

Expect them to appear in the news again, especially once the current Dalai Lama dies.

And this time you will have heard of them.

My Buddhist Journey to Jesus

I’ve published a new book, “Journey Out Of Nothing: My Buddhist Path to Christianity.” It is the story of the years I spent in Zen Buddhism, when I lived in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s.

Journey Out Of Nothing - CoverHere is the blurb I wrote for Amazon:

While in his twenties and thirties, international journalist and best-selling author Martin Roth, living in Japan, became deeply involved in Zen Buddhism. So much so that he co-authored a reference work on the subject, “Zen Guide.”

Now he explains the attraction of Buddhism to himself and to other young Westerners. He also recounts – often in amusing detail – some of his adventures.

He became possibly the first Westerner to complete a famous pilgrimage to thirty-three temples in northern Japan. On another pilgrimage he spent three days hiking through some of Japan’s holiest mountains, sometimes standing under frigid waterfalls in purification rituals. He stayed at famous monasteries, often participating in morning worship services full of dazzling ceremonies.

He introduces some of the fascinating people he met. These include the young priest who lived and meditated in a giant soy sauce barrel; the professor who devised “commuting Zen” meditation for his strap-hanging one-and-a-half-hour rail commute to work each day; and the American advertising executive who became head of his own Japanese Zen temple, a place where Caroline Kennedy, now US ambassador to Japan, stayed during her honeymoon.

But he also explains why his interest in Buddhism began to fade, and why, today, he is a Christian.

This short book (18,000 words), part travel adventure, part memoir, part spiritual odyssey, will entertain and inform.


Chapter One – First Steps
Chapter Two – Learning about Buddhism
Chapter Three – A Series of Newspaper Columns
Chapter Four – Writing a Book
Chapter Five – Zen Adventures
Chapter Six – Was I a Buddhist?
Chapter Seven – Kyoto
Chapter Eight – Heading North
Chapter Nine – Christian Zen
Chapter Ten – Buddhist Art
Chapter Eleven – Doubts
Chapter Twelve – Becoming a Christian
Chapter Thirteen – Buddhism and the Book of Ecclesiastes
Chapter Fourteen – Talking with Buddhists

The book is available, as a download or in paperback, at Amazon.

“God Has Been Preparing Us” – Persecution of Christians Growing in Buddhist Sri Lanka

Many people – even Christians – are startled to learn that among the groups persecuting Christians are Buddhists.

Several Buddhist countries are on the latest Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians face the most hardships, including Laos, Vietnam, Bhutan and Myanmar.

But recently it has been Sri Lanka where Christians have been facing some particularly vile incidents of persecution.

Now the Baptist Press, which has excelled with some superb reporting on churches around the world that are under attack, has published an excellent feature, “Sri Lankan churches violently attacked, closed.”

It goes into great detail, and you should read it all. Here is a brief excerpt:

Sri Lanka is the world’s oldest continually Buddhist nation, and extremists told a TIME reporter last month that they want it to stay that way. As a result, persecution is on the rise. Attacks on Muslims have hit the headlines, but the increasing incidence of Christian persecution has received very little attention.

“People are afraid to step foot in a church or any religious place,” [Pastor] Perera [not his real name] says. “We cannot start new churches. Churches cannot rent or buy houses anymore…. 

“Our constitution gives us freedom of religion, but in practice it is Buddhist and there will not be any other religion welcome,” the pastor warns. “This [persecution] is going to spread quickly from one district to another.”

The veteran pastor is no stranger to persecution. The country suffered through two decades of civil war. Pastors had to walk the perimeter of their church building to check for landmines every Sunday morning. Before the 2004 tsunami hit the island, churches were burned, bombed and shut down. Things settled down and Sri Lanka disappeared off the World Watch List’s top 50 persecuted countries. 

But now, it has started up again. Almost every week, a church or Muslim business is attacked in some way or another. Despite this persecution, Perera assures that the church closings and attacks have not hampered spreading the Gospel. 

“God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!” Perera says, suppressing a chuckle of amazement. “He opened our minds to a new way of doing ‘church’ last year. Before this even started happening, we were training lay leaders to lead house churches in their homes.”

Time to Recognize Buddhist Persecution of Christians

By Martin Roth

Time magazine confirms what many Christians already knew – that Buddhism too has its extremists, and persecution of Christians is a fact in parts of the Buddhist world.

Laos – a Buddhist and a Marxist-Leninist nation – ranks at Number 18 on the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians face the harshest persecution. Vietnam is Number 21 and Myanmar is Number 32.

The Time report concerns mainly Buddhist opposition to Islam, though it notes: “In Sri Lanka, where a conservative, pro-Buddhist government reigns, Buddhist nationalist groups are operating with apparent impunity, looting Muslim and Christian establishments.”

The Baptist Press has an excellent summary of a growing wave of disturbing incidents in Sri Lanka:

International Christian Concern reported that 2012 and 2013 have seen a dramatic increase in Christian persecution in Sri Lanka, including Christians being attacked in more than 50 incidents in 2012 alone for practicing their faith. Reports of Christian pastors and their families being threatened and having their homes firebombed have almost become common, ICC said.

Catholic World News cited a bishop May 1 in Sri Lanka who said the cause of the uptick in persecution is the growth of what he calls the “Buddhist Taliban.”

…In March, a large mob attacked a pastor’s home while the family was away and began damaging the property, demanding an end to the church services in the home, ICC said May 5. 

The same pastor had been accosted and threatened by a group of Buddhists telling him to close down the church late last year, the human rights organization said. The protesters returned the next day and attacked the building during a worship service, injuring the pastor.

Also in March, more than 10 churches faced persecution in the form of threats, disturbances, harassment or attacks, mostly from Buddhist monks but sometimes with the assistance of the police or a mob, ICC said. 

Last summer, a 14-year-old boy, the only Christian in his class at school, reportedly was severely beaten and threatened with death if he did not stop spreading Christianity. 

Buddhist Bhutan Continues To Discriminate Against Christians

By Martin Roth

Buddhism is widely viewed as a religion of tolerance, able to co-exist with all other religions. Don’t tell that to the Christians of Sri Lanka, who have endured waves of persecution. Nor to the Christians of Bhutan.

Bhutan is a small Asian kingdom wedged between India and China. Buddhists make up three-quarters of the population, with Hindus most of the remainder, although there is also a small and growing Christian presence. The country ranks at No. 28 – moderate persecution – on the Open Doors World Watch List of Christian persecution.

The Bhutanese king is due in India later this week for India’s Republic Day celebrations. The president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, Sajan George, took the occasion to call for religious freedom for the kingdom’s Christians.

Since 2006, the Bhutanese government has introduced democratic reforms after centuries of absolute monarchy during which religions other than Buddhism were banned.

In 2008, a new constitution was adopted that, formally at least, recognised religious freedom for all Bhutanese, as long as they informed the authorities. A few Hindu temples were thus built but Christians continue to be denied the right to build their churches or hold Masses in public.

The situation has in fact worsened since anti-conversion laws were adopted in 2010. “These laws were designed to prevent forced conversions or the use of financial inducements to convert,” said Sajan George. “And they impose a three-year sentence for ‘proselytising’.

“As in some Indian states, these laws are being used to persecute Christians, on the basis of false charges with regards to forced conversions,” he explained. “Often, they are used against charities as well.”

It is perhaps ironic that Bhutan practices Vajrayana Buddhism, also called Tibetan Buddhism, as it is the Dalai Lama who is often viewed as the key figure in promoting Buddhism as a religion of tolerance.

I feature Tibetan Buddhism extensively in my novel “Military Orders,” a Christian thriller about the search for a new Dalai Lama, where I describe this style of Buddhism as “signs and wonders,” with practitioners, under the direction of a spiritual guide, forming relationships with the occult.