Those unfamiliar with Shin Buddhism (Jodo Shinshu) frequently make the claim that there is no essential difference between Shin and Christianity. Part of the problem is that Shin is a subsect of Pure Land Buddhism, of which some schools do bear a superficial resemblance to certain Christian tenets. Perhaps the most common misapprehension is that the Pure Land is nothing but a Buddhist version of the Christian Heaven.
Starting with this most egregious misunderstanding, Shin does not regard the Pure Land as Heaven. It is certainly viewed as a sacred and perfect place or state of being, but that is because it is the abode of Amida Buddha. However, Amida Buddha is not a risen savior sitting at God’s right hand. Rather, Amida Buddha is a cosmic Buddha through whose providence practitioners obtain enlightenment in the Pure Land; that is, they receive enlightenment and Buddhood (and hence “salvation” as that category is defined in Buddhism). Unlike the Christian Heaven, Amida’s Pure Land is not a place of eternal rest or endless praise of a deity. Quite the contrary, the Pure Land is a mere way station in which the practitioner’s ego is transcended and his/her consciousness expanded to the extent of merging with the Buddha’s own mind. Whereas the saved Christian dwells in Heaven forever, the enlightened Jodo Shinshu practitioner is endowed with a new life, at last at one with his/her own Buddha Nature, and then goes on to function as Buddha. This process is completely in line with the general Mahayana Buddhist tenet that the goal of human spirituality is to attain enlightenment, bodhisattvahood, and Buddhahood. Thus, far from being an eternal home for “the Blessed”, the Pure Land is a temporary state of education and transformation. In some Shin texts, it is even said that those who attain Buddhahood in Amida’s Pure Land return to the samsaric realm with the purpose of helping struggling, suffering beings to understand the Dharma and walk the Buddha’s Path.
Another difference between Jodo Shinshu and Christianity is that Amida is neither a Christ nor God, or any kind of creator-god. The Christian story is that Jesus obtained the Holy Spirit at his baptism by John the Immerser in a water ritual in the Jordan River. The Shin story is that an ancient, nameless king sought Dharma training and became a monk called Dharmakara. Eventually Dharmakara became a bodhisattva who vowed to win all beings to the Dharma, the Pure Land, and Buddhahood. Finally Dharmakara became the Buddha Amida, whose name means “Eternal Life” and “Unimpeded Light”. Thus, unlike the Christian Jesus, Dharmakara became a Buddha, not a risen prophet who was posthumously subsumed into a Godhead.
Because Amida is a Buddha, not a creator-god, Amida is a transcendent being with no direct connection with the material universe. Two conclusions follow from this: 1) Amida is not responsible for the world’s existence or its maintenance – and hence cannot be praised for the world’s goodness or blamed for its evils; and 2) Amida does not intervene in physical processes, i.e., Amida does not “answer” petitionary prayer or perform supernatural miracles. The difference here between the Christian Jesus and the Shin Amida is striking, even glaring.
Hence, Amida may be legitimately described as a “Power”, but not as a “higher Power” as is commonly connoted in Christian language. The Christian God/Christ is a higher Power, a creative and intervening force separate from, and superior to, natural forces. But Amida’s power, such as it is, is purely subjective and spiritual, and has no similarity to the “All-Mighty” God/Christ of Christian theology. Amida has no earthly power or authority, not because Amida can, but refuses to, create or intervene in the world, but simply because it is not in Amida’s nature to do so. Therefore, Amida’s infinite compassion and infinite wisdom, unlike the the compassion and wisdom of the Christian God/Christ, is directed solely to the spiritual nature of the human subject, and not to the natural processes of the material world. So Amida is neither a miracle-worker nor a creator of universes, and “his” activity – “inconceivable” to samsaric eyes, as the Shin Master Shinran Shonin affirmed – does not partake of, or utilize, material processes as part of “his” activity of unfolding grace.
One more difference between Shin and Christianity is its soteriological theory, its view of salvation-attainment. Christianity is stereotypically divided between the Catholic view of salvation, in which human works, thoughts, and behavior definitely influence one’s eternal destiny, and the Protestant view that works “avail nothing” toward salvation – salvation being solely the function of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. The Protestant paradigm is closer to Shin than is the Catholic model, since Shin claims that Amida’s grace alone “saves” the practitioner. Shin differentiates between jiriki (self-power) and tariki (Amida’s “Other Power”), and teaches that we cannot attain salvation (enligtenment, Buddhahood) by our own efforts. However, there is an unbridgeable gap between Shin and even the “salvation by grace alone” Protestant theory, and this is the seriousness with which Shin regards Amida’s Other Power.
As New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg has said, “pure grace salvation” must mean a salvation without attached conditions – without requirments. If there is even one condition for salvation – e.g., as in most Protestantism, the stipulation that we must accept Jesus’ atoning sacrifice; accept Scripture’s divine inspiration; reject our sinfulness/repent; affirm Jesus’ deity as second Person of the Holy Trinity, etc. – then our salvation is not really salvation by grace. It is actually as “works-based” as the Catholicism against which it is traditionally set, inasmuch as it insists on one essential work or affirmation: it stipulates that there is at least one work that we must perform in order to enter the “saved” state. Here Shin differs, and differs utterly.
Shin proposes that we are saved – i.e., we become enlightened Buddhas through Amida’s grace in the Pure Land – only by Amida’s Other Power. There is literally nothing that we can do to attain enlightenment. Amida has already done that for us. Our only response – again, not a requirement or condition for salvation – is simply to express our gratitude. We express our gratitude through the mental or verbal recitation of the Nembutsu, whose words are “Namu Amida Butsu”. The Nembutsu is not a prayer. It asks for nothing. It simply says, “Thank you”. Thus, Shin scholar Alfred Bloom entitled one of his books, Shinran’s Gospel of Pure Grace. Pure grace indeed is what Shin offers. Reliance on Amida’s grace, trust in “his” Vows, and a humble attitude of gratitude, are Shin’s only “requirements”; but of course, they are not requirements at all, but rather the natural, simple consequence of “being embraced, never to be let go” by this Amida; this Buddha of ultimate compassion.
There are other differences between Christianity and Shin, but the ones mentioned in this post, it is hoped, are sufficient to lay out some of the primary points of divergence.