I am by no means a scholar of religion. But in the play, Inherit the Wind, the character representing Clarence Darrow asks in frustration of the character representing William Jennings Bryan, “Do you ever think about what you think about?” This is in response to “Bryan’s” refusal to critically examine his own religious presuppositions. I post this article simply as a token of “thinking about what I think about” – in this case, the current state of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America. In reading books and on websites, and in viewing online videos, it seems to me that the essentials of Shin are being largely ignored, to the detriment of Shin itself.
“Seems to me” that there are some very basic Shin truths that cannot be excluded without mutilating the teachings of Masters Shinran and Rennyo – and the heart of Jodo Shinshu. An informal, incomplete list of essentials might consist of points such as:
Amida is a real Buddha.
This means that Amida is not a mere symbol for “Life” or “Cosmos” or “Enlightenment” – although, of course, Amida does symbolize all these, and more. It doesn’t mean that Amida is/has a body like the risen Christ, or wears fabrics or a gold crown, or answers petitionary prayer or physically intervenes in the material world. Instead, it means that Amida is a transcendent Existent/Non-Existent (recalling that a Buddha is no longer a human person in any usual sense – and not even a being by samsaric standards), exercising Other-Power from a Dharma realm that is foreign to the samsaric realm, the Pure Land. Simply put, Amida is neither a god nor a guy. Amida is a Buddha, who eons ago, transformed from living as the monk Dharmakara, to being the Vow-promising-and-bestowing Bodhisattva, who now as a trascendental Buddha, issues the Call and answers it in us.
The Pure Land is real.
The Pure Land is real, but not material. It, like Amida, is a transcendent factor which is inconceivable to samsaric beings, who can only describe it by analogy and metaphor – both obviously imperfect means. The Pure Land does not, in Jodo Shinshu, correspond to the Christian Heaven. The Christian Heaven is a goal to which the Christian aspires, where s/he will dwell eternally. Not so the Pure Land, and this is a very important point.
Like all schools of Mahayana Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu teaches that the aspirant’s ultimate goal is Buddhahood. However, Jodo Shinshu adherents differ from both the Mahayana and the Theravada, by claiming that Buddhahood is not attained in the samsaric life, but rather in the Pure Land, by Amida’s Other-Power. But note that Shin’s goal is not eternal life in the Pure Land. The goal is Buddhahood. The Pure Land, however one wishes to conceive it, is only a way station, the final step in progress toward Buddhahood. The Pure Land means non-dual alignment of the adherent with Amida Buddha; the Pure Land is the process (not the “place”) by which Buddhahood is finally realized. Once Buddhahood is realized, the aspirant-now-a-Buddha doesn’t “stay” there eternally. Rather, the newly-born aspirant-Buddha acquires the unimaginable freedom of a Buddha, and goes on to function as a Buddha, or if s/he wishes, return to samsara one final time for the benefit of all beings. Thus the Pure Land is not Heaven, but much more like a combined education, rehabilitation and enlightenment way station, which – as in the parable of the boat when it reaches the far shore – is to be abandoned.
The Nembutsu is real Other-Power and Shinjin is Other-Power faith.
This point is simple and elementary, even easy. Shin teaches that Amida issues the Call, and we gratefully respond to it with the Nembutsu. Shin also teaches that our response is not derived from, or an expression of, self-power. If it was, then it would be we who save and enlighten ourselves (as in the “Path of the Sages” forms of Buddhism), thus vitiating Amida’s working as well as our need for it. The simplest image of this process that I know is: Amida calls; we echo the call via the Nembutsu; which itself is Amida’s working, because we are utterly incapable of good works or storing up merit. The Call and its Echo are one process of Amida’s activity for our well-being. Even our Shinjin, our deep entrusting, is Amida’s creation, since we are incapable of it ourselves.
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When teachers stray from such basics, they are no longer teaching Jodo Shinshu. I say this in no way as a fundamentalist, but simply as a purist, and an adherent to the deliberately designed-to-be-simply-understood teachings of Shinran. The teaching is both simple – and mind-boggling to the point of being, in Shinran’s own words, inconceivable. Inconceivability is built into Shin, whether teachers and sanghas like it or not. Shin is not philosophy or science. Shin is a means of being “embraced, never to be let go” by Amida in this samsaric world, and then to finally attain Buddhahood during a temporary stay in the Pure Land.
In all too many of the online Shin sermons, Amida, Shinjin and the Pure Land are rarely mentioned. Instead, there is a lot of talk about anger management, family values, appreciation of the journey of a grain of rice from the field to our plate, and many other trivial and/or important subjects, but no reiteration of Shin essentials and no commentary on Shinran and Rennyo. And there is so often a puzzled pondering over why Jodo Shinshu is losing people to other religions or to no religion at all. The answer is easy: teachers are not teaching Shin, but rather some kind of bromidical “Buddhism is for relaxation and feeling good and being tolerant” – without any reference to, or explanation of, the reasons we are 1. Buddhists and 2. why we are Shin Buddhists.
It strikes me that post-modern theology is so frightened of the object of its study that it is unwilling to turn an attentive eye to what the transcendent traditions really teach. Thus, both eyes averted, many so-called Dharma teachers shun the transcendent Amida, the real Buddha who is the wellspring of their work and the activator of their salvation and enlightenment. Instead they turn their eyes inward, to a bloodless idol of their own creation. They have the stage, the lighting, the props, the seating and the audience. But they don’t have the play itself, or at least not the one that is billed. No wonder, then, if audiences are dwindling. No wonder at all.