Again: Amida is a Real Buddha

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.


14 thoughts on “Again: Amida is a Real Buddha

  1. John Paraskevopoulos

    Beautifully put. In many ways, this is so obvious yet still largely misunderstood (with much spiritual damage ensuing as a consequence). Wonderful to see such a balanced and perspicacious treatment of this most important matter.

  2. rennyo01 Post author

    Hey, John, thanks for dropping by and for your kind comments. I hope you have been well and happy since last we talked. Yes… I can’t see any purpose in an Amida stripped of his transcendent, “individuated” Buddhahood. It’s too much like seeing Jesus stripped of his union with the Father and his transcendent glory, or a great ballet dancer forbidden to dance: a mutilation. Thanks again for your valued comments!

  3. Jay

    Thank you for that post and for saying something I’ve thought for a while now. I often wonder why someone would follow Jodo Shinshu if they view Amida a metaphor and nothing else. Surely any religion or philosophy could be viewed in terms of a metaphor, so why choose Jodo Shinshu? The issue that concerns me is when the metaphor-only view presented as the “only and correct” view, and any other view is “silly” or “wrong.” Quoting Shinran’s exact words is often met with a long-winded rebuttal about “what he really meant.” There’s so many gymnastics one has to go through to make it work as only a metaphor, and it’s so tedious that I don’t see why someone wouldn’t just follow a different philosophy that’s closer to what they believe instead of trying to make Jodo Shinshu conform. Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that Shinran was not talking about Amida as only a metaphor. I don’t believe he expected his listeners to decode what he was saying, or that there was some hidden meaning to his words. That said, I think it’s up to the individual to read what Shinran wrote and listen deeply to see what conclusion they come to, even if that conclusion is that Amida is only a metaphor. However, that shouldn’t be presented as the “only” way to view Amida, rather it’s the way that person is able to understand Amida, but another’s experience may be completely different. I’ll be reading your blog more, you have some excellent articles!

  4. rennyo01 Post author

    Jay, thank you for visiting the blog, and for your generous comments. Yes, too many gymnastics have to be done for the “symbol-only” view to be accepted. Right now there’s an interesting discussion on this very subject over on Dharma Wheel – you might enjoy it!

    Thanks again.

  5. rennyo01 Post author

    Hi, Jay – again, thanks for stopping by – I hope the link is helpful!

  6. Antique Buddhas

    We cannot say Amida Buddha is the real buddha since there are 10 Buddha according to Buddhist tradition.
    But it is also said that Amida Buddha took transcendent vows as his fundamental vows (Every Buddha has their own fundamental vows). And the transcendent vows taken by Amida Buddha exceeds all as said by Shakymuni Buddha.

  7. Anonymous

    Thanks for your comments. But please note that I didn’t say that Amida is “THE” real Buddha. I said that Amida is “A” real Buddha, which of course does not deny the existence and activity of all the other Buddhas and divine “helpers” of the Buddhist cosmologies.

  8. Rob

    I’m still confused about all this. When did the human Amida live? Doesn’t “many kalpas” put him millions of years ago?

  9. rennyo01 Post author

    Amida Buddha is a transcendent primordial being from whom emanate different Buddhas, some of whom manifest to and for suffering sentient beings. So we really can’t say that “the human Amida lived” – but we can say that the sentient being who was to become Amida did live a human life before his ultimate transfiguration.

    The first manifestation that Shin recognizes is in the life of a nameless ruler – perhaps millions of years ago, perhaps in a galaxy or dimension far away. Like Gotama, this ruler became dissatisfied with Samsaric existence, and went on a vision quest, in which he did take the name of “Monk Dharmakara”. In his wanderings, Dharmakara was met by a transcendent Buddha who urged him to become a Bodhisattva. Through uncounted eons, then, Dharmakara, through prodigious mental and spiritual effort, delved into all the existing transcendent realms and Buddha Lands, and decided to create the most flawless land of all – one into which people could be born without the burden of self-power practices and calculating, ego-based motives. When this task was completed, Bodhisattva Dharmakara became fully integrated with/as Amida Buddha. According to Shin, subsequent to this, all Buddhas and “heavenly helpers” bowed to Amida Buddha as the chief Buddha, while they still kept their own functions – only now their purposes were fully aligned with those of Amida Buddha.

    It might be said that it’s similar to the Christian incarnation of God in Jesus. Jesus the human being (the anonymous ruler of Shin) underwent a transformation (the ruler became Dharmakara); after much struggle, Jesus entered into oneness with God/the Spirit, to the extent that Jesus and God were now coterminous (Dharmakara created his Pure Land, finally becoming Amida Buddha).

    As to your earlier question: don’t feel bad about living in a meaningless universe. Gotama Buddha taught this exactly, calling the universe “Samsara”, the place of affliction. Amida Buddha delivers us out of Samsara. True faith is his gift to us which cannot be earned or attained – not even by reciting the Nembutsu until we are blue in the face. We simply “let go and let Amida”. Only one sincere Nembutsu recitation is what we do – and even in that, Amida supplies the requieist grace and authenticity. Every other Nembutsu recitation beyond the first one is simply an expression of gratitude for what Amida has done, and continues to do, for us.

  10. antiquebuddhash

    Well it can be assumed that Amida Buddha is the real Buddha. since the Living buddha (Shakyamuni Buddha) himself mentioned that Amida Buddha took the transcendent vows that results to the coming Lord Buddha.
    But how can we call Amida buddha the real buddha since the Shakyamuni Buddha showed the path to the humans not Amida buddha.
    It was later when Pure Land buddhism started the name of Amida buddha was mentioned and we know the importance of Amida buddha vows.

  11. rennyo01

    Thanks for visiting. I think we call Amida Buddha the real Buddha because Shin says that Shakyamuni himself was a manifestation of Amida Buddha, i.e., an instantiation of Amida in one person’s life. And, as you say, it was only later in Honen, Shinran, and Rennyo that this truth came to be realized.

  12. Alexander

    So was there a literal being (Bodhisattva Dharmakara) that lived countless millions of years ago (possibly in another universe before ours) that became Amida Buddha? Also, is the pure land an actual transcendent real that one is born into?

  13. rennyo01 Post author

    Thank you for visiting the blog.

    Yes, I believe Dharmakara was a biological being – in whatever form, shape, space, dimension – who, like so many others, made a Bodhisattva Vow and entered ultimate reality as Amida Buddha. That’s of import to me because if Monk Dharmakara’s transformation was only a myth or educational story, he gets lifted out of history. And if lifted out of history, his transformation story is just a literary reification of a “nice”, “charming” idea. It would no longer connect Dharmakara to beings living in the samsaric world. It’s similar to Christianity which condemned Docetism because that belief claimed that Jesus “never came in the flesh” and was only a sort of bodiless spirit manifestation or phantasmic projection from the Gnostic Pleroma. Something similar pertains to Dharmakara. If he was a real sentient biological being, then his story has great meaning for us bombus trapped in samsara. If he was only a myth or a symbol of “skillful means”, he’s just a well-meaning fairy tale – a sort of spiritual “E.T. and His Adventure On Earth“, without any real human involvement, struggle, development, and transformation.

    Yes, I believe that the Pure Land is both real and transcendent. This doesn’t mean that it is a material world like ours, however, or that it occupies space and time in the same way that our world does. It’s a place or locale or area somewhere in the vast, perhaps endless, ocean of the transcendent Buddha Realms. So it’s real; but from our samsaric point of view, “its ‘there’ isn’t there”, or “there’s no ‘there’ there”. I doubt that matter as we know it exists in the Pure Land, because matter is impermanent and always changing, whereas Bodhi and the Buddha Realms are Unconditioned and do not undergo change.

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