For most of the West, salvation is customarily dictated by the sacrifice of a sinless Son-Messiah to his heavenly “Father,” a creator deity. In Buddhism, specifically in the Mahayanist ‘Pure Land” schools, and particularly in Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism, the situation is markedly different.
The Christian soteriological paradigm is acceptance through faith of the Son’s deity and the efficacy of his self-immolation on the cross. In Jodo Shinshu, the salvific mechanism is based neither on sacrifice nor in the behavior of the person who is to be redeemed.
The sect of Jodo Shinshu, founded in the twelfth century by Shinran Shonin, places both the call to salvation, and its response, solely within the action of Amida Buddha. The premise is that, in our latter age of spiritual degeneration, most people are unable to follow the traditional paths of discipline in order to achieve Buddhahood. Therefore, the bulk of humankind is is held in Shin not to be capable of carrying out Sakyamuni Buddha’s injunction to seek salvation through diligent self-effort. The resolution to this situation is, according to Jodo Shinshu, not in “jiriki” or self-power, but in “tariki” or other-power. The “other” referred to here is Amida Buddha.
Amida, as Jodo Shinshu’s foundational story relates, was a spiritual seeker in an unspecified time and place, usually assumed to be remote eons past. Like the historical Sakyamuni, this ancient religious wanderer, a great ruler, sought salvation through many avenues. He eventually met a Buddha who urged the king to seek his own Buddha-nature. At this, the royal seeker became a monk, taking the name Dharmakara. Ultimately, Dharmakara won through to Buddhahood, taking on the name and function of Amitabha (in Japanese, Amida) Buddha.
But instead of stepping directly into the transcendent Buddha Realm, he undertook vows to create a refuge for all those who would be Buddhas. His Eighteenth or Primal Vow was that he would be denied final transcendent Buddhahood unless all beings who called on him entered the Pure Land which he had created for them after eons of contemplation.
Amida’s Primal Vow is at the core of Shin Buddhism. It is the promise and the means of salvation, which in Mahayanist Buddhism does not consist of remittance of sins or a heavenly reward, but rather the realization of one’s Buddha nature. In contrast to other Pure Land schools, Jodo Shinshu holds that although the transcendent Pure Land is real, at the same time it is immanent – an existential unfolding of our Buddha nature in this world and in this life. (In this claim Jodo Shinshu does resemble the Christian teaching that the kingdom of heaven is both in “the other realm” [transcendent], and here and now “among us” [immanent].)
Other Power is the cause of enlightenment. Jodo Shinshu holds that, since we are incapable of the kind of self-effort that would result in salvation, the sheer grace of Amida is the all-sufficient cause of redemption.
Amida issues the call, and we answer it gratefully, invoking his name in the Nembutsu prayer. Lest it be thought, however, that our response is salvation’s catalyst, Jodo Shinshu reminds us that, just as the call issues from Amida, so too the reply issues from Amida, from “Amida-in-us.” Thus the entire cycle of Call/Call Answered is entirely the action of Amida, untainted by the egoic processes of human self-effort.
Self-power vanquished, Amida’s salvation is pure grace, the opposite of “works-religion.” It has no requirements, since even our response to Amida’s call is initiated and received by Amida. Here we are not required to render sacrifice, or to put our faith in the sacrifice of a sinless victim, the only-begotten son of a sky father. We need not pledge ourselves to a legal code revealed by a creator deity. Because such acts of faith are acts, and moreover, requirements… they are therefore works, and they avail us nothing, whereas Amida’s salvific grace avails us everything.
Jodo Shinshu is, as it were, so full of grace that there is no room left over for self-powered works and their related requirements, polluted as they are with egoic clinging and self-aggrandizement.