“The Eternal Buddha is no one else but the Eternal Christ.” Imaoka sensei’s “Three Christs”—A Christmas Day meditation

Nativity Scene by Eiichi Kotozuka (1906-1979)

A Christmas Day meditation offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindul Mediation


Shin’ichirō Imaoka (1881-1988) was a living legend in Japan who influenced the development of progressive and liberal religion in that country and who was one of the key figures in the founding of the “yunitarian” [sic] movement there. He was also a key figure in the inter-faith organisation called the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) and, in a recent biography about him by George M. Williams, he has been described as being “a Bodhisattva-Kami-Christian-Unitarian-sage — the Emerson of Japan.” He has been so-called because some significant Japanese members of these religious communities each saw him as their highest conception of humanity: Buddhist, Shinto, Christian and free religious radical.

After the dispersal of the Japanese “yunitarian” [sic] movement into society around 1923, the weekly gathering for spiritual practise or study on Sundays had to be restarted in 1948 when Imaoka sensei founded Kiitsu Kyokai, the Tokyo Unitarian Church, or more properly the Unity Church. This was something new because it was a fellowship for the practise and study of something beyond Unitarian-ism, namely, Free Religion.

So, why am I mentioning Imaoka sensei to you on Christmas Day? Well, it is because one of his short talks is called “Who is Christ?” (Selected Writings on Free Religion and Other Subjects, pp. 111-112) which seems to have been given one Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, perhaps to those who had gathered at Kiitsu Kyokai. In it he tells us that during his long life as both a minister of religion and teacher he had met three Christs.

The first Christ was what we would call the historical Jesus. The man “born as a carpenter’s son about 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, Israel” who . . .

“. . . was baptised by John the baptist and became conscious of his mission as God’s son. After retreating to the wilderness and being tempted by Satan 40 days, he began to preach ‘Repent; for the Kingdom of Heaven is upon you’ (Matthew 4:17) in spite of the fact that ‘Foxes have their holes, the birds their roosts; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 7:20). He gave the golden rule and many other immutable maxims. Although he declared ‘I have conquered the world’ (John 16:33), he was crucified in the end” (ibid.).

The second Christ is what we call the corporate Christ, a religious conception introduced to the world by the apostle Paul, a man who, remember, never met the historical Jesus. For Paul, Christ is the church community, the living body of which all its members are living parts, a vine and its branches. Imaoka sensei felt that the parable of the prodigal son stood as an excellent illustration of this, essentially familial, idea. He wrote:

“The father did not save the prodigal son because he himself was quite worried, just the same as his son. When the son was saved by coming home, the father was saved. Both son and father were saved simultaneously by the son’s homecoming” (ibid.).

The third Christ Imaoka sensei felt he had met in his life was one that was much more than the individual Jesus of history, and even more expansive and inclusive than the corporate Christ of Christian faith. It was a Christ who he felt was “spiritual, eternal and universal.” This Christ, especially within Asian expressions of Christianity, has often been named the “Cosmic Christ” and, today, as everyone everywhere is now being forced to wake up to the reality of the climate emergency, this is an idea which is gaining popularity especially within religious communities which are developing what may be called “ecotheologies.” Imaoka sensei was extremely alert to this ecotheological idea and in another of his essays, written in 1981 called “I Believe in a Universal Cooperative Society,” he wrote:

When we think about it, the self, others and a cooperative society all exist because of the universe or nature. Humankind cannot exist apart from nature. That is the basis of our life. I would also like to establish that not only human society but also the heavens, the earth, nature and all the universe are one community (a cooperative society) (Selected Writings on Free Religion and Other Subjects, p. 21).

Drawing particularly on the Gospel of John, Imaoka sensei says that, for him, this third kind of Christ “is super-historic, eternal and spiritual,” one who must not only have been before Abraham was, but who also existed in the days of Socrates, Gautama Buddha, and Confucius. Indeed, Imaoka sensei believed that “because Socrates, Gautama, and Confucius saved the people of their days, they must have been Christ” (Selected Writings on Free Religion and Other Subjects, pp. 111-112).

Having stated this, Imaoka sensei then begins to draw his very short talk to a close with what he tells us is a “true story concerning a discussion between a [Christian] missionary and a Buddhist in the Meiji era.”

“The Buddhist asked the missionary, ‘My parents were earnest and ardent Buddhists and died without the chance to learn Christianity. Where are they now, in paradise or in hell?’ The missionary answered ‘They are in hell, of course.’ The Buddhist said ‘I will never be converted to Christianity. As you say, if there is truly a hell and my parents are there, I am very anxious to go to hell to see my parents and renew our ideal home life there. Then this hell will become paradise.’ Isn’t this a thought-provoking story? While the missionary did not know the spiritual, eternal and universal Christ, the Buddhist did not know the historical Christ, but believed in Amitabha, i.e. Eternal Buddha” (ibid.). 

Drawing on this story Imaoka sensei then concludes his short talk with the following words, words which seem to me be a perfect way to conclude this Christmas Day talk to you:

“And I think the Eternal Buddha is no one else but the Eternal Christ. Christ exists everywhere and at any time. I am convinced that Christ is born here today. Let us, therefore, celebrate Christ’s birth here within each of us just at this moment” (ibid.).