Amida Buddha stands for many things: redemption, salvation, infinite compassion-and-wisdom, unimpeded Light, eternal Life; Amida Buddha is described as teacher, friend, guide, savior, primordial Buddha, source of our enlightenment and guarantor of our eventual Buddhahood in the Pure Land. These attributes are a mix of function, form, metaphor, analogy and religious fact. That is, they are human terms expressing a transhuman, transcendent Reality. As such they are symbols and they are, obviously, symbolic. This, however, does not mean that Amida Buddha “Himself” is a symbol and nothing else.
As an example, imagine the predictable reaction of a Christian if you told him or her that Jesus Christ is “only a symbol”. Like Amida Buddha, Jesus Christ in his role, function, and purpose is highly symbolic – he is the Son of Man, the Good Shepherd, the Sheepgate, the Way, the Bread from Heaven, the Truth, the Light, the Vine, the son of David, etc. And these terms – as with the special terms applied to Amida Buddha – are a mix of allegory, analogy, metaphor. They represent, but are not, Jesus – that is, they are human descriptions of a figure whom Christians consider to be greater than human. The mystical, spiritual, transcendent, risen-living-Christ who dwells in the believer’s heart is the real Christ from whom all blessings – and christological symbolism – flow.
Just as one can view Jesus Christ from a symbolic level and a “realistic” level, so too can one view Amida from two levels.
The Christian assertion that Jesus Christ is more than a symbol, but a real transcendent reality, has its counterpart in Jodo Shinshu’s assertion that Amida Buddha is more than a symbol, but is a real transcendent reality.
One could, of course, iconoclastically strip away all the rich symbolism generated by the Christian experience of Christ, but what would remain would be a truncated though sacred and transcendental core. Similarly, one could strip Amida Buddha of all the treasures of the vivid, sumptuous and profoundly human symbology that accrues to his core reality … but as with the case of a symbol-less Christ, what would remain would be a very sacred, transcendent-and-transforming celestial Buddha, with very little humanly-graspable content and attributes. What would Christians do with only the exalted, glorified Christ, if stripped of the Galilean artisan and parable-creator? What would Jodo Shinshu adherents do with only the Inconceivable Amida, if stripped of his humble origins as abdicated king and wandering, truth-hungry Monk Dharmakara …?
It would appear that for both Amida and Christ, symbolism is utterly necessary and pragmatic – and perfectly fitting … as long as we adherents realize that the symbolism is a beautiful veil which both conveys and protectively obscures from our view the radiant Transcendent.