Monthly Archives: April 2012

Amida Buddha: Here and Now

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.




Tired of the Trinity

Christianity’s major theological flaw is its doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This dogma has split the Church through the centuries, and has even been responsible for deaths of sincere Christians such as Miguel Servetus, the biblical unitarian who was executed in Geneva at the orders of the Trinitarian, John Calvin.

The doctrine grew out of a Hellenistic misunderstanding of the Hebrew/Jewish title for Jesus, “Son of God”. Trinitarianism has inverted the term to mean “God the Son”. Unfortunately, this idea is as unbiblical and unhistorical as the term itself.

In context, no New Testament text thinks of Jesus as God. There are one or two texts in which the title, “God”, has been applied to Jesus, but these are highly questionable translations; moreover, they contradict the rest of the NT’s non-Trinitarian christology.

“Son of God” in its original Jewish application to Jesus meant several things, all Jewish, all monotheistic, and all non-Trinitarian:

1. Jesus was “made” Son of God by God when God raised Jesus up in “the Resurrection”.

2. Jesus was “adopted” Son of God when God down his Spirit on Jesus during Jesus’ baptism by John the Immerser in the Jordan River.

3. Jesus was “begotten” Son of God when God created Jesus’ conception through the “overshadowing” of God’s Spirit.

None of these ideas about divine sonship think of Jesus as God. On the contrary, God remains Creator and chief agent in the world and in the life and ministry of Jesus.

In the Gospels Jesus claims certain divine powers and rights. However, these are derivative: God has granted them to Jesus as God’s Messianic agent (shaliah), and they are not native to Jesus himself. God has ordained  and deputized Jesus with certain divine prerogatives, but God has not done the impossible, and granted Jesus Godhood.

Jesus never claims deity in the Gospels, not even in the most “divinizing” of all Gospels, the Gospel of John. John’s Jesus speaks as a “man” who has “heard” and “obeys” God’s will and God’s commands. A person who does these things is not God; on the contrary, such a person is the agent, servant, and vessel of God, and/or God’s Spirit. Jesus’ claims of power and authority are thus rejections of deity, just as much as they are proclamations of subordination and loving service.

Traditionally John’s Gospel has been mined for christological nuggets, because John presents Jesus’ unity with God so intensely. But, unlike mainstream Christian doctrine, John never ventures into (from unitarian, monotheistic perspective) Trinitarian idolatry and blasphemy. The idolatry lies in turning  human prophet/mystic Jesus into a second divine “Person” within a Trinity, an appropriate object of worship due only to the one God. The blasphemy lies in turning the human Jesus into God, thereby creating a new God besides Yahweh, and shattering the Hebrew echad, or “the One”-ness of Yahweh’s nature.

But a quick survey of Johannine material shows that John’s Jesus is still a Jewish Jesus, at least in christological terms. In John 17:3, Jesus praises God as “the only true” God, leaving Jesus himself completely out of the statement. Later, in John’s resurrection narrative, Jesus assures Mary of Magdala that he will be ascending to “your Father and my Father; to your God and my God” (John 20:17b).  Simply and obviously put: if Jesus himself has a God, Jesus cannot be God.

But, the Trinitarian will protest, what of John 1:1; 1:14:

In the beginning was the Word …

And the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us…” ?

First, John is talking about the Word, not about Jesus or Christ. It was not Jesus who was in the beginning with God, but rather the Word. Jesus himself only comes into the scene as one in whom the Word is incarnated. Jesus embodies the Word, carries the Word; but the Word, not Jesus, is the factor that is eternal with God.

Second, in John Jesus never refers to himself as the Word. The Johannine Jesus calls himself many things – Good Shepherd, Bread of Life, Son of Man, Son of God – but never “the Word”. The Word in John exists only in his Prologue (John 1:1 – 18), and nowhere else in his Gospel. (Note that the Prologue itself is probably a pre-Johannine “Hymn to the Word” which the author of John included in his first chapter in order to identify Jesus’ importance and to establish Jesus’ ministry beginning in John the Immerser’s work. In fact, John disrupts the hymn  in verses 1:6-9 in order to insert brief Immerser material, and then takes up the hymn again at 1:10-18.)

But surely Trinitarians will again object, what about John 17:5:

“And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.”

True, this is a bit of a tougher nut to crack speaking from a biblically unitarian perspective, but it is hardly insurmountable.

First, this may not be a claim of pre-existence at all.

Second, even it it is a claim of pre-existence, it still is not necessarily a claim to divinity. After all, Judaism held that there were many kinds of spiritual entities that pre-existed humankind and the world (the angelic court or court of the gods in heaven comes to mind, as does the radiant “Standing One” by God’s throne as mentioned in Ezekiel and Daniel). Pre-existence is simply pre-existence. Without supporting evidence, a claim of pre-existence does not automatically imply a claim to eternal divinity.

Later posts will explore these final two issues. As for now, it’s sufficient to note that the Gospels simply do not support Trinitarianism. The Gospels are, in this case, strikingly and surprisingly “Jewish”, in that they preserve the monotheism of Jesus and his earliest Jewish disciples.