Abandonment and Compassion

Panentheism claims that God is both immanent (here) and transcendent (more than here). Pantheism, on the other hand, states that God is only here; God and universe are the same. Panentheism holds that the universe is in God and God is in the universe. But it goes on to say that God extends beyond the universe. Thus, to paraphrase Luke’s citation of Paul in the book of Acts, it is in God that we and the world “live and move and have our being.”

Jodo Shinshu makes a similar claim about Amida Buddha. Though not a deity or a creator, Amida Buddha permeates the universe, and the universe unfolds within Amida’s being. Thus, panentheism and Jodo Shinshu (Shin) share a vision of an ultimate reality which exists in, and outside of, the world. In several modes of panentheism, God is a presence but not a creator or an intervener. The same is true of Shin. Amida Buddha is a presence but is not a creator, a designer or an intervener. Like panentheism’s non-creating God, Shin’s Amida Buddha is a presence whose divine life flows naturally into and outward from a universe that is held in Amida’s being.   As G.R. Lewis, sensei of the Buddhist Faith Fellowship of Connecticut has put it, Jodo Shinshu is from one perspective an expression of “PanenDharmism,” (and by extension, “PanenBuddhism” and “PanenAmidism”). Viewed in this light, Amida is functionally equivalent to some panentheistic definitions of god.

This is in stark contrast to mainstream expressions of the Western Abrahamic faiths. Basic to god’s attributes in these faiths are the ideas of creation and intervention.  The Abrahamic God is the Creator, and as such bears responsibility for the world, his creation.  This Semitic God, frequently imaged as Father and Lawgiver, contracts or covenants with “his” people(s).  They, in turn, pledge to live by the laws he has revealed. More importantly, they pray to God and perceive his answers to prayer as interventions. Their traditions are replete with narratives describing historical interventions by their deity. (In addition to petitionary prayer, of course, these faiths also have contemplative prayer, which much more resembles meditation than does petitionary prayer.)  But the main emphasis is on a God who creates, who acts – and who acts through intervention in response to prayer.

There are inherent problems associated with this notion of a creator-intervener deity. The most pressing are the troubling questions raised by all the non-interventions, and by the arbitrariness of selective intervention.  Moreover, there is the question of divine purpose: why does God intervene here, but not there?  Why do some receive the rewards (or the punishments) through intervention, while others go about their lives completely untouched by and uninvolved in any particularized divine actions? The more the question is considered, the more it seems that the notion of the creating and intervening God requires increasingly complex and artificial explanations.

The primary explanation is to create a paradigm which attempts to explain the existence and persistence of evil in a world purportedly created and maintained (some would even say “shepherded”) by a just and compassionate cosmic Ruler. Such explanations are collectively termed, “theodicy.” Theodicy attempts to make sense of evil in a creation deemed “good” (the Hebrew creator’s self-flattering assessment of his own work) – from the Designer’s point of view.

In some aspects of panentheism, and certainly in “PanenDharmism,” this question disappears. Rather, it has no existence to begin with, because Amida is not a creator or an intervener. Amida is a radiant sea of Compassion directly apprehended by the practitioner in a naturally occuring dynamic that is independent of miracles or physical mediation.  Amida is ultimate Compassion but is not entangled in material processes. Amida loves but does not intervene.  But isn’t this a contradiction?

One of the obvious and even stereotypical mainstays of love is intervention. We human beings (sometimes) intervene to prevent evil, to feed the hungry, to defuse war, to house the destitute.  What kind of ultimate reality can be said to be compassionate yet non-intervening? A God or a transcendental Buddha who do not act on their compassion could at best be said to be useless.

The primary spiritual burden of modernity is the realization of divine abandonment, together with its resulting feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness. Albert Camus said that if we found that the universe could love, we would be reconciled. But modernity’s universe not only cannot love. It is not even sentient. It is a series of mindless cycles of force wherein minute, finite sentient beings struggle, suffer, and die. It has become clear to us that there is (in all likelihood) no Designer, no one to watch the store.  Or, if a Designer exists, s/he is totally unconcerned by the horrors the Design has wrought among feeling creatures. “A Creator exists, but he’s nasty” is hardly good news. One is reminded of William Peter Blatty’s (author of  The Exorcist) comment to the effect of, “What if God exists, and is brilliant yet bent?” (Blatty: “Legion”).

Jodo Shinshu acknowledges this state of affairs:  We are indeed “abandoned,” at least in the sense that what we had once seen as revealed providential plans, tokens of divinity, special cosmic attentiveness to human concerns, are now seen as naturally-occurring products of random processes… or, worse yet, never existed except in our wrong-headed hopes and imaginings.  We are abandoned in the midst of swirling indifferences.

However, according to Shin, help is available. Symbolized as “a raft from the other shore,” Jodo Shinshu’s “Panendharmism” (G.R. Lewis’s term) offers a connection to a Compassion as real and as non-interventionary as Light.  Just as the Light of the Logos in John’s Gospel “shines on in the darkness, but the darkness cannot grasp it,” so too does the Light of Amida’s Compassion.  The term “Amida” is derived from Amitabha Buddha and Amitayus Buddha.   Amitayus Buddha is universal Life.  Amitabha Buddha is universal Light – “Unimpeded Light” as Shin in fact calls it.

Though non-interventionary, once grasped, this Light enables sentient beings to witness the unfolding of our suffering, samsaric universe within Amida’s being. It enables our suffering selves to partake in the divine life of the universal Amida Buddha and to realize the Pure Land in our own lives. Which is to say, we realize ourselves as Amida, as vehicles for Amida’s limitless Life and Light. Viewed  from this new perspective, samsaric existence begins to be experienced from the sheer Grace and in the sheer Compassion of the transcendent yet immanent Buddha Mind.

Jesus may have been indicating something similar when he pointed to the birds of the air as they swooped through the Galilean skies.  When even just one of them falls, it falls in the ever-present awareness – the “Really Real” being – of God.  God – like Jodo Shinshu’s Amida Buddha – does not intervene to prevent the bird’s fall.  But the fall itself is already immersed in a sea of Compassion. The Suchness of Amida embraces the fate of the smallest beings, and Amida’s Compassion extends to every last one of them. Paradoxically, then, it can be said that we are at one and the same time abandoned and cared for.

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