For those who are first introduced to Shin Buddhism, there can be some initial confusion about the tradition. This can even be more confusing since our fellowship is Shin-Zen hybrid and not a traditional Shin Buddhist Sangha.
For most of people and for those in our community, the confusion usually revolves about Amida Buddha and the Pure Land and how to these symbols can make the Shin tradition seem like some form of a theistic Buddhism, with Amida Buddha as a Savior/ God figure and the Pure Land like some sort of Buddhist heaven. This is understandable. It is important to note that we are dealing with a religion in translation, where language can fail us or at least get in the way. When dealing with the language and diction of Shin Buddhism we can get caught up in old meanings and previous contexts of words such as “saved” “sin” and “evil” (especially for us who come from a Christian background). In translation, the same words may have been used in a previous context but when they are used in relation to Shin Buddhism, the original intent, and meaning are lost. The language used can be similar but not the same, the words can get in our way.
So let’s clarify. It is obvious that Shin Buddhists venerate Amida Buddha, and the compassion that he symbolizes, and yet veneration is different than worship. To venerate someone means that there is great respect or awe inspired by the dignity, wisdom, dedication, or talent of that person. To worship someone would be more accurately, the act of showing respect and love for a god especially by praying with other people who believe in the same god: the act of worshipping God or a god. So with Amida Buddha, there is veneration but not worship, because Amida Buddha is not God, did not create the universe, and does not judge man. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many different Buddhas, and none of them, are worshipped as gods. Simply put, Buddhas are not gods, they are awakened beings, exert no force, that simply teach the Dharma and the path to liberation. Here is a story from Shakyamuni Buddha’s life about this very question,
” ‘Are you a deva?(God)”
“No, brahman, I am not a deva.”
“Are you a gandhabba? (demi god / celestial musician), “No, brahman, I am not a gandhabba.”
“Are you a yakkha?” ( a protector god or trickster diety)
“No, brahman, I am not a yakkha.”
“Are you a human being?”
“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”
“Then what sort of being are you?”
“Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened.'”
AN 4.36 PTS: A ii 37
From my perspective, in Buddhism –when it speaks about deities, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas, it is a symbolic representation of different aspects of awakened humanity. Or even characteristics of reality itself, but do not refer to any god. Amida Buddha is venerated because he represents the perfection of compassion and wisdom; and the capacity within each of us, to be perfectly compassionate with others and ourselves.
When I first was introduced to Amida Buddha and the Shin tradition I was amazed at the openness and compassion that I felt within it and at the same time, it did seem like Amida was Jesus without the blood. There are similarities, but as I said earlier, similarly does not mean the same. At the core, they are very different. In Christianity, a person is separated from God by sin. The separation of God and man occurred when Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. Their sins of disobedience caused all of mankind to be separated from God. For some Christians, this means that each person born into this world is separated from God, doomed to Hell, and will not be allowed to enter Heaven. As Paul wrote to the Romans,
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
This disobedience caused a separation from the moment you are born, and the only way to bridge this separation is to have someone pay the price for the disobedience. In enters Jesus Christ A Christian writer John Piper has explained,
“Since our sin is against the Ruler of the Universe, “the wages of [our] sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Not to punish it would be unjust. So God sent his own Son, Jesus, to divert sin’s punishment from us to himself. God “loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation”—the wrath-absorbing substitute (emphasis added)—“for our sins”
1 John 4:10.
So the role of Jesus is to stand between man and God and pay the price of our wrath inducing disobedience. How does one take advantage of what Jesus has done? By having trust in him and by calling on his name and he will, by his mercy and grace allow those who do to enter into the rest of the lord. Ok, now that does sound familiar, especially when we read also that Amida Buddha saves all who intone his name, namu amida butsu, even if just once with a pure heart; that they will be born in the Pure Land. So it is like Jesus=Amida or Amida = Jesus. On closer inspection, we discover that they are actually quite different, even if the way to access their symbolic aid is similar. Here is an example of how this idea of disobedience and sin just does not relate to Amida Buddha. Here is a quote from D.T. Suzuki. Suzuki was one of the most important people in spreading Zen in the West.
“Far as Amida is concerned, he is all love, there is no thought in him of punishing anybody, such discriminative judgments are not in him. He is like the sun in this respect shining on the unjust as well as the just. A sinner comes to the Pure Land with all his sins, or rather, he leaves them in the world where they belong, and when he arrives in the Pure Land he is in his nakedness, with no sinful raiments about him. Karma does not pursue him up to the Pure Land.”
D.T. Suzuki Essays on Shin Buddhism
Literal vs. True
For many Christians, Jesus is a literal physical being existing somewhere else besides where we are now. That also could be said for some Shin Buddhists. There is an anecdote that goes something like this. There are two members that are arguing whether Amida Buddha is a literal Buddha is some far off land, one says yes and the other says no. Later on in the day and at different times they as the resident minister for clarification. The one who believes that Amida Buddha is more literal ask the minister if Amida Buddha was symbolic or literal. The minister smiles and says the Amida Buddha is more of a symbolic representation than a literal historical being. The man walks away shaking his head. A little later the second man approaches the resident minister and asks if Amida Buddha was symbolic or literal. The minister smiles and says the Amida Buddha is not symbolic at all but a literal historical being. The man walks away shaking his head.
For some Shin Buddhists, those of a more modernist bent, Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life is a potent mythopoetic symbol. The Buddhist Patriarch Huineng, explains how a symbol works, that symbols can be…
“likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”
Amida acts as symbol, is the finger pointing to the truth of Reality as it is. Dr. Nobuo Haneda has explained.
“Mahayanists were interested in identifying the universal source (or basis) of the inspiration that awakened and produced Shakyamuni. And they identified it as the Dharma or universal Buddhahood. In order to show this spiritual basis of Shakyamuni in a more concrete human form, Mahayanists created the concept of “Amida”—an ideal human being, a “humble and dynamic” human being who embodies the Dharma.
As we can see, Amida is not a god, nor a wrathful judge, not a creator, nor lawgiver and there is no such thing as sin per se in Buddhism, simply delusion. Amida is not like Jesus since there is no god, not god to disobey, to be wrathful, or who needs to be appeased because of our disobedience and finally no sacrificial requirement to make man/woman right with God.
A yet, Shinran Shonin, the founder of Shin Buddhism, has said that Amida saves whoever has sincere faith in him. The question then would be what does he save us from?
The Buddha taught us in the first two of the Four Noble Truths, that Life is Suffering and suffering is caused by attachment to a false sense of an anonymous separate self. From the Buddhist perspective, being “separate” or “separated “is an illusion of our true state, and that there is no real separation to the Oneness of Life, whereas in Christianity, man is in a fallen state and the state of separation is a reality. The Compassion of Amida Buddha, then could be said to acts as a symbol that helps a person to, overcome their delusion of being separate from the Oneness of Life, and “saves” one from a misunderstanding of the Dharma, of Reality as it is and of being anything less than their innate Buddha nature. Again from Dr. Haneda,
“Thus, as far as our personal attainment of Buddhahood is concerned, this second meaning of “Amida” as a symbol of the Dharma (or universal Buddhahood) is more important than the first. The goal in Buddhism is that we personally become Amida Buddhas. The Buddhahood that we are expected to attain in Buddhism is not the historical Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, but the universal Buddhahood that is symbolized in “Amida.” We cannot totally identify with Shakyamuni, because we live in a different historical context than that of Shakyamuni. However, we can and should identify with the universal aspiration that Dharmakara symbolizes, strive to fulfill it, and become Amida Buddhas. We must realize our deepest reality, our true selves, which is what the realization of Amida Buddhahood means.”
Amida Buddha acts not as a reconciliation of a person to God, but the reconciliator of a person to themselves and to the understanding, as Jeff Wilson has written,…” of the true nature of all things as liberated suchness.”
The story of Amida Buddha gives us an alternative narrative to our ego- entangled story. Amida is not God but a symbol of the feeling or sense that many of us have, of a loving immeasurable mystery at the heart of existence. Entrusting in Amida Buddha is trusting in that sense and is the source of the Great Compassion that frees us from our delusory ego-self – of shame, separation, and lack. When we turn to entrust in the Compassion of the Oneness of Life as symbolized by Amida, a path opens before us for us to experience true compassion. Entrusting in Amida Buddha is a skillful means to access the reality of the Oneness of Life that lies beyond language; that comes from the very wisdom and ever-present grace waiting for us at the core of becoming fully human.
Namu Amida Butsu.