Saturday, December 4, 2010

Grace expressed in different cultural constructions

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first repr...Image via Wikipedia
 Those who practice Jodo Shinshu, a Japanese style of Pure Buddhism, have an interesting relationship to Christianity.  Many acknowledge similarities between the two as a basis for interfaith discussion, while others are frustrated by overly simplistic comparisons.  Here I look at how an aspect of the human condition and humanity's relationship to the infinite can be expressed in two different cultures.  I am not denying differences between the two religions, in fact they are essential for the point I am making about an underlying truth manifesting in distinct ways.

In Pure Land Buddhism, Amida (aka Amitabha) Buddha is the face of Ultimate Reality, which is experienced by humans as boundless wisdom and compassion. His origin is rooted in the notions of karma held by the cultures in which his story arose, a figure from countless ages past who became the Bodhisattva Dharmakara who worked to purify defilements and accumulate merit -- enough to cover everyone everywhere. This bit is important because it was basically saying "Whatever you have been taught by your religion or culture about existential guilt and punishment that debt is going to be covered -- you are free." Dharmakara vowed he would put off complete enlightenment in becoming a Buddha until he was able to save all sentient beings.

In some forms of Pure Land, the relationship is seen as cooperative between Amida and the practioner. In Shin, the idea was refined. The practioner's "self power" and Amida's "Other power" were not separate. On one level, yes, there is a cooperative relationship. Yet on another level, self power is just a form of Other power. This realization comes with the experience of Amida not as a powerful alien entity "out there" but the voice calling out from within. Hence even the ability to chant "Namu Amida Butsu" comes from Amida -- wisdom calling to wisdom, compassion calling to compassion. That within us that recognizes our true nature is the same as Amida (i.e. Ultimate Reality). In this view Amida couldn't have become a Buddha unless everyone was already saved. Therefore finding the reality of Amida in one's heart was proof that one was already "grasped, never to be abandoned." In none of this are Shin Buddhists taught they are just automatons or that Amida is forcing anything on them. Nor are their efforts or their responsibility to respond to this call in any way diminished or made obsolete.

If we examine Christianity many parallels become clear. Coming out of a system involving sacred law and offering sacrifices, Jesus becomes the Christ by entering the world as a human who then operates within the prevailing religion and cultural beliefs by becoming the perfect sacrifice capable of covering all people for all time. He is the face of God, of Ultimate Reality, who again is saying,
"Whatever you have been taught by your religion or culture about existential guilt and punishment that debt is going to be covered -- you are free."

For more parallels in how this is understood and expressed, one can also look at the lives of the apostles and the saints, especially those contemplatives who talk about their mystical union with God. Verses from the New Testament also parallel the development recognized by Shin Buddhism, such as the claim that "It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me", that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness" in prayer and "intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express", and the description of God as that "in whom we live and move and have our being." Not to mention the conviction "that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God."  In other words, we are grasped, never to be abandoned.

To reiterate, the religious history and structures are distinct, yet that is what makes the similarities so interesting.  If some deeper, greater common aspect of ourselves (beyond our typical modern Western use of the limits and identity of self), of our reality, were to make itself known via our consciousness, we might expect that if it fermented in to completely different historical and societal contexts this is how it might be expressed in different cultures.  This is much more subtle and powerful than simply saying Shin is "merely an expression of a Christian truth" or that Christianity is "just a distorted version of the call of Amida". 

Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...