Amida Buddha: A Buddhist “God”?
What does the statue in the middle of the shrine represent?
That image is Amida Buddha, described in the Larger Sutra’s sacred story mentioned earlier (see page 69).
Amida Buddha is, then, not Shakyamuni Buddha, the so-called historical Buddha?
That’s right. It would be more accurate to understand Amida Buddha as an expression of Oneness. In our ocean metaphor, Amida is the ocean itself. And it is the historical (or Shakyamuni) Buddha who appeared in the world to tell us about Amida Buddha.74
What do you mean by Amida being an “expression”?
Well, do you recall that Oneness is formless and is beyond human understanding? Shinran Shonin explains that the Oneness, out of deep compassion, took form as Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who eventually became Amida Buddha to establish the Pure Land, and to lead beings to Buddhahood.
Dharmakaya-as-suchness (Oneness) has neither color nor form; thus, the mind cannot grasp it nor words describe it. From this Oneness was manifested form, called dharmakaya-as-compassion. Taking this form, the Buddha claimed his name as Bhikshu (Monk) Dharmakara and established the forty-eight great Vows that surpass conceptual understanding.
(Notes on the ‘Essentials of Faith Alone,’ p.43.)
How can we understand this sacred story? Did this really happen in the distant past as the story claims?
I cannot say for sure whether or not this actually took place. But based on what we now know about the history of the universe and human experience, it probably did not really happen. If Monk Dharmakara lived innumerable eons ago, he would be older than the earth, which is said to be between five and ten billion years old.
There are fewer and fewer Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists who take the story as fact. Especially in North America, most teachers and lay members understand it as a myth. Myth, however, does not mean false or untrue. Myth helps explain a deeper meaning that cannot be better explained any other way. Our appreciation of the myth agrees with that of Prof. Joseph Campbell who so eloquently helped to educate the modern public about the truth and power of myths. There are, however, many people who still see myth as false; that is why I am referring to the Jodo-Shinshu myth as “sacred story” to avoid any confusion.
What is this profound meaning you talk about?
Each of us is part of a cosmic, interdependent network of caring forces, seen and unseen, that protect and support us physically, socially, and spiritually. The sacred story of Bodhisattva Dharmakara symbolizes these compassionate, caring forces.
Interdependence was one of the Four Marks of Existence discussed earlier. Is this interdependence related to the cosmic interdependence symbolized by the sacred story?
Yes. We can think of this cosmic interdependence as representing a deeper awareness about the principle of interdependence, one of the Four Marks of Existence. In our appreciation of the sacred story, I become more confident that a caring reality lies just beneath this “bumpy” daily existence.
Many people in the West think that Buddhism only teaches that life is bumpy, illusory, or unreliable. This is obviously a very limited understanding. The world appears illusory only when we remain ego-centered. When we become less ego-centered, we increasingly awaken to the caring world of interdependency. The Mahayana Buddhist sutras are filled with descriptions of the enlightened, Nirvanic reality.
Nagarjuna was a great Mahayana religious thinker, but he talks a lot about “emptiness.”
Nagarjuna actually addressed many issues but he has traditionally been known to have focused on the bumpy, unreliable, illusory or empty nature of ego-centered life. Nagarjuna and his disciples of the Madhyamika school made great contributions. They, however, did not say much about the other dimension: enlightened cosmic reality. This side is not ignored and is, in fact, one of the main themes in such important Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus, Nirvana, and Avatamsaka (Hua-yen or Kegon). We need to acknowledge the message of these sutras, and not think that Nagarjuna represents all of Mahayana. In fact, the other major Mahayana philosophical school called the Yogacara or the Consciousness-only balanced the scale with their doctrine of Dharmakaya or Oneness to express the enlightened reality. Dharmakaya has since been accepted by virtually all Mahayana schools.
How does the Pure Land tradition fit in?
Focusing just on the question of this cosmic enlightened reality, I see the Pure Land tradition as having presented a more concrete, personified expression of the Dharmakaya. Amida Buddha is a personification (expression in human form and qualities) of Dharmakaya!
So, Amida Buddha is not God, correct?
You could say that Amida is “God,” but only if you define God as the dynamic activity of understanding (wisdom) and caring (compassion).
But clearly, Amida is not a personal God who is 1) the creator of the universe, 2) a divine, transcendent being, 3) an omniscient (all knowing) being who knows my daily activities, and/or 4) a judge who decides my final destiny.
These differences become even more clear when we leave the level of philosophical analysis to, instead, compare how the faithfuls actually feel and experience Amida (for Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists) and God (for Christians). It seems that many Christians feel a sense of duty and fear toward God. These feelings are noticeably absent in the way the Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists experience Amida.75
Amida has nothing to do with the creation of the universe?
That’s right. Though knowledge is important, our knowing how the world or universe began — even if it could be known for sure — does not help us attain the main Shinshu goals of true awareness or enlightenment.
To be overly concerned about creation reminds us of the famous “Poison Arrow” parable. A man is shot in the chest with an arrow. He stumbles to the ground. People around him panic, and soon a doctor arrives to attend to him. But the man who is now bleeding badly and barely able to talk, asks the doctor all kinds of questions:
“Was the man who shot me tall or short, skinny or fat, had light or dark complexion? Which clan does he belong to? What kind of feather is used on the arrow? Is the arrow poisoned? If poisoned, what kind of poison?”
All the while, the arrow is stuck in his chest. Rather than getting the arrow out, he continues to ask questions as he lies dying!
The statue representing Amida Buddha is not an idol, then?
That’s right. The statue would be an idol if we believed the statue itself possessed magical powers. It does not. Therefore, we do not worship or pray to the statue for personal favors.
The statue can help to evoke deeply religious feelings in us. Amida’s peaceful face sends out warmth and comfort. The statue leans slightly forward, and reminds us of the dynamic cosmic caring that is always actively working to embrace and awaken us.
Yes, I appreciate that. I have close Catholic friends who talk about the deep religious feelings they have when they view their statues.
I’ve been to cathedrals, and I think I know what your Catholic friends are saying. Feelings are an important part of spiritual life. But feelings alone are not enough, especially in the complicated world that we now live in. We also need meaning.
It is vital that we understand the meaning of the symbols if our religious awareness is to develop and mature. For example, the Catholic church could not have been as dynamic without the contributions of the Catholic theologians, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, throughout its history. To use a simple analogy, many people can drive a car without knowing anything about how the car runs. But you need mechanics and engineers when cars break down or when you want to design new models for the changing market.
When I was at another Jodo-Shinshu temple, its shrine had Chinese characters instead of the statue.
That is an example of keeping that balance between feeling and meaning. In the Shinshu shrines, the main object of reverence (gohonzon), which depicts Amida Buddha comes in three forms: 1) the Name (myogo) Na-mo A-mi-da- Butsu written in Chinese characters, 2) painting of Amida in human form on a scroll, and 3) the statue of Amida in human form.
According to Rennyo Shonin, the eighth Monshu, the painting is preferred to a statue, and even better than the painting is the Name. Why was this so? Perhaps, it was to remind his followers that Amida is not a divine being, but a symbol of understanding and caring. Otherwise, we may start to worship Amida rather than being liberated through Amida.
What are you saying when you put your hands together and bow before the shrine?
Na-mo A-mi-da-Butsu. It’s the Name I mentioned earlier.
Don’t you recite the Name often?
Yes, we do. We recite it together several times during the Sunday morning service, and at the beginning and end of almost all temple functions and meals.
Why do you recite it?
Whether we recite it in a group or alone, repeating the Name is a way to show gratitude and joy. The Name is not a magic charm or a mantra or anything like that. Repeating the Name is not even thought of as a practice or good action that helps us reach enlightenment.
What does Na-mo A-mi-da-Butsu mean?
Na-mo is originally a Sanskrit word meaning “to take refuge” (namas). And A-mi-da-Butsu means Amida Buddha. So, together it means “I take refuge in Amida Buddha.” Na-mo refers to I, the seeker, and A-mi-da-Butsu to Amida. When the seeker trusts fully and awakens to Amida, the seeker and Amida become one. This Oneness is embodied in the six syllables of Na-mo A-mi-da-Butsu. So, this can be translated, “Amida and I are one.” In the ocean metaphor, the swimmer experienced this oneness when he completely trusted the ocean.
Why does the Name Na-mo A-mi-da-Butsu stand for Amida Buddha on the shrine?
If you recall, Oneness took form as Amida Buddha to express itself within history. But Amida Buddha cannot be directly experienced in the present life.
Amida Buddha, however, can be experienced in the present life in two ways: 1) in its visual form through meditative visualization and 2) in sound as the Name Na-mo A-mi-da-Butsu is heard. Visualization practice entails concentration (samadhi) which requires specialized training. Monks and nuns in the monasteries needed many years of rigorous training to do this. On the other hand, anyone who can say the Name can benefit from this second method. For this reason, Shinran Shonin focused on the Name and thought of it as Amida Buddha itself. Thus, in the Name, we laypersons, who cannot build the skill of meditative visualization, are able to connect with Amida. This is why the Name is depicted in the shrine and why our tradition has preferred the Name Na-mo A-mi-da-Butsu over the other two forms.
But how can you come to appreciate a bunch of syllables as Amida itself?
We need to learn by personal experience. For most people, the Name holds no special meaning at first. The Name takes on a more personal meaning as we grow more aware, learn to appreciate our life more, and learn more of the teachings.
It is like the experience that results in our saying “Mama!” It is also like the name of one’s spouse. When a young man is first introduced to his future spouse, her name is just the name of a woman. But as the romance blossoms, he daydreams and her name churns over and over in his mind. After marriage and the many shared experiences over the years, he comes to identify closely with his spouse’s name. In times of need or grave illness, It is her name that he calls. In such moments, he is awakened and reminded of how much he depends on her, more than he ever thought or wants to admit.
Now, when he says, “I love you, Joanna,” the name “Joanna” is not just a name. The name stands for the love and gratitude he feels for her support, patience, even criticism. All of these things are the nurturing energy in his life. Without the experiences, the name would be simply a set of syllables.
Still, we must not forget the difference between one’s spouse and Amida. “Joanna” is limited to a single person, while Namo Amidabutsu refers to our total experience and beyond; the Name (which is Amida) is unlimited, unconditional and universal.
I can understand how shared experiences with a spouse build appreciation for the spouse’s name. How can one gain appreciation for the Name Amida?
There is no one method that can speak for all Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists. Speaking for myself alone, I get my cues from the meaning of the word “Amida.”
What is the meaning of Amida?
The essence of Amida is infinite understanding and caring, as the name indicates. The name “Amida” is a combination of Sanskrit Amitabha (boundless light or infinite wisdom or understanding) and Amitayus (boundless life or infinite compassion or caring).
What does infinite compassion or caring mean to you in your life?
I experience infinite caring as “everyday compassion.” I find it in my daily feelings of awe and gratitude for the life-giving things that produce, nurture, and sustain my life, whether I am aware of it or not: the DNA molecules, the sunshine, the rain, the oxygen in the air I breathe, just to name a few. Of course, there are the thousands and perhaps even millions of lives of plants and animals I have taken and will continue to take to feed my body.
I can’t forget to mention the beauty and grandeur of nature that adds beauty to my life. Many times I have been moved to tears by the sheer beauty of the soft breeze rustling the leaves on the trees that grow on the hills behind my home. There are the inspirations I have from hearing a truly beautiful piece of music, or seeing an impressive artistic creation, or being part of an impressive athletic performance, and much more.
Last but not least, the deep bond I have with my family and time-tested friends are painfully precious. The look on my children’s faces when they are asleep never fails to make me smile. My smile shows the joy, pride, and gratitude I feel because they are part of my life.
How about infinite wisdom or understanding? What does it mean to you in your daily life?
I experience understanding in my life as insights, realization or awareness. It’s this awareness that helps me appreciate the many examples I just gave of the everyday caring in my life. Why is it I can appreciate them, while many others do not? The difference is this awareness.
It’s also this awareness (of life as an impermanent and bumpy road) that helps me to understand the “negatives” of life, such as the funeral of a cherished friend who died at a young age. In my anger, sorrow, and eventual acceptance, this awareness guides me to see life “as it really is” not “how I want it.” The funeral reminds me to cherish the present and to help in my own way, however small, to ease suffering wherever I can.
Is this awareness something that you generate yourself?
No, No, No. Awareness started from beyond me; awareness was passed down through the insights and knowledge given to me by my grandparents, parents, ministers, teachers, books, and all other legacies of the religious and secular community to which I being. I was lucky enough to be endowed with the right causes and conditions for me to receive this awareness. I simply drink the water from the river of timeless wisdom.
For this reason, in Jodo-Shinshu, listening to the Dharma (monpo) is so vital. Through hearing the sermons, participating in study classes, and reading books, our awareness is broadened, focused, and deepened. In this process, we are encouraged to become even more aware of the everyday compassion all around us.
So, does all this answer my earlier question about how to appreciate the Amida’s Name?
I think so. At least, I hope so. The spiritual meaning I gain from all the infinite caring and understanding in my life gives me proof that Amida’s Name is true and real. Just as the many shared experiences with one’s spouse give meaning to her name, the everyday examples of caring and understanding show the truth of Amida’s Name.
But isn’t there a difference between a spouse’s name and Amida’s Name?
Of course. The spouse’s name refers to a single person I relate to on a conditional and ego-centered basis. On the other hand, Namo Amidabutsu refers to infinite understanding and caring, whose qualities, in relation to me and all beings, are universal, inclusive, and unconditional.
There is another difference. Even though I say the Name, in moments of deep reflection, I know it is Amida that calls me to recite it. Amida is the source and the initiator. Similarly, it is Joanna’s patience, commitment, and love that cause me to utter my heartfelt, “I love you, Joanna.” In this sense, Joanna is the source of my utterance. Hence, the Namo Amidabutsu is Amida’s call to us to entrust just as in the ocean metaphor, when the voice of Namo Amidabutsu called from deep within the ocean.
74 This view is called shusse-hongai (Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in the world solely to teach us about Amida). Others have criticized this as a self-serving sectarian doctrine. Such views, I believe, are founded in virtually all traditions, for it is the nature of religious traditions to praise the very teaching that liberated them. Today in our pluralistic society, we must temper such views with genuine respect and openness for the other traditions.
75 I am indebted to Rev. Gregory Gibbs’ article (January 1996 issue of the Wheel of Dharma) for reminding me of the subjective dimension when comparing Amida to God.