One of the first questions that arises when one claims an Ultimate Reality which is transcendent to the material universe is, “What does your God do?” In the West, we are accustomed to the notion of a deity who is quite active: first, God creates the universe, then proceeds to intervene more or less miraculously in creation, and to make special revelations ot, and for, select individuals and peoples. My form of panentheism has a God who “does” nothing in regard to the physical world. Amida (or the Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being, the Dharmakaya, the Tao, the Buddha-Mind, the Buddha-Nature) does a kind of salvific “work”, but that work is purely spiritual. God/Amida does not intervene, for example, in answer to prayer. And why should we have such an expectation? God/Amida is not a creator. Therefore the Ultimate Reality cannot be praised for the good in the world, or blamed for the world’s ills – for the simple reason that God is not responsible for a universe that God, in the first place, did not create. If we define God in Amidist-Shin terms, it is simply not God’s nature to create.
Not that Amida’s work is not unfolding in the universe. It’s a matter of perceiving that Amida’s work is “in” but not “of” the world. It has worldly effects, but that is because the work takes place within the sentient beings who are themselves, at least temporarily, part of the material universe. God’s “workshop” is “located” within the heart of sentient beings, in their spiritual subjectivity. As Meister Eckhart used to say, “God is known in the soul”, and so neither God nor the soul are properties of matter. Sometimes matter can be used as a symbol of divinity – e.g., the stereotyped pictures of sunsets, of rays of light streaming through clouds, any number of images of natural beauty, etc., are commonly used as “God-signs”. Sometimes matter can symbolically convey the idea of divinity, in the sense that the Psalmist sang, “The heavens and the earth are full of the glory of the Lord”. The universe can “stand in” for God, but unlike the pantheistic view, the world is not itself God.
Since God/Amida’s activity does not concern bodies, but the spirit, it is the realm of spirit to which we must look in order to see the nature of the divine work. God changes souls, not bodies – or minds, either – if by “mind” we think of our standard mentality.
The earliest Christian claim of spiritual transformation involves metanoia. Commonly translated as “repentance”, metanoia’s actual meaning can be found in the Greek of the word itself: meta means “beyond”; noia derives from nuous,” the mind”. The original Hebrew term means “to return to one’s source in the sacred”. Hence spiritual transformation involves going beyond one’s mind (or at least one’s current attitude and perception of things), by returning to one’s living roots in the divine. This applies generally to the transformative core of most religions.
For salvation, our current mind must be transcended. Usually this transcendence turns out to be so utterly “beyond” – so transcendent of normative definitions of “mind” – that sages have frequently said, “Enlightenment is not a state of mind”. And this is the core of what God, Amida, Ultimate Reality “does”, i.e., “It” sees to the final salvation of beings – not worlds or bodies or societies, but rather the spiritual essence of sentient beings. In Shin Buddhism, “Amida saves” in a quite different way than any other salvific figure “saves”.
Amida’s salvific gift is not defined by, nor dependent upon (say), an atoning death by torture; a fulfillment of prophecy, a revealed law, code, or sacred book; membership in a “chosen” or “elect” group; believing “one, true and only” dogmas; a rigidly demanding rule of behavior; prayer; avoidance or forgiveness of sins, whether venial or mortal; an apocalyptic gathering up of the faithful; a sacramental system; a set of rituals; a sacrificial system; devotion to a God or gods (recall that Amida is not God by any Abrahamic definition; thus even devotion to Amida is not salvific); and finally – and this is crucial – by any human act, including the act of faith itself. This last point is essential to understanding the non-intervening God’s “action” as regards salvation.
Shin/Jodo Shinshu holds that humankind, especially modern humanity, is utterly degraded and incapable of salvation by any act whatsoever. This differs from Christian salvation theory which holds that humanity is depraved due to sin, and/or has an inherited “sin nature”. In Buddhism, at least in its Mahayanist expressions – including Shin – the basic human problem is not sin, but ignorance. Not ignorance of factual or even moral matters, but ignorance of one’s own Buddha Nature. This state of ignorance is not ascribed to sin or to sin’s consequences. Rather, it is the normal state of the ego estranged from knowledge of, and actively living, the Dharma. Thus, transformative religion aims to transcend the ego and its “mind”. This is Amida’s role. Sentient beings’ egos are transformed not (as in most other forms of Buddhism) by self-effort (meditation, contemplation, visualization, etc.).
These venerable methods Shin calls “the difficult Path” or “the Path of the Sages”. For Shin, however, most human beings are no longer capable of attaining salvation or Enlightenment through self-power. For Shin, salvation and Enlightenment are the utterly free gift of Amida Buddha. Amida’s action is pure tiriki, or “Other Power”. It cannot be earned, strived for, attained, prayed for, or grasped. It can only be received. Paradoxically, we have already received it. But Shin consists in offering to sentient beings the conscious discovery of Amida’s grace, followed by the conscious expression of joy and gratitude that is the natural consequence of that discovery. This is a Buddhistic parallel to the conclusion reached by the controversial evangelist Rob Bell in his book, Love Wins. By doing away with the traditional Christian concept of Hell, Rob Bell embraces universal salvation in a manner quite similar to that of Shin Buddhism.
So the second question in relation to the God who “does” nothing is, “Well, then – what do we do?” Although Shin holds that there is absolutely nothing that we can do toward our salvation and Enlightenment, there are some things that we can do that flow naturally from our experience of Amida’s grace. Some of these are:
Deep Listening: we “hear” the Dharma and the Buddhist texts more deeply than ever; and as recipients of the knowledge of Amida Buddha, we now hear them in the light of Amida’s grace. This practice of profound listening even to “hearing” the daily sounds of human speech and environmental sounds, because as already mentioned, the world sometimes acts as a “stand-in” for divinity and thus for Shin Buddhists, as an occasional “stand in” for Amida’s own presence.
Grateful Meditation and Mindfulness: Although we have nothing salvific to attain through meditation and mindfulness, still as a practical matter, cultivating both states is physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy. We meditate to cultivate calm and mindfulness. This results in a clearer seeing and understanding of Amida’s work, of our innate depravity as well as our innate decency… and of all the other therapeutic things operative generally in Buddhist meditation, including the ego’s problematic nature. The only difference is that we do not meditate to attain salvation or Enlightenment – for the simple reason that Amida is already dominant in those areas.
Recitation of the Nembutsu: this is the recitation of the words, orally or mentally: “Namu Amida Butsu”. The phrase compacts several meanings which express that the devotee is approaching Amida from his/her ignorant, degraded human side; it acknowledges that even the grace to voice the Nembutsu is supplied by Amida, from Amida’s “side”; and that the devotee is gratefully acknowledging the reception of Amida’s grace as it unfolds within the devotee.
The Nembutsu is not a petitionary prayer. It is an expression of gratitude. Reciting it does not earn merit or grace. Nor does it save or confer Enlightenment. Only Amida does those things; all those things have already been taken care of … and all without human effort. Self-power is futile. Other-Power – expressed in Amida’s saving activity – is all-powerful. This is why it is said that the light of Amida’s grace is “Unimpeded”. Even in Christianity, “the Light” can be impeded. As John’s Gospel says, Jesus’ “light shone in the darkness, but the darkness grasped it not”. Amida’s light penetrates every corner of the cosmos wherever sentient beings are to be found. The “darkness” will grasp Amida’s Light – and thus be darkness no longer… because, ultimately, no “darkness” is sufficiently dense to prevent the dissemination of Amida’s penetrating light.
So for me, Jodo Shinshu is a workable faith, with its non-creating, non-intervening Ultimate Reality – a real but transcendent Other, whose realm of activity is the hidden workshop of the human soul. It requires no intervening, law-giving, miracle-working creator-deity. It only offers a spiritual Ultimate which acts on sentient beings from inside, which for me is more than enough, for the simple, daily experience of myself as a sentient being who is “on the inside, looking out”, but who now also experiences Amida’s subtle grace “on the inside”.
For anyone wishing to read a short, lean, wise explication of Amida and Jodo Shinshu I can highly recommend:
The Call of the Infinite, by John Paraskevopoulos. Sophia Perennis, San Rafael, California: 2009.