In the West it is common to hear that the title Jesus Christ is “the Name that it is above every other name”. This claim is scriptural and is common to all Christian denominations. It is especially emphasized in Protestant evangelical and fundamentalist groups. Intriguingly, though, there exists another major spiritual system that – quite unintentionally – rivals the Christian claim for “the greatest Name”.
This system is a subset of Mahayana Buddhism called “Jodo Shinshu” (“Shin” for short). The name means “perfect” or “truest” faith. Jodo Shinshu is a development of Amidism, which began in India and looks to Amida Buddha as “the greatest Name” and the greatest Savior.
Essential to Amidism is the recitation of the “Nembutsu”, that is, of the words (rendered here in Japanese), “Namu Amida Butsu”, which have the approximate connotation, to put it in the briefest terms, “I take refuge in the Name of Amida Buddha, who saves us”. The term “Amida” itself is an abbreviation and mixture of two of Amida Buddha’s greatest attributes, “Amittayus” (Unending Life) and “Amitabha” (Unimpeded Light). (These two attributes, coincidentally, have an eye-catching resonance with Christianity in its Johannine claims about Jesus Christ as the eternal Word and the Light of the World.)
Jodo Shinshu’s origin story is relatively simple. It says that in an unknown time, at an unspecified place, there once lived a king. This king – like Gotama Buddha would also do eons later – abandoned his royal status and became a wandering seeker, during this time obtaining the name “Dharmakara”. In a crucial encounter, Dharmakara met a great Buddha, Lokesvararaja, who told the wanderer that he already possessed everything needed in order to become a Bodhisattva, thus encouraging Dharmakara to make certain Vows toward that end.
In the 18th (or Primal Vow), Dharmakara made a promise to renounce enlightenment, unless and until all sentient beings would be saved from their suffering in the world of Samsara. It was through the fulfillment of this Vow that Bodhisattva Dharmakara became Amida Buddha and acquired “the great Name”. Henceforth, suffering beings could call upon the Buddha, and take refuge in Him, through the Nembutsu. According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ “was given” or “bestowed with” the Name beyond all names by his saving work and exaltation by his heavenly Father. Dharmakara obtained his great Name when, his Vows fulfilled, he entered as Amida Buddha into the “Pure Land” that he had crafted over many vast periods of deep time, and from which His Grace continues to flow.
At first exposure, acceptance of this origin story and its religious content may seem a bit naïve, if not outrightly superstitious. Someone might understandably object that pinning one’s enlightnment and salvation on a vow taken by some unknown person “a long time ago, in a galaxy-or-dimension far, far away” is doubtful at best. However, such a view is not that taken by Mahayana, which is the spiritual “mother matrix” of Jodo Shinshu.
In Mayayana, when a Boddhisattva makes a vow – when a Buddha undertakes an action or a “Work” – this is a radically different situation than when a mundane, unenlightened mortal being makes a promise or performs a good work. This is because Boddhisattvas and Buddhas are no longer human, but rather transcendent, beings. Therefore, to speak of vows and works in this particular context is already to enter a transcendent realm requiring the language of metaphor and mysticism, where a certain measure of allegorical, analogical and symbolic thinking is essential. Thus, from a Mahayanist point of view, Dharmakara’s Vows are certainly anything but a case of “some ancient guy wishing humanity the best”. Such Vows are the actions of transcendental beings operating within, and from, a transcendent field, and because of this factor, the notion that salvation derives from a Boddhisattva making a Vow – or a Buddha performing some great Work – is not the naïve, childish conception that it might appear to be for someone outside the tradition.
It might be said that Jodo Shinshu’s distinctiveness lies in the perception that it takes Amidism to its ultimate flowering, inasmuch as it is the ultimate refinement of Amidism’s general view of its particular Buddha, a brief evaluation of which follows.
In Japan, Amidism had been thus refined, narrowed, and focused in the teaching of Master Honen (Honen Shonin), who taught that Amida saves sentient beings through His grace, with human participation in the process limited to verbal and mental Nembutsu recitation. That is, in striking differentiation from other Buddhist schools, Honen’s “Jodo Shu” system made salvation dependent (with the exception of Nembutsu recitation) strictly on Amida’s “Other Power”. Unlike most other Buddhist sects, Honen’s school placed no salvific importance upon “Self Power” or self-effort-based practices such as meditation, contemplation, good works or visualization. This is the type of Amidism that Honen’s student, Shinran Shonin, was to eventually encounter, adopt, and practice.
However, Shinran gradually moved on to a further refinement of the idea of Amida’s – vs. humanity’s – sole power to save, and this was when Shinran’s thinking broke with Honen’s (although he always deeply respeced his mentor) by developing a new teaching, namely, that not even Nembutsu recitation can save. Only Amida can save.
Nembutsu recitation, for Shinran, was no longer merely the last remaining Self Power practice in a simplified religion that eschews all other practices directed to salvation and enlightenment with an exception for Nembutsu recitation (as it was still held to be in Honen’s Jodo Shu system). Quite the contrary, according to Shinran, there is nothing the adherent can do to procure salvation and enlightenment – not even reciting the Nembutsu can save the devotee or lead him/her to enlightenment. Only Amida can do that. For Shinran, properly-practiced Nembutsu is not a human effort at all; ironically, it is no longer, in any traditional sense, a “practice”. Rather, it is a case of Amida Himself supplying “Shinjin” or perfect faith. One might say that it is Amida’s own practice for us and within us.
Pragmatically, the Nembutsu is the action of Amida for us, issuing from His transcendent “Pure Land” realm. In Shin, salvation has now become a simple matter of Amida calling us, and then compassionately echoing his Call – as our reply – in us. Amida both issues the Call – and answers the Call via the Nembutsu – for the plain, even blunt, reason that we ourselves are incapable of effectively saying the Nembutsu …. not, that is, without resorting to exactly the kind of Self Power that cannot save us or procure our salvation. Since we cannot recite the Nembutsu without impurity and dependence on self-effort, Amida “says it for us” as the Working of His transcendent, pure Grace. Hence, Shin referred to this new discovery, development, and refinement of Amidism no longer as “Jodo Shu”, but now rather as “Jodo Shinshu”: the “perfected” Amidism in which all Self Power has been extinguished, and Amida’s Other Power Grace, received from Amida through His own Nembutsu-recitation in us, has replaced all “works-based-salvation” types of faith … thus making Amida Buddha in theory and in fact the sole and greatest Savior and bringer-of-enlightenment.
It is this utter, joyous reliance in Amida’s Grace that permits Shin Buddhists to acknowledge and to insist that the name “Amida Buddha” is the greatest Name of the greatest Savior.