It has long been known that there are some outward similarities between Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Christianity. Both claim a savior figure and a teaching of radical grace. Both proclaim a wondrous mystical realm which is both transcendent and immanent: in Christianity, this is the Kingdom of Heaven, which is both “beyond” and here and now; in Shin, this is the Pure Land, which is both a transcosmic Buddha Land as well as the here and now unfolding in us of Amida’s own dynamic spiritual activity. But beyond these parallels there are essential differences.
Mainstream Christianity holds that God’s saving grace is mediated by his Son, Jesus Christ. This divine grace is held to have been crucially dispensed by Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. Christian salvation consists in accepting for oneself the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice. Christianity also maintains that Jesus is ontologically – “by nature” – divine, the second person in a divine “Trinity.” Believing in Jesus’ deity, in addition to accepting Jesus’ salfivic death, is the second essential facet in Christian soteriology.
(It is important at this point to mention that salvation by means of accepting Jesus as God, and accepting his atoning death, although foundational requirements in established Christianity as we now know it, there are other means of salvation to be found in the Christian scriptures. But, through hundreds of years of doctrinal conflict, these two have emerged victorious, and are especially emphasized in Protestant communions. Earlier types of Christianity emphasized various means of salvation, but their contributions have been de-emphasized, minimized, or rejected as heretical. The present essay, when considering Christianity, concerns not these “alternative” or antiquated views, but mainstream Christianity as it is currently known and practiced.)
It is de riguer that Martin Luther emphasized Christian soteriology’s claims of salvation based on faith and grace. Luther taught that Jesus was God’s free gift of salvation to a human race that could never save itself by its own efforts. The human response to God’s grace through faith in Jesus, in Lutheran (and later Reformist views) ensured salvation. Humankind on its own is powerless to procure salvation; only God’s grace can perform the task. This does resemble Shin’s “take” on grace, but it falls short of Shin’s purity and radicalism.
In Christianity, salvation, though given by God’s grace, remains to some degree dependent on the recipient; the recipient must place his or her faith in the person of Jesus, in his salvific death, and in his deity. But as New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg has pointed out, a gift of grace freely given can really have no pre-conditions or requirements, that is, if it is truly freely given. If there is even one requirement – i.e., we must believe in Jesus’ saving death – then we no longer have a pure grace religion, but rather a “works” religion…perhaps a very refined and minimally-demanding religion, but a works religion nonetheless. This is the point where Jodo Shinshu’s doctrine of radical grace becomes relevant.
While Amida Buddha is Shin’s savior figure, Amida differs from Jesus in some important ways.
First, Amida is not a god nor the son of a god. Amida is difficult to define – not a creator, a sky father, an earth mother, a tribal totem, an elemental spirit, a mediator, an intercessor, an intervener or miracle worker – Amida is “Eternal Life” and “Unimpeded Light.” A Presence in, but not of, the universe. Amida’s nature is Compassion and Amida’s relationship with life is Grace. Pure grace, eternal and… unimpeded.
Second, the free and unimpeded nature of Amida’s grace is such that it makes no requirement, religious or secular, of the recipient. No faith is demanded – neither in the atoning sacrifice of a divine son, nor in the intervention of a creator-deity. Amida’s grace permeates all things, whether or not they are aware of it or respond to it. Amida’s eternal life (Amatayus) and unimpeded light (Amitabha) illumine the world already, and cannot be called upon to appear as if from an alien realm. And it is not that Shin Buddhists do not call upon Amida. On the contrary, the Nembutsu, “Calling on the Name” of Amida, is Shin’s primary practice.
But whereas the Christian calls upon Jesus as one who is to be informed of personal troubles, who may answer petitionary prayer, who may intervene in the petitioner’s life or sometimes even perform miracles, Amida Buddha conforms to none of these expectations.
When the Shin practitioner voices the nembutsu, this serves only serves two purposes:
1) to phrase and express (either verbally or mentally)
2) the recipient’s gratitude for Amida’s grace.
Shin “prayer” is really affirmation; affirmation that, as far as human salvation and realization of one’s own Buddha-Nature are concerned, “all is well” and as it should be. Since Amida is neither a creator nor an intervener, Amida is not connected to typically Abrahamic-creatorist beliefs in petitionary prayer and divine intervention.
In brief, Amida’s grace is all-sufficient, and there is nothing that we must – there is nothing that we can – do in order to acquire this boon. It is freely given moment to moment and we are immersed in it whether we know it or not; and it is Shin’s special graciousness that offers a means that we may know it.