Shin and “Magical Thinking”

The term, “magical thinking”, has recently become a buzzword which illusrates more the biases of its users than it does the subject. Especially in “new atheist” circles, the term has become a club which fundamentalist materialists use to bludgeon non-materialists.

No doubt magical thinking is present in both organized and personal religion. And it even sometimes occurs in the daily lives of the non-religious. It connotes the so-called “pathetic fallacy” which holds that the external world falls, or at least ought to fall, into place with human desires and dreamings. Its religious form substitutes “external world” with God, Providence, or the Holy Spirit. Both meanings connote that wishing, praying, and/or strong desire toward particular ends will be met with a positive response from existence. Hence: “magical” is to have a complex, powerful world – or an omniscient, omnipotent God – at our fingertips, sensitively responsive to our will.

Of course, magical thinking is false when viewed coldly through evidence-oriented eyes. Clearly, life is not sacred, if judged by life’s treatment and ultimate fate in the world / or nature / or the universe. The present writer is convinced of humankind’s uniqueness for reasons too numerous to list in this post. However, human uniqueness does not, at least on this planet, equate to specialness and privilege.

Human beings are far from unique regarding the particular problem at hand. If life is really sacred, then this proposition ought to be supported by evidence from life (nature, existence, world, universe) itself. However, not only does no such evidence exist, but the majority of evidence is against the proposition. Simply, nakedly, put: if life is sacred, then life would not suffer, become injured and ill, would not age and die – the “real, external world” would grant a special, privileged immunity to life. However,  plainly, we do suffer, become injured and ill, we age, and we die (a species for whom none of these negatives apply would indeed be a cosmic wonder, but we are earthbound and can only view our predicament from our terrestrial perspective). Hence, our uniqueness does not carry with it specialness or privilege, those two additional benisons being reserved for the angels alone.

Jodo Shinshu, or Shin Buddhism, avoids magical thinking entirely. One can only assert “magic” to Shin if one denies the transcendent realities affirmed in Mahayanist and other forms of Buddhism – which is not a problem for the present writer, who is neither a reductionist nor a materialist. If one denies Spirit in its entirety, then of course Shin’s major principle of Amida as cosmic Buddha and bestower of shinjin will appear “magical” to such a person. But granting Mahayanist claims about transcendence, Shin, as an expression of the Mahayana, contains no “other kind” of magical thinking (beyond its basic premise as it would be viewed by materialists) –

First, because Amida Buddha is not a deity, and especially for the purposes of this article, Amida is not a creator-deity. This simple fact dispenses Amida from any responsibility for the creation, maintenance, and ultimate fate of the universe. Unlike the Abrahamic God, Amida does not intervene in the physical world, and cannot logically be asked to do so. And this is not because the Buddha is impotent or indifferent: it is simply because it is not in Amida’s nature to create and/or to intervene. Therefore, somewhat ironically, “the Shin universe” is as free from supernatural manipulation as is the materialist universe.

Second, Shin practicers have abandoned jiriki (self-power) for Amida’s gift of tariki (Other-power), which means they acknowledge that ultimate spiritual transformation is completely reliant on Amida’s grace, not on any meditative or charitable practices on the adherent’s part. The Shin practicer can no more “win a ‘sanctity award’ from Amida” than s/he can petition Amida for a miracle.

Again, as these things indicate, there is no place for magical thinking in Shin. The external world goes its way, buffeting, sickening, and finally killing us, and karma, too, works its inevitable way in our lives … without the slightest interference, positive or negative, from Amida Buddha. As relates to Amida as Creator and Miracle-Worker, the Shin devotee is an atheist – for the simple reason that Amida is not God and is not an intervener in the material world. Nor is Amida Buddha a king, a judge, a punisher or a rewarder … and certainly not the raging Sky Father that is, with some justice, associated with the Abrahamic faiths.

Third, having established that Shin does not claim that Amida created, maintains, or intervenes in the samsaric world (the suffering “world below” where sentient beings are mired by spiritual ignorance and wrong desire), and therefore that Shin is not guilty of religious magical thinking, one important question does arise: If Amida’s activity is negative or at least passive toward the world – that is, since Amida does not partake in world processes – then exactly what does Amida do? In what does his “work” consist? Shin’s answer to this question immediately pulls the inquirer into the transcendent realm, as mentioned earlier.

As has been stated, Amida Buddha is not involved in the material universe. However, Amida is involved in that non-material aspect of reality termed in the West, “the human soul”. This claim is problematic and/or “magical” only for materialists who identify the soul as “the brain delusionally defined”. But of course, Mahayana is far from being materialistic, especially in the sense of modernity.

The Western ideas, “God’s special province is the soul”, “God is seen/known in the soul” are somewhat applicable to Amida’s “working”, which takes place not on any material realm, but rather in the adherent’s subjectivity. In Shin,  no magical claim is made that the Buddha is manipulating natural or bodily (including brain) processes. Rather, the Buddha is offering himself “heart to heart” in a subjective inner chamber so recessed that most of us are probably not very much aware of its existence in the first place. At any rate, Amida’s working does not affect matter or body, but rather psyche and spirit. This is not a magical, but rather a transcendent, process. Mysterious, not boundaried, a transcendent “Raft from the Other Shore”, it is called by Jodo Shinshu founders, “non-rational” and “inconceivable”. And they are not describing magic, but a silent, fructifying working that takes place in the adherent’s soul that is described as ineffable, bright, peaceful, loving, wise, and compassionate. No magic is involved – “only” the power of the Dharma as expressed in Amida’s Call and its echo in ourselves.

The present writer has found that the idea of an ultimate reality that is conceived neither as a deity nor a creator is not readily accepted by many. Toward the end of greater understanding of this seemingly odd or radical idea, I would recommend the following sites.

For a discussion of different approaches to God, and an appreciation of the basic “God-levels”:

IS THERE A GOD? – Big Questions Series – Question #1


And finally a quote from the Apocryphon of John, which describes  an Ultimate Reality which is unbound by creator-intervener limitations:

And I asked to know it, and he said to me, “The Monad is a monarchy with nothing above it. It is he who exists as God and Father of everything, the invisible One who is above everything, who exists as incorruption, which is in the pure light into which no eye can look.

“He is the invisible Spirit, of whom it is not right to think of him as a god, or something similar. For he is more than a god, since there is nothing above him, for no one lords it over him. For he does not exist in something inferior to him, since everything exists in him. For it is he who establishes himself. He is eternal, since he does not need anything. For he is total perfection. He did not lack anything, that he might be completed by it; rather he is always completely perfect in light. He is illimitable, since there is no one prior to him to set limits to him. He is unsearchable, since there exists no one prior to him to examine him. He is immeasurable, since there was no one prior to him to measure him. He is invisible, since no one saw him. He is eternal, since he exists eternally. He is ineffable, since no one was able to comprehend him to speak about him. He is unnameable, since there is no one prior to him to give him a name.

“He is immeasurable light, which is pure, holy (and) immaculate. He is ineffable, being perfect in incorruptibility. (He is) not in perfection, nor in blessedness, nor in divinity, but he is far superior. He is not corporeal nor is he incorporeal. He is neither large nor is he small. There is no way to say, ‘What is his quantity?’ or, ‘What is his quality?’, for no one can know him. He is not someone among (other) beings, rather he is far superior. Not that he is (simply) superior, but his essence does not partake in … in time. … Time was not apportioned to him, since he does not receive anything from another, for it would be received on loan. For he who precedes someone does not lack, that he may receive from him. For rather, it is the latter that looks expectantly at him in his light.

“For the perfection is majestic. He is pure, immeasurable mind. He is an aeon-giving aeon. He is life-giving life. He is a blessedness-giving blessed one. He is knowledge-giving knowledge. He is goodness-giving goodness. He is mercy and redemption-giving mercy. He is grace-giving grace, not because he possesses it, but because he gives the immeasurable, incomprehensible light.

– – cited from:


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