Jodo Shinshu holds that Amida’s grace and Other Power are all-sufficient for salvation and the attainment of enlightenment. Another way of saying this is that there is nothing we bonbus (ignorant persons driven by blind passions) can do on our own to arrive at the Buddhist goal of enlightenment and Buddhahood. All our good works are a priori tainted with our samsara-bound, flawed, bonbu nature.
Of course, Shin respects other Buddhist schools and admits that some modern people may be able to become enlightened by Self Power. But they are the exceptions to the rule, a rule set by the times we live in, namely “the Decline of the Dharma Age”. The people and times of Shakyamuni’s day were far more receptive to, and able to perform, the various active meditations, disciplines, and practices that define the Holy Path or Path of the Sages. But today, for most of us living in a time of degraded spirituality, the Path of Self Power/ Path of the Sages is simply too difficult to follow. How many times do we read of the ongoing frustration of those in Self Power traditions over the painful fact that, after years of conscientious struggle, they feel that they are hardly nearer to enlightenment than when they first began their practice.
Instead, what Shin people have is a Buddha who offers them the ultimate spiritual goal, through his pure grace. Amida Buddha issues his Call, and answers it in us, because we are too weak and lacking in understanding sometimes even to recognize the Call, much less give it the full response it deserves. So, Amida does the entire process for us. We do have faith, but we are not “saved by faith”. We are saved by Amida.
How strikingly this situation differs from other forms of Buddhism, and from other religions which claim that there are things we can and must do to save ourselves, or at least to assist our savior in HIs/Her work of salvation.
In Shin, there is nothing we must do, in the sense of religious requirement, and there is nothing that we can do. We simply do not have the power. But, wonder of wonders, graces of graces, Amida does have the power.
In Christianity, Protestantism famously claims that we are not saved by works (a contentious claim, however, since it is contradicted in many biblical texts). Martin Luther saw the verse, “We are saved by faith”, became nervous that the verse was insufficiently related to grace, and added the word, “alone” to the phrase, as if to emphasise faith’s primacy. However, even in this Protestant soteriology, religious requirements, if not outright works, figure prominently.
It is said that one must repent of sins, acknowledge Jesus as both Son of God and God the Son, as the Messiah, as the sacrificial “lamb” whose death on the cross was universally salvific; one must also “confess Jesus is Lord” and believe that he is God incarnate – as well as adhere to the anti-Judaistic notion that God is three, not One. Clearly, in this schema, faith has become the functional equivalent of a work, or a series of works: affirmations that are required before salvation can be granted. Faith, instead of (those legalistic Catholic) works, “buys” us our place in Heaven.
But with Shin, things are very different. Neither Dharmakara nor Amida Buddha are God or sons of a god; they are not sacrificial “lambs” (although Dharmakara’s Vows and creation of a perfect Pure Land presumably entailed much labor and self-sacrifice). Most importantly, they do not require works for salvation. Works, we recall, are useless for us bonbus in the Age of Decline. It would seem that Shin’s only real requirement is simply to relax into the bounty of Amida’s pure grace and Other Power.
As far as I am concerned, this does not qualify as a work, nor is it “work” (effort expended). Quite the opposite, it’s simply the most natural response to a savior whose infinite compassion and inifnite wisdom have “arranged the whole thing” on our behalf. The relaxation into Grace constitutes a great abandonment of ego-investment in one’s own supposed spiritual virtue. And to reiterate, this strikes me not as a work, but as the only sensible reaction to all Amida has done, and continues to do, for us.
Society demands and rewards self effort. It is helpful to recall that Shin’s reliance on Other Power and its eschewal of Self Power pertain only to the soteriological and spiritual realm. It does not pertain to everyday “secular” life in the world. That is, if a Shin practitioner wants to graduate college, then s/he must set goals and expend self effort to meet them, and not expect Amida to “pull some strings” for the student’s success. This kind of self effort is laudable – as long as we recall that it is effort applied toward goals in wordly life. It does not fall under the specific transcendental province of Amida’s Other Power, which is not about secular, mundane, social failure or success, but only the spiritual goal of attaining Buddhahood. I doubt a Shin practitioner would complain to Amida about failing an exam (or any other purely worldly endeavor), or praise Amida for passing it. This is because Amida is not like the fundamentalist interventionist God who metes out this-world rewards and punishments.
So if anyone asked, “So what does your Amida do, seeing that he doesn’t intervene or answer prayers?”, I would reply, “Amida does the most important thing: he ensures my ultimate Buddhahood.”
If anyone asked, “So, you can just lie back, lazy as all hell, and let Amida do all the work?”, I would reply, “In a sense, yes, because that is how Amida has arranged it for me. It’s not really a matter of laziness, though. It’s a matter of permitting myself to be carried across the Samsaric Ocean on a raft sent from the Other Shore.”
And if anyone asked, “So you have no religious practices?”, I would reply, “Yes, the chiefest among them the Nembutsu, the Primal Thank-You for the Primal Vow. We also have our practice of Deep Listening, as well as practices and works that flow naturally from our enfoldment in Amida’s embrace. Please just remember, though, that none of these practices grant salvation. Rather, they assume it – they are its consequence.”
So in Jodo Shinshu, pure grace is pure grace, unassailable by our bonbu machinations and opportunism.