Shin, Christianity: some differences

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.



2 thoughts on “Shin, Christianity: some differences

  1. John

    Thank you for your valuable observations. It is, of course, vitally important to make these important distinctions so as to avoid any kind of confusion (which, alas, is all too prevalent in this matter). Just a few remarks by way of response. Shinran makes it clear that the Pure Land is really Great Nirvana itself (in contrast to earlier Pure Land thinkers who saw it as a more favourable realm for continuing one’s spiritual practice). Accordingly, people of shinjin – at the time of death – attain Nirvana without any qualifications. Therefore, it would not be quite correct to say that this state, which is indeed the highest spiritual realisation possible, “is a mere way station”. As you say, birth in the Pure Land means that “the practitioner’s ego is transcended and his/her consciousness expanded to the extent of merging with the Buddha’s own mind”. This is the ultimate objective of the spiritual life and is precisely what is accomplished in the Pure Land as the realm of Nirvana. The aspect of ‘returning’ (genso-eko) as a Buddha to help sentient beings in samsara is also significant. However, as the great Chinese sage, T’an-luan, made clear, you don’t ‘leave’ the Pure Land in order to come ‘here’. There is no ‘travel’ or ‘geography’ involved. A Buddha can function fully in this world while still very much dwelling in a ‘nirvanic’ state because Buddhahood transcends all duality.

    The other point to make is about the ‘unconditional’ nature of Amida’s salvation. Of course, it is quite true that Amida does not require us to attain to a certain level of spiritual or moral attainment before embracing us in his Primal Vow. The Vow, indeed, accepts all people just as they are. It is also true that “there is literally nothing that we can do to attain enlightenment”. However, even if this is only possible through Amida’s compassion, we must still make ourselves receptive to his grace, otherwise it cannot work on us. We must want the Buddha’s salvation for it be effective. Otherwise, one could simply become enlightened by sitting on the couch all day drinking beer and watching TV. It is crucial to understand that ‘Other Power’ does not mean ‘no effort’. Of course, this effort does not lead to enlightenment but it does help to create a ‘space’ in our hearts and minds for Amida to be present. Needless to say, there are karmic considerations as to why one person is receptive to Amida’s light and not another but, once, we encounter this light, we need to nurture it or it will simply be crushed out of us by the oppressive weight of samsara and its henchmen, delusion and ignorance. I have seen many people go astray in their faith simply through neglect. In other words, we actually do need to engage with Amida’s Light (in the form of his Name) – not because the Buddha demands this of us but because we need to allow the mind of shinjin to settle properly within us so that it may do its work of emancipation.

    You rightly say: “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”. Such a ‘natural consequence’ does not necessarily manifest itself in many others even though they, too, are embraced. Is it therefore just a question of good karma? Or can we also be said to have an obligation to look up at the light and adore it when we feel it shining on us?

  2. rennyo01 Post author

    John. All I can say is “Wow” 🙂

    Thank you for your insightful comments and for bringing up points that I failed to address. Yes, I was not trying to denigrate the Pure Land by calling it “mere”. I meant to say that, in contrast to the Christian Heaven, the Pure Land offers real enlightenment/real Buddhahood rather than a state of eternal praise for a creator-god. And you’re right in saying that we don’t have to “leave” the Pure Land in order to aid suffering beings. Buddhas can do this, as you said, from the transcendent realm – as indeed Amida does. Yes, I suppose karma does have an impact on one’s receptivity to Amida. But in my case and some of those who have been “gobsmacked” by the sheer power of Amida’s grace, it seems that it burns through karmic states with radiant heat. But again, like you mentioned, how do we know that our karma might not create a pre-disposition to be overwhelmed by Amida’s Light? Yes, I would say we have an obligation to adore the Light, but in the West, “obligation” too often means duty and/or requirement. So I would tend to couch “obligation toward adoring the Light” more in terms of “responding in gratitude toward the Light”. Anyway, thanks again for your ideas, they’ve given me new food for thought 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s