Here's my correspondence with Dr. Alfred Bloom on the subject raised here.
I've leafed through the Kyogyoshinsho to find how Shinran talks about the existence of his buddha-land and Amita Buddha but I could find only that he views it just like other Pure Land thinkers before, as a recompensed land and sambhogakaya buddha resulting from the bodhisattva work and vows. On the other hand, my friend tried to explain to me that Shinran is radically different here saying that Amita Buddha is not somebody "10,000 buddha-lands to the West" (as it is generally understood in Mahayana) but rather - and about this I'm uncertain if I get it right - the nature of reality, an impersonal compassionate force of the universe, thus Other Power is not from a tathagata but the dependent existence of everything and shinjin is realising our co-dependency. Could you please enlighten me about the Shin view, possibly with some reference to Shinran's words?
Thank you for your inquiry. I hope that I can help you. I must say first that what I present is my personal understanding of Shinran. However, I believe that it has basis in Shinran’s writings.
With respect to the meaning of the term “reality”, you must be aware that it has a complex meaning. For some, it means and objective, independent or substantial existence apart from human consciousness. For others, it is the content of one’s consciousness as in the “consciousness only” school in Mahayana Buddhism.
In Mahayana Buddhism ultimate reality is inconceivable, beyond our conception, empty. However, it may manifest in our consciousness through visualization practice or as an awareness of trust that one has been embraced by “reality” imaged as Amida Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism holds that all beings have Buddha-nature, the potential to become Buddha. That is also an aspect of “reality.”
Shinran was trained in Tendai teaching which was greatly influenced by the Kegon teaching that we all exist within the Buddha-mind and all have the potentiality to become Buddha. While Shinran did not expect his followers to get into the complex details of Mahayana philosophy, he held that trust in Amida’s Vows manifests in our consciousness as the assurance that we have been embraced by Amida Buddha and are destined for birth in the Pure Land and Buddhahood. This trust is aroused through the working of Amida’s Vow in our life or karmic history.
Given this background we can try to address your question about the reality of Amida or as I would like to put it, Amida as our reality. In Shinran’s teaching we find three concepts of Amida. First there is the popularly understood Amida that was in the background of his teaching as an aspect of Japanese Buddhism where Pure Land teaching was pervasive in every tradition as an upaya-compassionate means to help people who could not participate in monastic practices. Birth into the Pure Land in this general tradition was through recitation of the name for karmic merit.
The second understanding of Amida is based in the story of Dharmakara in the Larger Pure Land Sutra where after aeons of practice, the Bodhisattva established the Pure Land. For Shinran the story was important because the Amida here is a Reward Body, a Buddha with beginning and no end. The Eighteenth Vow is important for Shinran, establishing the way of faith-trust and recitation of the name as expression of gratitude. According to his teaching (Notes on ‘Faith Alone’ (Yuishinshomin’I, and Jinen honi sho) Amida Buddha is the means for speaking about ultimate reality Dharmakaya, The Body of Truth.
The buddha in this perspective is on a higher spiritual plane, removed from the necessity to perform karmic acts of merit to secure birth in the Pure Land. Also Amida Buddha in this context is the direct manifestion of the Body of truth. All other Buddhas are manifestations of Amida. He is not just one among many Buddhas that people may resort to for salvation.
This leads to Shinran’s own interpretation where Amida Buddha is Reality itself as the Eternal Buddha who has no beginning and no end. Here you can refer on my web page to the essay on the Ultimacy of Amida, Shinran’s Response to Tendai.
In Mahayana Buddhism there are three levels of Buddha corresponding to the traditional three bodies of the Buddha:
The Level of Manifestation- a Buddha with a beginning and End, as is Sakyamuni and according to some interpreters, Amida who is said in the Sutra to have a lifespan of 42 kalpas before going into Nirvana.
2. The level of Reward Body or in modern terms of myth, the Buddha with a beginning and no End, as when Dharmakara becomes Amida, residing in his Pure Land.
3. The eternal Buddha, Buddha with no beginning and no End. This understanding is rooted in the Lotus sutra, Chapter 16, but Shinran applied it to Amida. Here Amida is the expression or term whereby we can speak of ultimate reality rather than just a discrete Buddha among the host of Buddhas. This was Shinran’s contribution to the development of the concept of Amida.
According to Shinran, Ultimate Amida is colorless, formless, inconceivable as the Body of truth. He is the Buddha-nature in all things. Wisdom is in the form of light, the formless form. Consequently as the working of reality, trust is aroused within us, being endowed by Amida. Faith is the realization of Buddha-nature, the goal of all Mahayana practice. All religious action, particularly Nembutsu becomes an expression of gratitude. There is no need for merit.
Thus we do not ask if Amida is real, but rather Amida is the reality of our lives as the motivating force for spiritual activity. As the universal ground of all existence, everything has Buddha-nature and is the manifestation of Amida in its particular form, benefitting our lives and all others.
In essence Amida Buddha is the symbolization of the process of interdependence. He is the reality of all relationships that nurture and promote life. Amida Buddha in the texts and as spoken about provides a focus for understanding the spirituality of all things within our experience and world.
In my personal view, this is the most real of anything real. But it is not literal, objective reality as something apart from my consciousness and life. It is my life. Amida in this view, as I would understand it, is real as an ideal is real. It is a force that influences life. Ideals have a reality though they are not objective, discrete things. They are real in our consciousness as sources of motivation. Similarly there is no such thing as society as a discrete objective reality. Society is the sum total of our relationships as the context for the principles that we live by. Society is the way we relate to others.
I am not sure this will help you in your thinking. As for the discussion on the Internet, it is important to understand that Shinran worked within the context of Mahayana philosophy and his understanding of Amida is shaped by that. I do not believe he was a literalist in the style that many people view the teaching today. Mahayana philosophy teaches the emptiness of all ideas and things, a la Nagarjuna (2nd century). This itself means that things have no reality in themselves but only in relation to other things, again interdependence. Mahayana teaching is not literalist.
The literalist trend among some interpreters of Shin Buddhism is a reflection their American cultural experience where fundamentalist Christianity, a large segment of American religion, is objectivist and literal. They are carrying this over to Buddhism. For those who wish to hold to Amida and the Pure Land as somehow literally real, they should also understand the reality of hells as presented in the tradition. If the Pure Land is a discrete reality so must be the hells also which are the counterpoint or alternative to the Pure Land. If Amida is a discrete reality as they argue, then all the other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Buddhist texts have the same reality. Then the question is raised, if Amida Buddha is on the same level with other Buddhas etc, what is the meaning of Shinran’s teaching? Shin Buddhism is distinctive because it elevates Amida beyond popular conceptions and changed the definition and meaning of religion not only in Japan but universally. Religious faith is not about what you get (It is all given through the working of the Vow.) Religious faith is about what you give in the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
After reading your mail a couple of times and your essay on Shinran's relationship with Tendai teachings I came up with the following question:
Amida Buddha is principally a dharmakaya buddha, equal to Vairocana in the Avatamsaka and Sakyamuni in the Lotus Sutra. At the same time, as a manifestation of mahakaruna Dharmakara Bodhisattva has manifested, attained anuttarasamyaksambodhi and established Sukhavati for saving all sentient beings. It appears to me that this teaching corresponds to the trikaya format, as you have also mentioned it, with the difference of Amida being the designation of both the ultimate and the relative (forming the unity of two truths in the middle way). And please correct me if I misunderstand something here, but then it comes down to the usual Mahayana setting of a buddha being manifest and unmanifest at the same time. Thus sambhogakaya Amida is as real as "earth, tiles and pebbles". Consequently a literal reading of the sutras on the Pure Land is not wrong but only the manifest level and realisation of the unmanifest happens after birth. This matches the Chinese explanation of first practising with mark to reach no-mark.
Does this meet your understanding? If not, please clarify for me at what point I go wrong.
I do not see any problem with what you state, except that I have problem with the term literal. I don’t think ancient people thought in those terms. Literal, as I observe it from Christian fundamentalist thought, means objectively existing apart from one’s consciousness, just as God is objectively real as the creator of the universe etc. Thus they read the Bible literally meaning that what it says exists is existing independently. It is kind of naïve realism.
I don’t think Buddhism takes any position like that. In fact it is clear from the Consciousness Only school that nothing exists separate from our consciousness of it. The Pure Land etc can be real within our consciousness as a means (upaya) to reach a deeper level of understanding, moving from form to formless, that is, as Shinran says in the Jinen honi sho, that Amida with form is a means (Ryo) to know the formless, colorless Dharmakaya. It does not exist by itself or for itself. Consequently, though this is wordy, Amida can be a spiritual reality within our consciousness as a spiritual guide and ideal.
Also in the Middle Path school, all concepts are empty and come out of our delusory mind. It avoids substantialism, similarly to the Consciousness Only. These philosophical perspectives underly all Mahayana schools.
There are other considerations, such as whatever interpretation we apply to Amida, must also apply to other Buddhas and descriptions in the many sutras. When it says that the Buddha’s tongue reached out to all the universes in the ten directions, is that to be taken literally. What would it mean? I think symbolic and metaphorical thinking as in the Sutras has spiritual meaning not metaphysical.
I guess I should clarify what I said first. I didn't propose that things are independent of one's perception (consciousness). But just because all things are mental (vijnapti) it doesn't mean they don't exist as individual causal streams. Thus we can say that there are uncountable sentient beings in the six realms just as there are immeasurable bodhisattvas and buddhas. This is not naive realism, neither idealism, nor solipsism. From this point of view I say that Amida Buddha as a sambhogakaya exists in the Pure Land just as you or me exist on Earth (Saha Land). But I'm not sure what you mean by "spiritual". If it is an equivalent of the realms realised by higher perception (abhijna) such as heavens and buddha-lands I see your point. If you meant something else, please explain.
If I caused a misunderstanding by using the word "literal" and this above clarifies what I meant I'm glad for then I believe we could see each other face to face.
Perhaps I was responding to the term literal from own background. I guess what I would say that we can consider anything “real” so far as it accords with the basic parameters of Buddhist teaching on the qualified nature of “existence. ” Certainly whatever status such “reality” has, it has causal impact.
The important thing in Buddhist teaching as I understand it is how it inspires a person to move beyond the present level of insight to deeper levels and understanding and thereby the reduction in our egoism and attachment to our self-concepts, our world , our ideas and beliefs. Buddhism is about the transformation of the mind. Upaya and perhaps provisional beliefs etc can be helps depending on ones mental or spiritual development. Not every one is at the same point and Buddhism is not “one size fits all.” People respond to different forms of presentation. If the mythology of Buddhism in its concreteness helps a person in spiritual growth, then it is “real.” It is the role of the “Good Teacher” to draw the person on, moving beyond forms, concepts etc. which all excite the ego and become objects of attachment. Beyond that what would be the point?
Shinran expresses himself in several ways. In human situations of grief, he consoled his followers that he would meet them in the Pure Land. In his more scholarly writings, particularly Kyogyoshinsho, birth in the Pure Land is immediate buddhahood. The attainment of faith is one’s rebirth. Since Amida Buddha as the Eternal Buddha is wisdom in the form of light, he is formless and colorless, but the context or frame in which we understand our lives; hence very “real.” The Pure Land must also be ultimately formless and colorless as Nirvana is formless, beyond conception. The Buddha and the Land are One.
In our unrealized, unenlightened state, we can only talk about things in the dimension of form; consequently we do talk about Pure Land etc but not so much as place but of quality of existence, our spiritual ideal. It has the qualities of freedom, bliss, purity, ultimate fulfillment, joy, continual learning etc.
I do not think we disagree perhaps, though we may have different ways of expressing ourselves. Amida is the real of the real; the reality of all our relations and a motive force in our everyday life as the power of compassion and the light that highlights our own shadows. The brighter the light the sharper the shadows.
As for spirituality, it is a much used and abused term today. I guess for me things are spiritual to the extent that they indicate there is always something more than what our minds can encompass. It is vague because it points to the mystery that surrounds our lives and people become spiritual when they become aware that our lives have a deeper context which we may picture to ourselves, depending on what tradition we follow and how it shapes our attitudes and values. I do not see spirituality as a divisive things, but the more spiritual we are, the more we find our kinship with all being. For me Amida which means Infinite offers the most comprehensive perspective on the mystery that grounds our lives.
Thank you for your kind attention. My original confusion was raised by thinking that if Amida Buddha is not a real being and the whole story of Dharmakara never happened there is no basis for an effective vow to save beings and bring them to the Western Realm. Naturally there are many ways to interpret sutras, however, certain doctrines are essential for a coherent system and such a teaching is the enlightenment of Amida Buddha and the creation of Pure Land to fulfil his vows. This seemed to be questioned by your (and others) presentation of Shinran's teachings and that's why I turned to you for elucidation of the matter.
It was today morning I realised our personal approaches to the Shin Dharma are quite different, which I believe is fine. As for its doctrinal aspect it appears we may agree. To give it (hopefully) a final test I have a question regarding the teaching's practical aspect.
You've mentioned Cittamantra and Madhyamaka as essential doctrines in Mahayana. On a personal level the six paramitas are the core of the path from delusion to buddhahood. I Chinese Pure Land and Jodoshu it is understood that one perfects the bodhisattva path after being born there. I'd like to know how the practice of the paramitas explained in Shinshu.
Thank you for your reply. In interpreting religious documents, I do not believe there is one right and wrong. We have to understand texts according to our background and knowledge at the time. I think it is important to discuss issues and try to find areas of consensus.
There are doctrines which result from religious experience and in this case Shinran. Even in his own day there were differences of opinion. It makes for historical development. Some ideas are better than others and over time become the basic viewpoint. With the shift in cultures from Japan-in this case- to the West, new questions are being asked that were not primary in Japan. That is why scholars differ among themselves in trying to respond to the modern situation. I see myself as just one of those responses for whatever it may be worth. It may help some people but not others. In my study course I tried to develop a more or less coherent approach to Shin Buddhism using contemporary (as far as I understand it) considerations about myth and religious imagery. More than the character of the story itself, the implications and meaning for our lives are the most important aspects. What spiritual insight it offers. Shinran reinterpreted the scripture in some areas to reflect his own experience and for myself, I try to follow his lead in that because it helps me understand my own experience. It can be different for different people-even within the same tradition.
I should respond to your question in this letter on the 6 paramitas which are regarded with high importance in Shin Buddhism. However, they are not advocated as the means to enlightenment, but are inspired by the Buddha’s compassion when one realizes that Amida’s Vows, which symbolize the compassion that surrounds our lives , are the foundation of our spiritual life. The story of Dharmakara, his Vows and fulfillment offer us a guiding vision in living our lives, and summarized in the six paramitas. They are guiding principles for negotiating life.
In earlier Pure Land teaching and as presented in the Sutras, the Pure Land is a staging area for the completion of the process to become a Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism has an environmental theory implicit in it. That is, one cannot really achieve spiritual goals unless there is something in the environment that makes it possible. We are always involved in social relations and so, depending on our relationships, we progress in fulfilling our lives. That is why often religious teachers suggest that people seek out like-minded people in the practice of their faith. We all need reinforcement. In Buddhist view, as presented in Mahayana, we live in the defiled realm in this world and in later teaching it was the age of the demise of the dharma-mappo when there was only teaching, but no practice or realization. It was a spiritually corrupt age. Hence the Pure Land established by Amida provides the impetus and attraction for people to pursue the ideals of the six paramitas and attain enlightenment and Buddhahood. That is probably held by many people today and is a straightforward reading of the Sutra.
That said, Shinran reinterpreted the tradition and maintained that on reception of true entrusting in this life, we already are reborn in the Pure Land in principle. We are obviously, by our external condition, not there, but in terms of Amida’s Vows and compassion, the causes for our birth are set. People are already saved, but not aware of it until faith arises. The moment of death is called birth into the Pure Land but for Shinran, it means the immediate attainment of Buddhahood. There is no process to attainment in the Pure Land. In fact, according to his interpretation of the 22nd vow, rather than remaining in the Pure Land we return to this world as bodhisattvas to work for the salvation of all beings. The ultimate goal is the salvation and Buddhahood of all beings and not simply residence in the Pure Land forever. I think I mentioned to you earlier that just to desire to go to the Pure Land because it is a place of pleasure and bliss, one does not go. That is because egoism is still the motivating factor.
While in our present state in life, we cannot claim to be bodhisattvas, the perception of who is the bodhisattva is the perspective of the other person whose life may be enhanced and assisted through one’s efforts—namely aspiring to fulfill the six paramitas in our lives as we are able and inspired by the vision of Amida’s unconditional compassion. For Shinran, religion is not about getting-salvation or benefits, but about giving. Dana is the first paramita and highly stressed within the temples—and not only for money for the temple—but as the gift of our lives to help others.
Unfortunately, of course, we are all foolish being-bombu- and so while we aspire to this ideal , we do not always fulfill it. We are filled with contradictions. Shinran’s teaching was aimed to reduce as far as he could the egoism that infects religion and all our lives.
This gets back to the paramitas as guides. They are not rules and regulation or requirements for Amida’s embrace. They result, to the degree they are realized in our actions, from our awareness of that embrace by life and reality.
"While teachers of the middle way, mind only, transcendent wisdom, mantra, and other schools may have their own assertions, the fulfillment of those intentions is the same. There is not a single thing that is not contained within mind."
(Gampopa to Düsum Khyenpa, in "The First Karmapa", KTD Pub, p254)
“If you recognize the world of appearance and existence as the mind, realize the mind itself as empty, and have no grasping at the superiority of your realizations — this is the ultimate view."
(Chegom Dzongpa, in "The Book of Kadam", Wisdom Pub, p609)