After explicating the unremitting, unrelenting nature of samsara, the realm of suffering and iron-bound material causation, the Buddha then uttered what are perhaps the most important spiritual words in history:
“There is, O monks, an Unborn, an Unbecome, an Unmade, an Unconditioned; if, O monks, there were not here this Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Unconditioned, there would not here be an escape from the born, the become, the made, the conditioned. But because there is an Unborn,…therefore there is an escape from the born….” (Udana 8,3)
First the Buddha laid out samsara as it functions in its rawest, undomesticated worst. So bad is the samsaric state, said Shakyamuni Buddha, that no sane person would wish to be re-born into it. Following up on that diagnosis, Shakyamuni devised methods for escaping rebirth, and he shared these methods with his disciples … as a means of “escape” from the conditioned realm.
But Shakyamuni went beyond methods. He changed the course of religion, and the parameters of his samsaric diagnosis, by declaring a new truth, based on his own experience of Bodhi and Dharma:
The samsaric realm is not the only realm.
There is another, more real realm, in which chains of material and psychic causation, birth, conditioning, and becoming do not apply, because they do not exist.
Before declaring this great “Unborn”, the Buddha’s description of reality was little different from the standard materialist picture that is our cultural inheritance and as painted by the “new” atheists, including their dismissal of a (puportedly) good creator deity relative to the obvious waste and suffering entailed in evolution and biological existence generally.
After declaring the Unborn, the Buddha’s former description of reality was burst asunder: because there is a transcendent realm, and this realm:
* is not causational; nor does it come into being/dissolve into non-being, as do things in the samsaric realm
* is more real than samsara, in that it changes samsaric beings, even while in samsara, into unborn, unconditioned beings
* is “here”
This last factor is crucial. The Buddha was not preaching the Unconditioned/Unborn realm or state as a future “pie in the sky” reward for meditation done well or life lived rightly. On the contrary, the Unconditioned, though transcendent, is also immanent. Like Jesus’ preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is both celestial/transcendent, but also earthly/immanent, so too is the Buddha’s Unconditioned/Unborn both “here” and “more than here”.
Thus does the Buddha’s teaching of the Unconditioned shatter samsara’s grip, even while holding to the “solidity” of samsara’s form. Nirvana and the Unconditioned are here in the midst of samsara. The Unborn’s immanence is samsara’s defeat. The Unborn’s transcendence anchors it safely in the “realm beyond” samsara.
For Jodo Shinshu adherents, the Unborn has a name: Amida Buddha. Amida is transcendent in the Pure Land realm, but immanent in the samsaric realm. Amida sounds the Call from the Unconditioned realm, and answers it, in us, here in the conditioned realm.
When Shakyamuni Buddha became enlightened, it was only after his self-effort ceased, and transcendent “Dharma-Power” descended on him. For Shin adherents, Dharma-Power … is Other-Power … is Amida Buddha. When the Buddha became enlightened, he compared his condition to the “coolness” one feels after a fever abates. Shin adherents describe their sense of relief derived (from being “cooled” by Amida’s Other-Power) as having received “a raft from the Other Shore”.
The raft from the Other Shore is Jodo Shinshu’s metaphor for the present activity of the Uncondtioned, Unborn reality – the immanent/transcendent realm which the Buddha described in his greatest religious statement – which Shin adherents call Amida Buddha.