[The following is a review I wrote in the fall of 2018 for the journal Missiology: An International Review.]
Review of Jesus and Kukai: A World of Non-Duality (2018) by Peter Baekelmans
During my many years of living in Fukuoka City, Japan, I visited Nanzoin, the Shingon (Esoteric) Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the city, many times and had a number of personal contacts with the head priest there. How I wish Baekelmans’s helpful book had been available then! While it has its shortcomings, and what book doesn’t, Jesus and Kukai presents a world of information about the form of Buddhism that Kukai (774-835) established in Japan and suggests many ways it is both similar to and different from Christianity.
Actually, there is very little about Jesus himself, but considerable about Catholic Christianity and just a bit about other forms of the Christian faith. The book is mostly about Kukai’s ideas that are expounded and followed in Esoteric or Vajrayana Buddhism, which the author presents as a third form of Buddhism following Hinayana (Theravada) and Mahayana.
Baekelmans (b. 1960) is a Belgian Roman Catholic missionary and an initiated practitioner of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. He also holds an MA in Comparative Religion, an MA in Buddhist Studies, and a Doctorate in Theology of Religions. Obviously, he is well qualified to author this book—and he clearly has an impressive command of English, European languages, and Japanese, as well as familiarity with Sanskrit terms.
This book is primarily for scholars interested in Buddhist/Christian dialogue and for English-reading people in Japan who are involved in such dialogue—and especially for those who are also able to read kanji, which appear, helpfully, throughout the book. It will likely resonate more with Catholic Christians, or scholars of Catholic Christianity, than with Protestants.
The meticulous outline, with three subdivisions of each of the seven chapters, was helpful, although there was considerable repetition of some of the key ideas and explanations of Buddhist terms. The comparsion/contrast between the religions rooted in Jesus and Kukai was quite instructive, although sometimes it was perhaps a bit misleading when the different nuances or meanings of terms used in the two religions, such as the words “save” and “salvific,” were not noted.
The emphasis on “non-duality,” referred to throughout the book and linked to mysticism as found both in Buddhism and Christianity, is a significant aspect of this instructive work.
In spite of its minor faults, I highly recommend this book to its intended audience, and I express my appreciation to author Baekelmans for writing such an informative book.