Category Archives: Jodo Shinshu

We are not “Special”, but…

There is nothing special in / or about / the universe. The universe itself is not special. Nature is nothing but an amalgam of mindless cycles of force. The cosmos is not sentient – not even aware of itself. The universe does not have, and is incapable of having, a point of view about itself or about any of its parts. In that respect, the cosmos resembles H.P. Lovecraft’s blind idiot god, Azathoth.

Just as the cosmos has no sentience and no point of view, so, too – of course – it has no feelings about the fate of all the countless, hapless sentient beings who are caught up in its maw of grinding gears.

So who in their right mind would want to be significant in such a universe? Just to claim the false honor of being “the first among unequals”? The cosmos doesn’t care, so why should we? Carl Sagan actually went on the lecture circuit giving speeches about “Man’s Insignificance in the Cosmos” – as if he somehow thought that while man is meaningless, man nonetheless lives a life set against the “meaningful” backdrop of the cosmos. Which, of course, is patent nonsense. If the cosmos is meaningless, then – because we are part of the cosmos – we, too, are meaningless in-and-to the cosmos. Which means – because meaning is not inherent in the world – we must, through admirably fussy and elaborate self-hypnotic legerdemain, “create a meaning for ourselves”. Meaning is not like the treasure buried in a field, but rather an act of the imagination, and a rebellion against meaninglessness. Nothing more.

There are no social hierarchies in nature – no higher or lower levels on a status chart (at least until one sees them nascently emerging in a few of the non-human “social” animals). No status, no importance, no significance accrues to the cosmos or anything it contains. Thus, statements affirming man as insignificant in the cosmos are just as inept as saying the opposite – that man does have significance in the cosmos. Both propositions are all-too-human projections of human hierarchy onto a non-human framework.

So not only are we not the apple of the cosmic eye. More: the cosmic eye (which has no “I” – see what I did there?), sees nothing, perceives nothing, knows nothing about us at all. It is utterly indifferent, and cuts no creature any slack whatsoever, aging, injuring, sickening and killing us without discrimination, pity or awareness.

Or to invoke Sagan, if we are indeed “star stuff that has become aware of its own nature and taken hold of its own destiny”, and the cosmos realizes itself in us, then it’s all been for naught, because the cosmos-in-us looked in a mirror and found only dull meaninglessness. And people think that the issue of human importance in THIS cosmos is a worthy consideration?

We are all ephemeral dust motes in an unconscious and uncaring universe, a universe in which there are no “better” and “worse”, no significant and insignificant. Thanks to that, we’re all Spam In A Can, with no cosmic nurse to care for us or save us at the last minute. For that, on this planet, we only have ourselves. And what a terrible job we’ve done with that.
As if it matters in any case.

“Unless”, that is. Unless there is a “helping” reality operating behind, beneath, or beyond things for our benefit. Unless there are salvific systems that connect us to a Sacred Transcendent. Unless the Sacred Transcendent has compassionately sent us a raft from its shore. A saving act which is, in fact, found in Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhism.

Although Shin does assert that this universe is “samsara” – that is the place of eternal causal chains that result in craving, inadequacy, discontent, blind passions and other “slings and arrows” – still, Shin proclaims a “way out”, even while we partake in samsaric life. The raft from the Other Shore is available to suffering sentient beings. What is this redeeming “vessel”? It is Shinjin, the “no strings attached”, free, unearned gift of perfect faith, delivered straight to us from Amida Buddha in his Pure Land.

If we but have faith in Amida, He will embrace us without fail, take us to his Pure Land, and spark our Buddha Nature in that other realm, after which we ourselves will be Buddhas. But who could have such a faith? The answer is: no one can have such a faith – unless their karma has ripened to the point that Amida’s grace is sparked in them. They do not create that perfect Shinjin. Amida, in His compassion, simply supplies it to them as a free gift. It can’t be generated by us, because we are still samsaric beings (whom Shin calls “bombus”), who are incapable of it. Nor can we earn it. Nor can we attain Buddhahood in the Pure Land by any human act or attitude, no matter how good and worthy.

Rather, we only enter the Pure Land because Amida Buddha’s grace providentially permits it to happen. Thus, in the midst of samsara – the meaningless, insensate cosmos – we find ourselves already with one foot in the Pure Land. This doesn’t mean that we are Enlightened. It means that our faith has settled and we are in the state of non-retogression – a kind of smooth, sure path toward posthumous Buddhahood.

So, paradoxically, the unconscious, indifferent, samsaric universe – thanks to the redemptive power of Amida Buddha’s grace – has now become the very crucible in which we seek and find Him, and where He embraces us with the unearned gift of Shinjin. We don’t assign meaning to an empty universe. Rather Amida Buddha’s unimpeded Light permeates and makes holy, makes sacramental, the very universe which, before we entered the Transcendent, appeared to be without any spiritual value. Amida gives the world a spiritual value. Which is transcendent grace in action. Whether or not we are special within the samsaric universe, we are loved by a transcendent, infinitely compassionate non-samsaric Being. What more could one ask for?


My Journey into Shin Buddhism

Even as I was leaving Christianity I still knew that I would always be religious by nature, so that I would probably always “believe” in the Sacred Transcendent in one way or another. So quite naturally I read comparative religion, Eastern religion, New Testament scholarship, and the ideas of “modern” sages like Krishnamurti, Osho (yes, I know he’s controversial), Ramana Maharshi, Ken Wilber, Alan B. Wallace, Adyashanti, some Ram Dass, etc. I also had the privilege of having been taught by the late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg who had a great influence on my thinking. I also delved deeply into Carl Jung and “depth” psychology.

During that process I discovered that I was a panentheist (not pantheist). I found that I could “have a deity” Who did not need to be a creator, intervener, or judge in order to be real, and Whose real “power” and “activity” functioned as a transforming Presence in the soul/my deepest subjectivity. A God who is both “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent). That is, the Absolute of the mystics, of the Gnostics, of divine union and communion. Not a acting as manipulator of matter, but rather as an “invitational” (not coercive) activity within me.

And during that process I came across a wise, compassionate article about “good Christians” whom the media and the general culture have a tendency to despise. It was written by the Buddhist sensei Jose Tirado, who is of the Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhist school. I then looked into Shin and found that it fit like a glove. Its Amida Buddha, although not a deity, nonetheless shares several functions in common with the panentheistic notion of a non-creating sacred Source, and also with the mystical notion of a sacred Ultimate working with us “from inside”.

So I converted to Shin about 9 years or so ago. I am a solitary practitioner and attend no Hondo or local Sangha. I just keep up with the practice of Nembutsu recitation – Shin’s only official practice, which is simply a prayer of thanksgiving: “Namo Amida Butsu” / “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”. Other than that, I keep reading Shin books and visit Shin-related websites – that’s my “church” these days. One of the most helpful teachers in the Shin universe is John Paraskevopoulos –…

– whose work has been most beneficial to my journey in Shin.

While Shin practitioners remain “bombus” – samsaric beings led by blind passions and spiritual ignorance – and who do not become Enlightened in this life – they have also received Amida’s unearned gift of perfect faith called “Shinjin”. Shinjin is Buddha Nature that will be sparked, vivified, and caused to blossom at death when we take birth in the Pure Land.

So that is my personal story of my path from Christianity to Jodo Shinshu.

“God”: Immanent and Transcendent

From my Western/philosophical Panentheist point of view, “God” (the ultimate infinite compassionate Reality) is both “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent), which to me simply means that everything unfolds in God’s presence.

It doesn’t mean that God is a spy, a judge, a bedroom-or-bathroom invader.
It doesn’t mean that God is a creator who is morally obligated to intervene in material processes for reasons known only to “Himself”.

What it does mean is that the universe is in God, and God is in the universe. Hence, “pan” (everything) is “en” (in) “theos” (God). If memory serves, it was St. Augustine who made the illustration of Panentheism wherein the world is represented as a water-soaked (“God-soaked”) sponge, floating in an infinite sea (which is also God). God is in the world, the world is in God.

However, the current God-debate is more often than not constricted to the theology of supernatural theism, which posits a kind of sky-father deity “out there”, who, as a creator, maintains and intervenes in the world. That, however, is an arbitrary view. Saying that God – in order to be real, to BE God – must be a creator, is as inept as saying that the moon must be made of green cheese, or it doesn’t exist.

One application of this concept is Jesus’s teaching about the fall of sparrows, “birds of the air”, which happens naturally without any intervention by God. The point is that the fall of sparrows and humans does not happen without context, in a vacuum. Rather, it occurs in the loving presence and awareness of God, the God who, precisely because “He” is not the creator or maintainer of the world, and does not intervene in its processes. Spying and miraculous intervention are simply not part of God’s “job description”.

So in actuality, it can be said that God does absolutely nothing as relates to the construction and maintenance of the world, for the simple reason that such activity is not in God’s nature to do so. Against the traditional view, God is neither “mighty” nor “All-Mighty”.

God is not “Doing”. God is “Being”.

But this does not mean that God is impotent or powerless. It only means that  God does not materially relate to or act upon the world.

However, that does not mean that God is inactive – because the presence of God does act in our deep subjectivity as a catalyst toward spiritual growth and enlightenment. This is the God-experience of mystical union and communion  which is not about miraculous physical intervention in the world or in the human body, but rather about the manifestation of God’s presence in the souls of sentient beings.

Once one becomes aware of the inner presence of God in oneself, one no longer has to entertain the idea of, or has a need for, a creator deity “out there” who supernaturally intervenes in the material universe. Because one already “has” God in the only place it really counts – the human soul, the human heart. God conceived as a transformative inner presence trumps God conceived as a mechanistic, intervening creator deity. The person him or herself is the locus of God’s activity. The material world spins on, following its own self-directed laws without divine intervention.

An additional comment from a Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhist framework, from which this blog hopes to operate:

Jodo Shinshu’s “Ultimate” – Amida Buddha – is not a creator deity, but rather the highest celestial primordial Buddha. Just as with the non-creating God conception, Amida does not intervene in the material world – first because he did not create it and bears no personal responsibility for it, and second because his effulgent grace causes the salvific reality of Shinjin – “perfect faith” – to arise in the deep subjectivity of sentient beings.

Shinjin is a free gift from the Sacred Transcendent. That is why Shin calls it “a raft from the Other Shore” – a vehicle that makes landfall softly and unbidden and that carries us across the ocean of samsara, all without any effort and self-power practice on our part. Our own Amazing Grace. Not a God, but rather the Buddha whose grace ensures the vivifying sparking of our own aspiration toward Buddhahood. Where, in his Pure Land, our own Buddha Nature finally blossoms and we begin to do the selfless work that enlightened Beings do.

Living in the Amida-Dharma

It has been said that religiously experienced people think differently because they see differently. They have a perspective on life that mere World cannot convey. Their view of life prior to religious experience changes after the experience.

The changed view of life changes our life-perspective. It causes us to see or perceive differently relative to ourformer view(s), providing light in the darkness, a wider perspective or higher prospect from which to see people, animals, and universe. Since my conversion to Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhism, I now see all good and bad things in a larger context of connection to the spiritually Transcendent “Other Power” of Amida Buddha.

Bad days in our lives are only to be expected because bad days are de rigueur in the Samsaric realm – and the same applies to the good days. I think it was Albert Camus who said, that despite the suffering and absurdity of life, still, “joy, too, is inevitable”. So days spent in connection with Amida Buddha and the Buddhist Dharma are days understood in a certain light, a light that illumines daily life with a new shade or tone. That’s the central core: Life lit from within by the Dharma’s immanent (“here”) presence, and by its Transcendent (“there”) existence.

Post-conversion, I have not done many new and different moral or social things, the chief reason being that Shin is not a works religion. The adherent is expected to follow the basic Buddhist moral code (but does not expect to be saved or Enlightened thereby). Amida Buddha provides Shinjin (perfect faith) and his grace alone is the factor that will spark the fulfillment of our innate Buddha Nature when we cross into the Pure Land. We do not, and cannot, do this for ourselves, or earn it as a reward. A bad day for me, consisting (say) of sickness, public humiliation, theft, assault, personal loss, affects me no differently than it would anyone else. The difference is that now I see both good and bad, suffering and joy, unfolding against a backdrop of the divine presence of Amida Buddha. It really makes all the difference in the world – at least, to my world.

In Jodo Shinshu, no “good works” are required of us – at least, if they are directed toward the goal of Enlightenment. Good works are required, however, to lighten the load of fellow suffering beings – the practice of “compassion in action”. But all kinds of people, religious and non-religious, already perform good works, whether or not in expectation of earthly or heavenly reward. What makes Shin different is that it teaches that no good work or self-effort practice can redeem us or erase our karma or “wipe out our sin” (except that there is no sin in Buddhism). Amida does all that for us.

Living in the Amida-Dharma means acknowledging our own powerlessness to save and Enlighten ourselves; it means throwing ourselves into the merciful arms of the Buddha’s Other Power; and it means “letting go and letting Amida”. Our outer lives may not change very much, but our “inner man”/”inner woman” is indelibly marked by Amida’s powerful yet gentle touch.


“Prove God!” as an Inept Question

(Cross-posted from a Disqus Forum discussion. This has been touched upon here earlier, but might legitimately bear repeating:)


Atheist Gore Vidal:

“God or what have you, is not to be found at the far end of a syllogism, no matter how brilliantly phrased.”

Philosophy, therefore, can’t disclose God (except perhaps intellectually, but then we are only left with the God or the non-God of the intellect, which is not “the real God”).

Science cannot disclose God because science only deals with matter whereas God by most standard definitions and connotations (except perhaps pantheism) is non material spirit.

This leaves personal experience, the direct apprehension of the divine or the Spirit, as happens in “gnosis”, intuition, and/or the specialized perception that occurs in mystical states and/or as a result of contemplation, prayer, and meditation.

Note that all of these latter things are private, non material, and completely subjective. Neither science, doctrine, the “rational intellect” nor philosophy can enter into this most intimate experiential field. Its contents, like the qualia, are not communicable and cannot be brought out into the external material world. For that reason, it is simply erroneous to think that they can be externalized or publicly shared and quantified.

“Prove to me that God is real!” is one of those inept questions. It’s like asking, “Prove that you love the pursuit of the good/the true/the beautiful”. At most, such things can only be suggested or hinted at. They cannot be shared. However, they are “invitational” and hinge on attainment of personal experience.

There are three steps in knowledge-acquisition:

1. The Injunction: If you want to know “X”, then DO “Y”.

If you want to know if it’s raining, then look out a window. If you want to find God, then look through the “windows” and “lenses” designed for that purpose.

2. The Experiment: Apply the Injunction; proceed along established lines; take notes.

3. The Conclusion and Peer Review: share the process and your conclusion with those who have previously, adequately performed steps 1. thru 3. This happens, for example, in the Zendo, where students submit their experiments and conclusions with those (the senseis) who have previously, adequately performed the process.

God-experience is open to all for confirmation or disconfirmation. It is not a matter of someone else being capable of, or obligated to, “prove God”.

THAT is only up to the individual who is willing to perform the three steps of knowledge-acquisition – and with the awareness that the knowledge so acquired is private, and can only be publicly “circumambulated”, not “proved”, with those who have already done the three step process.

Which makes the Conclusion in one sense open to being shared, but not to public confirmation, as with scientific/material quantification. The confirmation only comes individually, privately, and subjectively.

Thus is disclosed the folly of asking someone or anyone to “prove God”. The “proof” either comes spontaneously, or it comes at the Conclusion of the three step process. It cannot come from some other person, or from any other external source. “Only YOU can do it for yourself alone.”

Best to stop asking the question altogether.


A short coda from the Jodo Shinshu point of view:

For Shin Buddhists, Amida Buddha has saved us from the three step process as surely as He has saved us from our samsaric plight. The three step process is perhaps important to those who are still seeking. But Shin people are no longer on the seeking path. Amida has found them.

Spending A Day With God

This is posted from the Disqus discussion boards, with a few modifications, in answer to a thread inquiring about what spending a day with God would be like.  I wrote:

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From the Eastern/mystical perspective, I don’t have or believe in a creator-deity. I do have certain functional equivalents of God, as defined in the global mystical literature, i.e., God as Ultimate, Absolute, Bodhi, the Tao, the Sacred, the Ground of Being, the Dharmakaya, Buddha-Mind, Nirvana, the Unborn-the Unconditioned, Peace, Silence, etc.

From a more Western-philosophical perspective, I am a Panentheist (not Pantheist) – for whom “God” or “the Spirit” is real but is not a creator. The universe has its existence IN (“EN”) the God – or the Divinity in Which/Whom we move and live and have our being (as Luke-Acts portrays St. Paul’s panentheistic preaching).

Because my God-definition excludes the notion of God as a creator, I do not have a theological bone to pick with God for the simple, primary reason that God is not responsible for the existence, behavior, and maintenance of a universe that “He” did not create to begin with.

That is: God does not intervene with miraculous manipulations, God does not judge or condemn, God does not apologize for a universe that God had no hand in creating.

That is, I have no complaints to make, no gripes to air, but only gratefulness and gratitude.

Gratitude, but for what? For God’s unimpeded light, infinite compassion and infinite wisdom, based not on philosophy or doctrine, but rather upon personal experience.

My personal faith is that of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (Shin Buddhism). For we “Shinners”, “God” as ultimate reality, the Unborn, the Unconditioned is expressed in-and-as Amida Buddha.

Not a creator, a judge, or an intervenor, Amida Buddha rather represents our own Buddha-Nature realized and dwelling in a perfect state called “the Pure Land”. What Amida is, we shall become, through His freely-granted gift of Shinjin, or perfect faith. A faith which is deemed “perfect” for the simple, crucial reason that we ourselves did not design it. It is the transcendent gift of Amida – “the Raft from the Other Shore” – whose sudden sharp arrival is redolent of otherworldly “fragrances of Light”, unlike the earthly light with which our physical eyes are familiar.

Moreover, there is not much of an adherent-Amida “wall of separation”. The only real difference is that while I am a deluded being led by blind passions (a “bombu”), Amida is already a celestial, primal Buddha, whose earthly adherents are – as of now, temporarily – only on the Path. But once we pass into the Pure Land state, our own Buddha-Nature will come to fruition and we ourselves will become Buddhas. We become like Amida Himself. This may sound spectacular, but it is “merely” the fulfillment of the basic Mahayanist “aspiration toward Buddhahood”.

Because of this blessed situation, I don’t really feel an insecure, pressing, or desperate need to “walk and talk” with my Absolute/”God”, for the simple reason that the Buddha and I are already united, and because ultimately I will become a Buddha myself. The walking and talking come naturally. We Shin people do not worship what we already are in potential, and we do not worship what we will become. We revere Amida Buddha for His grace and his role as life-vivifying Savior.

In this sense, Shin adherents are Amida’s “little brothers and sisters”, walking the Path set by Amida himself eons ago when he was the wandering, Dharma-seeking monk Dharmakara in a dimension that was perhaps far removed and probably quite different from our own.

Walking with my “older brother” Amida Buddha every day, I can only repeat Jodo Shinshu’s primary recitation of sheer gratitude:

“Namo Amida Buddha.”

“I take refuge in Amida Buddha.”

In that phrase resides my entire, daily interrelation on the Enlightenment Path with my Absolute,my  inspiration, my salvation and my fully-realized “elder brother”.

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“God” as Real, but not as a Creator

It seems to me that one major problem with the modern God-conversation is that God is constantly being defined as some kind of responsible world-agent – a creator. Of course, a creator – especially one who is held to be all-knowing and all-good – is ultimately responsible for “His” creation. No excuses can be offered for the putative creator’s misbehavior. And I’m not even (yet) talking about the depredations of the Biblical deity. No, the creator – as we now have “Him” – is sufficiently evil, indifferent, inept, mute and incompetent to be existentially and morally condemned under the Epicurean mandate.

However, I personally believe that “God” is real, but is not a creator, intervener, or judge.
For me – a panentheist (not pantheist) – God is much less a creator and much more the being Who and Which is spoken about in Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and by the mystics of all traditions. A silent Presence, the Tao, the Absolute, the Dharmakaya, Bodhi, the Unconditioned/the Unborn, Salvation, Light, Wisdom, etc. … a being and/or a category, that is, whose only “doing-ness” or activity is limited, and natural, to its transformative effects in sentient beings, but which is non-functional and irrelevant vis-a-vis the creation and maintenance of physical worlds, universes, things and processes.

Thus, as pertains to the world/cosmos/”life”, God is not all-mighty; in fact, God is not “mighty” at all,  the word “might” being a crude projection of gross material, physical “power” onto a spirit being.

This type of God is immune from both the Epicurean critique and the normative Western theistic view, because both base themselves on the idea of an all-powerful creator deity. They assume that, for God to be real – “for God to BE God” – God must be a creator – or “He” isn’t God , and “He” does not, or cannot, exist. But that is as silly and inept as saying that either the moon is made of green cheese, or it does not, or cannot, exist.

The conception of a non-creating God immediately releases one’s God-definition from the burden of creating a theodicy. A theodicy is an argument that claims to explain evil – and more importantly, the persistence of evil – in a cosmos that was supposedly created and is currently being maintained by an all-good, all-powerful creator deity. If we remove from our theological perspective the conception of an all-good/all-powerful creator deity, we also remove the conception of divine intervention, as well as the embarrassing necessity of needing to account for “God’s” obviously neglectful behavior.

The non-creating, non-almighty God thus cannot be blamed for the world’s evils, nor can this God be praised for the world’s goodness. There is no one – “no One” – to praise or to blame. The universe goes its own “samsaric” way without deity-influence, interference, or manipulation, while God simply, deeply, remains as the silent Presence within the depths not of matter, but rather in the perceiving souls of the sentient beings who seek divine union.

In one narrow sense, Jodo Shinshu’s Amida Buddha can be seen as a kind of functional equivalent to the non-creating but spiritually-transformative God. Buddhas are not gods or creator deities, and neither is Amida Buddha. However, if by “God” is meant an all-compassionate, all-wise, luminous, transcendent Being who saves and enlightens not by physical intervention but by sheer grace – in the form of Shinjin in Jodo Shinshu – then, surely, Amida “fits the bill”. Not a creator, not a physical intervener, not a judge, not a divine warrior or apocalyptic vengeful destroyer, not a dying-and-rising savior, Amida can be seen as the compassionate, transforming, transcendent spiritual Ultimate – a “God” for all sentient beings, who at the same time is source and spark of their future Buddhahood in Amida’s Pure Land, where those beings recognize and realize their own “godness” as Buddhas in their own right.