The first step toward finding God, Who is Truth, is to discover the truth about myself: and if I have been in error, this first step to truth is the discovery of my error."
- Thomas Merton
(see other relevant quotes at http://www.christianquotes.info/quotes-by-author/thomas-merton-quotes/)
When I spoke to the Las Vegas Buddhist Sangha earlier this month, I was asked if I knew any books and articles for someone coming from a Christian background to help them understand Jodo Shinshu. Another member asked me for ideas on how to compare or contrast Shin Buddhist terms such as “pure land,” “shinjin,” etc. with Christian concepts. I wanted to write a response to both of them but I’m finding I still need to explore the relation between Christianity and Shin Buddhism.
Although there are some articles out there by Christians trying to understand Shinran’s teachings, it is more helpful to me, and possibly others, to find a clearer understanding of Jodo Shinshu through Christian concepts. This approach probably won’t sit well with those who’ve been raised in Shin Buddhism, especially the temple sons from Japan, so they can write me off as the Presbyterian who never fully bought into Shinshu.
[RIP George Michael – if you listen to his “Father Figure” while reading this post it may not sound so boring]
I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks in understanding Jodo Shinshu is the tendency to anthropomorphize “Amida Buddha.” Throughout Asian Buddhist history, we are told that the images of buddhas and bodhisattvas in human form are only expedient means to get people’s attention and not to get hung up on the forms as something fixed. But even at North American temples where longtime members tell newcomers, “The Buddha image is a symbol, not an idol,” those same members can only envision Amida as a man with arms, legs, face etc.
In reading how the Christian mystics and modern theologians get past the “Sunday School version” of God as the commanding grandfather figure flying on a cloud, we can get closer to how Shinran experienced Amida. As much as Shinran emphasized Amida as all-pervasive and without fixed form, it took someone such as Manshi Kiyozawa several centuries later to see that Shinran was going back to the Sanskrit meaning of Amida as “immeasurable, boundless,” which Kiyozawa correlated to the term used in Western philosophy “infinite” (I like the Japanese term mu-gen, “no limits” better).
Kiyozawa had no qualms about using the term “God” since he already sensed that modern Western philosophy was describing the Power Beyond Self (even if the Christian missionaries in Japan still portrayed God as the bossy old guy on a cloud). Like Shinran, Kiyozawa was experiencing the working of the Unlimited in his own life of frustrating limitations. As in the Merton quote above, Kiyozawa had to learn about his errors through the recognition of the “Who” that is “Truth,” which is called tathagata in Sanskrit (nyorai in Japanese).
Right at the beginning of the Wikipedia definition of God, it says:
The concept of God as described by most theologians includes the attributes of omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), divine simplicity, and as having an eternal and necessary existence. Many theologians also describe God as being omnibenevolent (perfectly good) and all loving.
It called to my mind the ending passage from Waga Shinnen:
The power of Tathagata is limitless. The power of Tathagata is unsurpassed. The power of Tathagata is omnipresent. It pervades everything and works freely, without hindrance. By committing myself to the wondrous power of Tathagata, I have great peace and comfort. By entrusting the great question of life and death to the Tathagata, I have no fear, no discontentment.
(Nobuo Haneda translation “My Religious Conviction” from December Fan: The Buddhist Essays of Manshi Kiyozawa)
The teachings of the Pure Land sutras and the great teachers of central Asia, China and Korea and the transmission of those teachings by Honen and Shinran work to awaken us to the Power Beyond Self. “Amida” and “God” are labels for something that is not a personified deity we can beseech for favors but rather for the dynamic interaction of myriad causes and conditions I can describe inadequately as “the flow” (which I’d rather use than “the force”).
Unlike the way other Buddhists talk of attaining personal peace of mind through their strenuous efforts and detaching themselves from the defiled world, in Shin Buddhism, we let “the flow” take us into greater participation in the lives around us, not obsessively concerned for our own little “peace and comfort.” Contrary to the impression people get from Kiyozawa’s writings that he was smug and snug in his own little cubbyhole, in reality he was out there dynamically transmitting the Buddhist teachings through public lectures, writing and education. Since Tathagata took away his self-centered fear and discontentment, Kiyozawa could work for the awakening of “great peace and comfort” for all suffering beings.
There may be some of the literal-minded Shin Buddhists who will say I shouldn’t be comparing Amida with the Christian God “because Amida is this-and-this, not that-and-that…” But Shinran stresses to us that the workings of Amida’s aspiration is beyond our comprehension. The power of “the flow” is not confined to any one culture or religion. Who is to definitely decide that the Tathagata that Kiyozawa experiences is different from the “Who is Truth” that Merton and other Christians discover in their lives?