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Amida and Christ:: Buddhism and Christianity

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. The following paper was delivered at Ryukoku University, Kyoto, Japan, in July, 1997.


Amida is Christ, and Christ is Amida. This claim is, in some respects, obviously false. My argument is that, in a deeper sense, it is true. In this essay I want to state first the respects in which it is clearly false and then explain how it is possible to claim that, nevertheless, at a deeper level it can be true. The remainder of the paper explores the implications and consequences of this claim, especially with regard to the way it opens the door for Christians to learn from Buddhists and perhaps for Buddhists to learn also from Christians.

I

If Amida is the totality of the meanings evoked in believers by the word, and if Christ is understood in the same way, then obviously Amida is not Christ and Christ is not Amida. At most one could say that there are overlapping elements between the two. They include some meanings in common.

Even if Amida and Christ are carefully defined by scholars, the situation is not much changed. Each pair of scholarly definitions would have to be examined separately, but it is highly unlikely that any two could be found that would be identical. The meaning of "Amida" is bound up with the Buddhist tradition and that of "Christ" with the Christian one. These are deeply different, and no ideas emerging in one can ever be identical with ideas emerging in the other.

For many scholars and intellectuals today, this settles the question. For them, the meaning of a word is exhausted by its interconnections with other words, symbols, and activities in a given community of discourse and life. Since the meaning of "Amida" is inseparable from its relation to one system of discourse and that of "Christ", to another, they are inherently and necessarily different.

This point of view is the result of what is widely called the linguistic turn. This turn has occurred in several traditions in the West in the twentieth century. The shift in English-language philosophy from synthetic thought to linguistic analysis is only one example.

Until the twentieth century most philosophers believed that language included a referential element. If one spoke of a dog named Rex, one referred to an actual animal that existed independently of the language about it. If one described it in a particular way--as playful, or brown, or ill--that also referred to real features of this animal, and one's description was understood to be true or false according as it corresponded to these features.

Philosophers believed that this was true not only with respect to language about dogs but also with respect to scientific language about atoms and molecules. One task of philosophy was to explain the relation between the objects of ordinary experience and these scientific objects. Another task was to explain the relation between the subjects of the experience of these objects and the objects themselves. And, of course, it was important to understand also the language through which this was discussed.

Many philosophers went beyond this to more comprehensive questions. These were often the questions raised by Western religious thought, questions about God and the human soul and being itself. Here, too, they assumed that when they asserted the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, or the ultimacy of being, they were either correct or incorrect, that is, that what they said corresponded, or did not correspond, with some feature of the totality.

In this traditional philosophical context, the assertion that Amida is Christ and Christ is Amida makes sense. It may be true, or it may be false. It is true if both really do refer to some non-imaginary feature of the totality and if the feature in question is the same in the two instances. It is false if in fact one or both lack reference beyond the imagination of those who use the words, or if they indicate different features of the totality.

Even if one operates in the context of synthetic, realist philosophy, and even if one argues that the two words refer to the same reality, one will understand that the way they refer to this reality is different and that the connotations of the two are different. The proponents of the linguistic turn are correct in pointing to the interconnectedness of every word with other words in the linguistic system of which it is a part.

But proponents of the linguistic turn have gone much further. They have insisted that the meaning of terms is exhausted by this interconnectedness, that there is no way words can refer to entities existing independently of the language. They have argued that the worlds in which we live are language worlds. For them the assertion that Amida is Christ and Christ is Amida is simply foolish, since words occurring in different linguistic systems cannot have the same meaning.

To affirm the identity of Christ and Amida, as I do, is to locate oneself in the older tradition of synthetic, realist philosophy. Since this has been so widely repudiated, its continuance today requires some defense -- more, indeed, than is possible here. My continuance of this tradition rests on two beliefs.

First, those who attempt totally to reject realism and correspondence thinking end up in absurdities or continually contradict themselves. Their writings are full of references, for example, to what others have said. Clearly they are claiming some kind of correspondence between what they attribute to others and what the others wrote. Perhaps more important, their denials of the possibility of correspondence or of there being any reality with which language corresponds are full of assertions that implicitly claim to correspond with the way things are. For example, the assertion that words have their meanings only in their relations with other words is itself meaningless if there is no claim to correspond with actual discourse. If this be so, it would be better to clarify the nature and limits of the correspondence of language to the use of language as well as to some things other than language rather than to deny all correspondence.

The meaning of "correspondence" in this context requires clarification. It cannot mean that words and the things to which they refer are identical. It can mean that the use of certain words expresses ideas in the user and evokes ideas in the hearers or readers that correspond to the ideas evoked by other modes of contact with the things.

Second, Alfred North Whitehead has provided the needed clarification of the nature and limits of this correspondence. He has shown that as long as we take sense experience as basic, we will never be able to justify rationally our ineradicable confidence that we share this world with others and that there are, therefore, other realities about which we can speak. Sense experience gives us only the sensa that are its data, and by itself it can tell us nothing about the entities which these sensa seem to qualify. But Whitehead has also shown that there is a more basic dimension of all experience, what he calls perception in the mode of causal efficacy or physical feeling. It is this that brings the past and the other into the present.

Earlier synthetic Western philosophies failed to justify their realism and the claims to correspondence that realism makes possible. The failure rested in their neglect of what Whitehead has shown to be the primary mode of experience. They tended to treat the experiencing subject as something self-contained which then had to discover a relation to other self-contained entities. They could not do this, and their failure gave currency to the denial that there is any possibility of reference beyond the language world of the speaker. Whitehead shows that the immediate experience with which we begin already contains other experiences within itself. Indeed, it is a confluence of other things or events.

Whitehead describes such occasions of experience as instances of the many becoming one and being increased by one. There is not first an occasion of experience that then reaches out to others. The occasion of experience only comes into being as others coalesce into it. In short, there is no substance with attributes. There are only relationships merging into unified experience. The ongoing process in which this occurs, always and everywhere, Whitehead calls "creativity".

Whitehead was aware of points of contact between his thought and Buddhism. The similarity has become more and more apparent in the years since he wrote. Indeed, his account of creativity and some Buddhist accounts of pratitya samutpada are so similar that I judge them to be alternative accounts of the same feature of the totality. In other words, creativity is pratitya samutpada and pratitya samutpada is creativity.

This does not mean that there are no differences between Whitehead's understanding of creativity and the understanding of pratitya samutpada found in a particular Buddhist thinker, such as Nagarjuna. There are differences. And certainly the two terms are informed by different contexts of use, function differently, and have different connotations. But this does not mean that they refer to different features of reality.

An analogy will help to explain this. Two people may both know the same person, John Doe. Their relations with John Doe may have been quite different. Hence when they speak of John Doe, they say different things and these statements have different consequences for their ongoing relationships. Still they are both speaking of the same person. A discussion between them about John Doe may enrich the understanding of both about this one person. Their growing understanding does not directly involve any change in John Doe.

Thus, to say that creativity is Whitehead's way of identifying that feature of reality named pratitya samutpada by Nagarjuna does not mean that they fully agree in their accounts. It does mean that where their accounts differ, these differences either supplement one another or conflict with one another and require adjudication.

In fact, however, more impressive than the differences is the wide range of agreements. For both, that of which they speak is ultimate in the sense that nothing underlies it, whereas it is constitutive of all things. It is neither subject nor object, neither concrete nor abstract, neither mental nor physical. It is neither one nor many, neither actual nor ideal. It is devoid of all attributes or qualities whatsoever. It is ineffable in the sense that language formed to speak of its instances cannot apply to it. What can be said is that it is the process of originating dependently or of the many becoming one.

II

I have paused to deal with this identity before treating specifically the identity of Amida and Christ. The second identity is clearer against the background of the former. If we agree that within the totality there is an ultimate that is beyond all differentiation and qualification, in short, that has no character whatsoever, we can ask whether there is also within the totality an ultimate character that is worthy of trust.

In order to put the question in a Buddhist form, let us follow the tradition that identifies pratitya samutpada with the Dharmakaya. For some Buddhists this means that the goal of meditation is to realize that one is an instance of Dharmakaya, that Dharmakaya is one's true being. To attain this, one empties oneself of all to which one clings and of all false notions of what one is. One becomes open to whatever is just as it is. One experiences oneself as the coming together of all other things. The result of this enlightenment is wisdom and compassion.

There is wide agreement that realizing that one is an instance of pratitya samutpada brings about this wisdom and compassion. This suggests that among the many things that flow into the origination of the experience are wisdom and compassion. That would mean that in addition to the characterless Dharmakaya there is a character that is also universal and ultimate. Dharmakaya as characterized by wisdom and compassion can be thought of as the Sambhogakaya. The wisdom and compassion that characterize the Sambhogakaya can be identified as Amida or as Amida's Primal Vow.

This suggests a second route to enlightenment. Instead of seeking in one's own strength to attain enlightenment, one can rely on the Wisdom and Compassion that are Amida to overcome all within oneself that blocks the acceptance of the truth. One finds in a nondual relation to Amida the emergence of wisdom and compassion within oneself. Thought of in this way "Amida" names the Wisdom and Compassion that work in and through all things and especially oneself.

Now what of Christ? Of course, some use "Christ" as quite simply a way of designating the historical figure of Jesus. But this is not true of Paul, and there is much Christian usage that follows him. Through the ancient debates in the church it was concluded that "Christ" referred not simply to a human being but also to God. "Christ" is Jesus as divine or God as incarnate.

Obviously this close tie to Jesus separates Christ from Amida just as would any close tie of Amida to a mythical Indian prince. But the Pure Land Buddhist understanding of Amida, originating in the story of the Indian prince, does not depend on that connection; and Christians have learned to discern Christ's presence elsewhere than in the historic figure. It is that feature of the totality that Buddhists have been brought to perceive through the story of Amida's vow, and the feature of the totality that Christians have come to recognize through the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection that I am equating.

As Amida constitutes the Wisdom and Compassion that work everywhere in all things; so Christ is known by Christians as the Wisdom and Love of God working in the world creatively and transformatively. Although Western Christians often treat Christ as dualistically separate from themselves, the most profound realizations of Christ, such as that of Paul, emphasize that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. Nevertheless, we are not simply identical with Christ. The power of Christ is not under our control. Love and wisdom become real in us as we trust that wise and loving power that works in us to actualize them.

To say that Amida is Christ and Christ is Amida is to say that there really are a Wisdom and Compassion present everywhere and always that seek our transformation and redemption. It is to say that Buddhists have come to know this Wisdom and Compassion and have spoken of it as Amida. It is to say that Christians have come to know this Wisdom and Compassion and have spoken of it as Christ.

To whatever extent "Amida" and "Christ" have different references, as when they refer respectively to Dharmakara and Jesus, what is said about them has no direct relationship. But when "Amida" and "Christ" name the same feature of the totality, that is, the real and effective presence of wisdom and compassion everywhere and always, then what Buddhists believe about Amida and what Christians believe about Christ can be mutually confirming, mutually contradictory, or mutually supplementary.

The mutual confirmation comes in the discovery in both the Indian and the Judaic context of the primacy of grace. Despite all that appears to the contrary, there is at the depths of reality a compassionate Wisdom and a wise Compassion that seeks our wellbeing. To open ourselves to that in trust is to enable it to be effective in our lives.

The mutual contradiction can be found in many formulations on both sides. Buddhists hear in Christian formulations a dualistic separation of Christ and the believer such that Christ acts upon the believer from without. This they reject. They also hear an understanding of faith as involving particular beliefs or as involving claims for the exclusivity of particular historical events that they cannot accept.

They are not wrong in hearing this. Christian theology has operated in dualistic and exclusivistic categories, and many Christians continue to subscribe to these. The greatest Christian theologian of this century recognized the formal similarities of Pure Land Buddhism and his own Protestant form of Christianity with regard to grace and faith. But he rejected the saving power of Buddhist faith simply because it is not directed to the figure of Jesus. This form of Christianity cannot but stand in contradiction to Buddhist faith.

Nevertheless, many Christian thinkers do not follow Barth on this. Many have thought in the past that the radical understading of grace came into history only through Jesus and that, hence, the affirmation of the uniqueness of Jesus in this respect was warranted. But the encounter with Pure Land Buddhist faith leads to the recognition that this is not so. Now it is more appropriate to acknowledge that what Christians have learned about grace through the history of Israel, and culminating in Jesus, Buddhists have learned in a different way.

I have already noted that the dominant Western dualism that has colored much Christian talk about grace does not plumb the depths of the Christian experience of grace. Buddhist nondualist thinking can correct inadequate and distorted Christian formulations. Thus, at the point where there are contradictions between what Buddhists say of Amida and what Christians say of Christ, Christians can and should adjust and transform their thinking in light of what they learn from Buddhists. This is an enormous gift of Buddhism to Christianity.

On the other hand, when it comes to supplementation, Buddhists may have more to learn from Christians. Both Buddhists and Christians have emphasized the deeply personal work of the compassionate Wisdom they affirm and celebrate. But Christianity emerged in the Jewish context, and that means that it has emphasized broader dimensions of the working of compassionate Wisdom.

Pure Land Buddhists, to Christian eyes, seem to focus too exclusively on the attainment of Shinjin. Certainly Shinjin leads to compassionate deeds toward others. But even here there is an overwhelming emphasis on showing compassion toward others by leading them to Shinjin. Although for Christians, bringing others to faith is certainly a central expression of love, it is by no means the only one. Clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, and feeding the hungry are direct expressions of love and are often more appropriate and more urgently needed than preaching the gospel. They are appropriate expressions of faith without regard to their tendency to awaken faith either in oneself or in others.

There is much in Pure Land Buddhism that supports similar conclusions, and my point is little more than one of emphasis. But there is another step in Christianity that is less apparent in Buddhism. Christians see compassionate Wisdom or wise Compassion at work in history as well as in individual lives. This leads to an interest in social structures and the ways in which such structures change. Although many Christians continue to view individuals as if what is truly important in their lives is unaffected by social conditions, others have recognized that social oppression works against that which compassionate Wisdom seeks. Hence, to open ourselves to compassionate Wisdom is to involve ourselves in efforts to change oppressive patterns in society.

Another way to make a similar point is to say that the Christian experience of compassionate Wisdom has led to belief that this Wisdom calls us to act in particular ways at particular times. This action will always express compassionate wisdom, but just for that reason it is highly differentiated. To be fully open to this wisdom is to accept guidance in each situation as to what is most appropriate in that situation. This will sometimes be to work for the rise of faith in others, but it will sometimes be to meet personal needs, physical or psychological, and sometimes, to work for social change.

This broader understanding of the working of compassionate Wisdom is connected to the Christian understanding of the Realm of God. Jesus depicted a transformed world as the fulfillment of salvation. It is this for which compassionate Wisdom works. Of course, our inner faith or Shinjin is of utmost importance in bringing about this transformation of the world. But it is not enough to work for the faith of individuals one by one. Social change affects individuals, just as individual change affects society.

Christians have not resolved the tensions between an emphasis on social change and a stress on personal, inward tranformation. It is my conviction that in clarifying this relationship we can learn much from Buddhist nondual thinking. The further question is whether Pure Land Buddhists are open to entering this arena of reflection and action.

Pure Land Buddhists may find reasons in their experience and insight to reject this broadening of the understanding of the work of compassionate Wisdom within us. Those reasons will be of great interest to Christians as we also try to understand more fully and accurately the compassionate Wisdom we know as Christ. It may be that Buddhist objections to the inclusion of the social-historical sphere will be convincing to us also. For the present, however, my hope is that on this point Buddhists may find something in the Christian experience of Christ that can illumine and broaden their experience of Amida and the Primal Vow.

There is one other point at which Christian experience of Christ leads to questioning some Pure Land Buddhist expressions of faith in Amida. This grows out of our long struggle to deal with the relation of faith and works. Often we have transformed faith into a work, something that people must generate within themselves. But we have also repeatedly tried to free ourselves from this distortion. Faith is itself worked in us by compassionate Wisdom as we allow it to do so.

Now I understand that the recitation of the Nembutsu is a way of allowing Amida to work within the reciter. No doubt it can operate in this way. But in my observation it also easily becomes a work, an action whose frequent repetition is taken to generate Shinjin. It functions as a meditation technique analogous to Zen sitting or Koan practice. This seems to me to conflict with Shinran's intentions.

To me, as a Christian believer in salvation by grace, it seems important to say that compassionate Wisdom works in us in many ways and uses many means. Various forms of meditation are of value, but they do not bring about faith, and none are required for faith to arise. It is compassionate Wisdom that brings about faith in those who are open to receive it. And the openness as well is the work of compassionate Wisdom. The working of this Wisdom is not without our openness to receive, but that openness is not achieved by us as a work of self-power.

Compassionate Wisdom brings us to faith in a great variety of ways, and it is important that we not try to control or canalize its work. Faith includes the confidence that compassionate Wisdom will find its own way. We may share with others some of the contexts, including meditational practices, the study of the scriptures, and worship, which have been the occasions for the awakening of faith. But we should avoid the implication that through these we determine the working of grace.

These comments on how Christian theology should change and how, from a Christian point of view, there is room for growth also in Buddhist thought and practice test the theory that Amida is Christ and Christ is Amida. If "Amida" and "Christ" do not name the same feature of the totality, then it makes no sense for Christians and Buddhists to try to learn from one another about the fuller meaning of their own faith. That faith would then be directed to different entities. But if they do name the same feature of totality, then it does make sense to suppose that persons in each tradition have learned truly but imperfectly about this feature.

Since Christians and Buddhists have approached this one feature from different histories and experiences their insights have been overlapping but different. Comparing these insights can correct and enrich both. On the Christian side it is clear that we can gain from our encounter with Pure Land Buddhism. I hope that Buddhists may also find the encounter profitable.


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