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Shin Buddhism vs. Christianity

It has long been known that there are some outward similarities between Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Christianity.  Both claim a savior figure and a teaching of radical grace.  Both proclaim a wondrous mystical realm which is both transcendent and immanent:  in Christianity, this is the Kingdom of Heaven, which is both “beyond” and here and now; in Shin, this is the Pure Land, which is both a transcosmic Buddha Land as well as the here and now unfolding in us of Amida’s own dynamic spiritual activity.  But beyond these parallels there are essential differences.

Mainstream Christianity holds that God’s saving grace is mediated by his Son, Jesus Christ.  This divine grace is held to have been crucially dispensed by Jesus’ atoning death on the cross.   Christian salvation consists in accepting for oneself the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice.  Christianity also maintains that Jesus is ontologically – “by nature” – divine, the second person in a divine “Trinity.”   Believing in Jesus’ deity, in addition to accepting Jesus’ salfivic death, is the second essential facet in Christian soteriology.

(It is important at this point to mention that salvation by means of accepting Jesus as God, and accepting his atoning death, although foundational requirements in established Christianity as we now know it, there are other means of salvation to be found in the Christian scriptures.  But, through hundreds of years of doctrinal conflict, these two have emerged victorious, and are especially emphasized in Protestant communions.  Earlier types of Christianity emphasized various means of salvation, but their contributions have been de-emphasized, minimized, or rejected as heretical.  The present essay, when considering Christianity, concerns not these “alternative” or antiquated views, but mainstream Christianity as it is currently known and practiced.)

It is de riguer that Martin Luther emphasized Christian soteriology’s claims of salvation based on faith and grace.  Luther taught that Jesus was God’s free gift of salvation to a human race that could never save itself by its own efforts.  The human response to God’s grace through faith in Jesus, in Lutheran (and later Reformist views) ensured salvation.   Humankind on its own is powerless to procure salvation;  only God’s grace can perform the task.  This does resemble Shin’s “take” on grace, but it falls short of Shin’s purity and radicalism.

In Christianity, salvation, though given by God’s grace, remains to some degree dependent on the recipient; the recipient must place his or her faith in the person of Jesus, in his salvific death, and in his deity.  But as New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg has pointed out, a gift of grace freely given can really have no pre-conditions or requirements, that is, if it is truly freely given.  If there is even one requirement – i.e., we must believe in Jesus’ saving death – then we no longer have a pure grace religion, but rather a “works” religion…perhaps a very refined and minimally-demanding religion, but a works religion nonetheless.  This is the point where Jodo Shinshu’s doctrine of radical grace becomes relevant.

While Amida Buddha is Shin’s savior figure, Amida differs from Jesus in some important ways.

First, Amida is not a god nor the son of a god.  Amida is difficult to define – not a creator, a sky father, an earth mother, a tribal totem, an elemental spirit, a mediator, an intercessor, an intervener or miracle worker – Amida is “Eternal Life” and “Unimpeded Light.”  A Presence in, but not of, the universe.  Amida’s nature is Compassion and Amida’s relationship with life is Grace.  Pure grace, eternal and… unimpeded.

Second, the free and unimpeded nature of Amida’s grace is such that it makes no requirement, religious or secular, of the recipient.  No faith is demanded – neither in the atoning sacrifice of a divine son, nor in the intervention of a creator-deity.  Amida’s grace permeates all things, whether or not they are aware of it or respond to it.  Amida’s eternal life (Amatayus) and unimpeded light (Amitabha) illumine the world already, and cannot be called upon to appear as if from an alien realm.  And it is not that Shin Buddhists do not call upon Amida.  On the contrary, the Nembutsu, “Calling on the Name” of Amida, is Shin’s primary practice.

But whereas the Christian calls upon Jesus as one who is to be informed of personal troubles, who may answer petitionary prayer, who may intervene in the petitioner’s life or sometimes even perform miracles, Amida Buddha conforms to none of these expectations.

When the Shin practitioner voices the nembutsu, this serves only serves two purposes:

1)  to phrase and express (either verbally or mentally)

2) the recipient’s gratitude for Amida’s grace.

Shin “prayer” is really affirmation;  affirmation that, as far as human salvation and realization of one’s own Buddha-Nature are concerned, “all is well” and as it should be.  Since Amida is neither a creator nor an intervener, Amida is not connected to typically Abrahamic-creatorist beliefs in petitionary prayer and divine intervention.

In brief, Amida’s grace is all-sufficient, and there is nothing that we must – there is nothing that we can – do in order to acquire this boon.  It is freely given moment to moment and we are immersed in it whether we know it or not;  and it is Shin’s special graciousness that offers a means that we may know it.

The Attractiveness of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

For most of  the West, salvation is customarily dictated by the sacrifice of a sinless Son-Messiah to his heavenly “Father,” a creator deity.            In Buddhism, specifically in the Mahayanist ‘Pure Land” schools, and particularly in Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism, the situation is markedly different.

The Christian soteriological paradigm is acceptance through faith of the Son’s deity and the efficacy of his self-immolation on the cross. In Jodo Shinshu, the salvific mechanism is based neither on sacrifice nor in the behavior of the person who is to be redeemed.

The sect of Jodo Shinshu, founded in the twelfth century by Shinran Shonin, places both the call to salvation, and its response, solely within the action of Amida Buddha. The premise is that, in our latter age of spiritual degeneration, most people are unable to follow the traditional paths of discipline in order to achieve Buddhahood. Therefore, the bulk of humankind is is held in Shin not to be capable of carrying out Sakyamuni Buddha’s injunction to seek salvation through diligent self-effort. The resolution to this situation is, according to Jodo Shinshu, not in “jiriki” or self-power, but in “tariki” or other-power. The “other” referred to here is Amida Buddha.

Amida, as Jodo Shinshu’s foundational story relates, was a spiritual seeker in an unspecified time and place, usually assumed to be remote eons past. Like the historical Sakyamuni, this ancient religious wanderer, a great ruler, sought salvation through many avenues. He eventually met a Buddha who urged the king to seek his own Buddha-nature. At this, the royal seeker became a monk, taking the name Dharmakara. Ultimately, Dharmakara won through to Buddhahood, taking on the name and function of Amitabha (in Japanese, Amida) Buddha.

But instead of stepping directly into the transcendent Buddha Realm, he undertook vows to create a refuge for all those who would be Buddhas. His Eighteenth or Primal Vow was that he would be denied final transcendent Buddhahood unless all beings who called on him entered the Pure Land which he had created for them after eons of contemplation.

Amida’s Primal Vow is at the core of Shin Buddhism. It is the promise and the means of salvation, which in Mahayanist Buddhism does not consist of remittance of sins or a heavenly reward, but rather the realization of one’s Buddha nature. In contrast to other Pure Land schools, Jodo Shinshu holds that although the transcendent Pure Land is real, at the same time it is immanent – an existential unfolding of our Buddha nature in this world and in this life. (In this claim Jodo Shinshu does resemble the Christian teaching that the kingdom of heaven is both in “the other realm” [transcendent], and here and now “among us” [immanent].)

Other Power is the cause of enlightenment.  Jodo Shinshu holds that, since we are incapable of the kind of self-effort that would result in salvation, the sheer grace of Amida is the all-sufficient cause of redemption.

Amida issues the call, and we answer it gratefully, invoking his name in the Nembutsu prayer. Lest it be thought, however, that our response is salvation’s catalyst, Jodo Shinshu reminds us that, just as the call issues from Amida, so too the reply issues from Amida, from “Amida-in-us.” Thus the entire cycle of Call/Call Answered is entirely the action of Amida, untainted by the egoic processes of human self-effort.

Self-power vanquished, Amida’s salvation is pure grace, the opposite of “works-religion.” It has no requirements, since even our response to Amida’s call is initiated and received by Amida. Here we are not required to render sacrifice, or to put our faith in the sacrifice of a sinless victim, the only-begotten son of a sky father.  We need not pledge ourselves to a legal code revealed by a creator deity. Because such acts of faith are acts, and  moreover, requirements… they are therefore works, and they avail us nothing, whereas  Amida’s salvific grace avails us everything.

Jodo Shinshu is, as it were, so full of grace that there is no room left over for self-powered works and their related requirements, polluted as they are with egoic clinging and self-aggrandizement.