A Christian Critique of Pure Land Buddhism

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 written in 1975.   Used by permission of the author.


Cobb compares and contrasts his understanding of Christianity with Pure Land Buddhism.  He deals particularly the relation of faith to practice, the nature of salvation, the relationship of language and metaphysics, and the nature of grace. He finds many similarities between the two theologies.


                                                              I. The Point of View

            I have been asked to provide a Christian critique of Pure Land Buddhism as that is presented in the three essays with which this volume begins.  It is important to underline the "a".  I cannot speak for Christians generally.  No one can.  And in my case I am committed to a form of Christian thought, process theology, that is highly critical of much of the Christian tradition. 

            Being critical of Christian tradition is not unusual today among Christian theologians, especially those in the oldline Protestant traditions.  Protestantism began as a critique of tradition, and, although it has produced forms that absolutize the original critique and abandon the critical spirit, it also generates a critical attitude in many theologians.  Each generation rejects, but also builds upon, the work of its predecessors, often retrieving elements of the earlier tradition that those predecessors had rejected. 

            As a Protestant who believes that this process of self-criticism, both personal and corporate, is an expression of faith and that every attempt to absolutize any given form of the tradition is idolatrous, one question I ask of other religious communities is whether they encourage this questioning and critical spirit.  Do they seek to develop and transform their traditions again and again, or do they endlessly defend a past formulation? 

            In most traditions (certainly in Christianity as a whole), the answer is mixed.  But the nature of the mixture varies from one community to another.  In Buddhism, for example, there seems to be less "fundamentalism" in the sense of absolutizing particular formulations than in Christianity, partly because of the suspicion of concepts.  There is also less attention to the historically-conditioned character of all formulations and therefore to the need for change in new historical circumstances. However, Yokota's paper for this volume is a model of openness to recast tradition in light of interaction with other contemporary movements of thought.

            Although it is not unusual for Protestant theologians to be critical of Christian tradition and to develop new formulations of the faith, the extent to which the criticisms by process theologians are similar to those directed by Buddhists against Christianity is unusual.  For example, when Dennis Hirota writes that Shinran "avoids a voluntaristic ... view of reality, with such concomitant problems as predestination, the need for a theodicy, and a substantialist understanding of reality or of self",  I applaud Shinran and hope that the Christian tradition to which I belong succeeds equally well in these respects.  On the other hand, I have deleted "or theistic" from this quote, because I use "theistic" in a much broader sense, regarding voluntaristic theism as only one of its forms.  My use of "theistic" could apply to Shinran.

            More broadly, I view all reality as constituted by momentary events, and I believe these events are well characterized as instances of pratitya samutpada.  This stands in contrast with the dominant metaphysical traditions that have shaped both official Christian theology and much of popular piety.  It is not, however, uncongenial to Biblical teaching; and the appropriation of this vision, so brilliantly worked out in Buddhism, can enable Christians to recover much in our scriptures that has been obscured in our tradition.


                                                 II.  The Problem with Formlessness


            My discomfort with much of the Japanese Buddhism I have encountered is that in dealing with pratitya samutpada or emptiness or Buddha-nature, it accentuates its formlessness.  I do not mean here to dispute the fact that dependent origination as such is formless and can, for that reason, assume any form.  Also, I fully realize that no one questions that every instance of pratitya samutpada has an absolutely particular form and that close attention to this particularity is characteristic of Buddhism.  What disturbs me is that attending only to these two points leads typically to the view that the Buddha-nature or Emptiness is "beyond good and evil".  It leads also to the disparagement of conceptual thinking.  It leads to prizing wisdom above compassion, despite the acknowledgment of the importance of the latter.  It leads broadly to an emphasis on what is always true at every historical point, and therefore to a depreciation of the importance of historical analysis.

            My own "theistic" view is that among the many that come together in each act of dependent arising, there is one that provides an impetus toward enrichment.  This means that concretely, in each moment, the Buddha-nature includes a dependable form.  Abstractly we may describe it as formless, but as it works to constitute each new actual instance in the world, it is always characterized by compassion.  It is the compassionate form of Buddha-nature to which we ideally, moment by moment, conform.

            I have used Buddhist language in formulating my own Christian convictions.  It may misrepresent my views in some ways, but I believe it shows how close my Christian vision is to some formulations of Pure Land Buddhism.  I am led to great appreciation for the subtle ways in which Pure Land Buddhism both distinguishes the other power from self power and also avoids a dualistic juxtaposition.  The senses in which Amida is and is not "personal" are helpful to me in wrestling with the question of whether to speak of God as "personal".  Of course, I detect differences on this point among Pure Land writers and find myself more drawn to some than to others.  I am also impressed that in Pure Land imagery Amida as personal does not have the strongly patriarchal character that God as personal retains for most Christians.

            I indicated above that my use of Buddhist terminology at some points may misrepresent my own Christian view.  This focuses on the use of "compassion" instead of the more usual Christian term "love".  Christians certainly include compassion as a form of love,  and process theologians especially emphasize compassion in just that way that Yokota has described and appropriated for purposes of expounding and expanding Pure Land thought.  But at least in English, "compassion" identifies a receptive feeling-with rather than an active going out to the other in specific ways.  For the latter we often use the New Testament Greek word "agape".  This focuses on disinterested action for the good of the other.

            Something like this is surely contained within Amida's compassion that works unceasingly for the enlightenment of all sentient beings.  Hence there may be no problem.  But there may be a difference between the way Amida is understood to work in each instance of pratitya samutpada and the way I understand God to do so.  I raise this question because the extent to which Pure Land Buddhism overcomes what I find to be a limitation in Mahayana Buddhism generally depends, in my view, on the answer.

            I understand God to be that one, among the many that participate in dependent origination, that introduces alternative possibilities and calls for the realization of that possibility that is best both for that instance and also for the future.  The "best" in some instances may be defined by movement along the path to enlightenment, but in many instances this will be incidental.  In the human case, the best may usually have more to do with thinking clearly, acting generously, enjoying fully, relating sensitively, or listening openly.

            The constitutive presence of this divine lure in each moment does not determine what will happen.  It does determine that in that moment there will be a decision among alternative possibilities.  The decision may be, ideally, the full realization of the lure.  Usually the decision falls short of this, sometimes drastically so.

            Viewed in this way, the call of God (the Primal Vow?) and the decision of the human occasion may coincide.  They do so when the decision is to embody fully the call.  But they remain distinct.  If we associate the self with the decision, then the self is never simply identical with God.  The relation is certainly not dualistic.  The human self is brought into being in each moment by the call of God.  It is not a substance, but rather only a momentary response to that call.  It is called to conform to that call.  But it is not compelled to do so.

            I have sketched my own position in hopes that this will clarify the questions this analysis leads me to address to Pure Land thinkers.  These questions are two. 

            First, I find in Pure Land rhetoric, as in Buddhism generally, a strong focus on enlightenment as the one goal worthy of pursuit, recognizing that it can occur only when it is no longer sought.  It is clear that once enlightenment occurs, one can expect compassionate actions from the enlightened one.  It is also clear that moral behavior is important as a precondition for the movement toward enlightenment.  My question is whether we may consider that Amida works quite directly for other goals as important and worthy in themselves.

            To explain why this question is so important to me, I need to clarify further my own concerns.  At this point in history I am much more concerned for the salvation of the planet, and especially of the human species, from the misery and destruction we are now bringing upon it than for personal salvation.  Of course, if the self-destruction of the species is inevitable, I prefer that as many individuals as possible find personal salvation despite the encompassing horrors.  But I find  preoccupation with our inner states an inappropriate response to our global historical situation.

            Preoccupation with personal salvation has characterized most Christians through most of history.  I do not want to raise my concerns about Buddhism without emphasizing that these are concerns about Christianity.  Nevertheless, the idea of salvation in the Bible is by no means limited to the inner achievements of individuals.  It often refers to what happens to the Jewish people as a whole.  On Jesus' lips the "Realm of God" that constitutes his vision of salvation refers to a world in which God's will is done.       

            Through Christian history there has been a tension between the aim at realizing justice and righteousness within history and personal salvation either in this life or after death.  In the twentieth century the social gospel and the liberation theologies have continued the prophetic emphasis on concrete historical change.  Hence, when, as a Christian, I state my belief that God is calling us today to repent of those practices that are leading to the destruction of the Earth and its inhabitants, I find myself in a supportive tradition.

            I do not see a comparably supportive tradition in Mahayana Buddhism as a whole.  By that I do not mean that there are no themes or points of contact for accenting global responsibility of this sort.  Buddhists have certainly taken the lead in deploring violence and working for peace.  But on the whole the analysis of the what now works against peace still tends to underplay the concrete historical factors that are currently so threatening.  The tendency is to contrast the general human condition with enlightenment and to see enlightenment as the way to peace.

            In Theravada Buddhist countries where Buddhism has supplied the public philosophy the points of contact are more apparent and the emphasis easier to ground.  There are Buddhist social movements in both Sri Lanka and Thailand that are, from my point of view, models of religiously-motivated social analysis and action from which Christians have much to learn.  So I judge that what seems a weakness in Mahayana Buddhism is rooted more in its particular history than in fundamental Buddhist teachings.  Nevertheless, the limitation concerns me.

            Within Mahayana Buddhism it seems that the basis for moving in the direction of historical particularity is most clearly present in Pure Land.  I find passages in all three of these papers that encourage me to think that Pure Land Buddhism is open to this kind of development.  But I am especially influenced by what Yokota has taught me earlier and because of his interpretation and development of Pure Land Buddhism in this paper.  Indeed, he has thematically developed the idea of compassion in just the way for which I call, so that his answer to my questions is clearly affirmative.  I press the question since I do not know how other Pure Land thinkers respond to Yokota's proposals.

            Can we quite unequivocally understand Amida's compassion as directed to the salvation of the world in a corporate way as well as toward the enlightenment of the individuals who make up the whole?  Can we understand Pure Land Buddhists to be called to develop human societies that will cease to be destructive of one another and of the other sentient beings with whom we share the planet?  Can this call be made convincing to Pure Land Buddhists as continuous with some aspects of their tradition?  Or is my wish that this might happen a Christian wish with little resonance among Pure Land Buddhists?

            My second question is more narrowly theological.  Is my typically Christian need to maintain the distinction between self and God to the end, even in the fullest and final attainment of oneness, alien to Pure Land Buddhism?  No doubt the answer is already offered me in each of these three papers, but the subtlety of the formulations leaves me uncertain.  For most Christians, however fully God indwells the creature and the creature indwells God, God is not the creature and the creature is not God.  For Buddhists generally, I gather, there is less discomfort about affirming an identity between the self and Buddha nature.  As a process theologian I understand that one may realize one's identity as an instance of pratitya samutpada and thus as an embodiment of the Dharmakaya.  But in relation to Amida or the Primal Vow a distinction seems to me appropriate even in the fullest unity.  Again, I find such a distinction clearly present in Yokota, but I am less sure of other formulations.

            I hope my concern can be understood from what I have said above.  I share the ideal that in each moment one constitute oneself according to pratitya samutpada as characterized by compassion or the Primal Vow.  But in my view this way of constituting oneself never becomes automatic.  Even when human habits are most ideally attuned to the divine call, human decision remains.  At this point I part company with the strict Calvinist view that there can be no falling from grace, and I am troubled by what seems to be an analogous doctrine in Shinran.  Are we to believe that there is a state of shinjin that, once established, does not need to be renewed moment by moment by a human act of conformation.  Are self-power and other-power so perfectly merged that there is no longer any possibility of self-power functioning in tension with other power?

            I trust I have made it clear that this is not a question of differences between Christianity in general and Buddhism in general.  It is a debate within Christianity, and it may be a debate among Pure Land Buddhists as well.  To me it is important to recognize that spiritual growth leads to more demanding challenges, that there is no assurance that our attunement to God's call will lead us to respond fully to those challenges.  It is also important to see that subtle distortions in the saintly life may be as destructive as vicious rejections of God's call by grossly unspiritual people.  In Christian language, the belief that one is beyond temptation, or beyond the danger of yielding to temptation, is a dangerous one.


                                                            III. Faith and Practice


            From these papers and from other contacts I have had with Pure Land Buddhism, I sense that there are disagreements as to how to understand the relation of faith and practice.  There are, of course, similar disagreements among Christians.  I shall first spell out my own Christian view as a basis for clarifying the questions I address to Pure Land Buddhists.

            In my view, faith is independent of practice and not attained by practice.  It arises by grace, or what I called above the lure.  The lure calls us to trust it.  If we trust it, it is because of the efficacy of grace.  But there is no trust without decision.

            There is no spiritual condition or state to which faith is a means.  There is no Christian goal higher than trusting God.  Of course, some receive spiritual gifts of various sorts, and these are to be prized.  But they do not constitute a normative condition for all Christians.

            Although the lure works in us always, its effectiveness is affected by our context.  If we are surrounded by a community that seeks to be sensitive and responsive to grace, our response is more likely to be positive.  If the presence of this grace and the importance of our decisions are highlighted and emphasized, the chances of a positive response are heightened.  If the trustworthiness of grace is affirmed and demonstrated, that, too, enhances our prospects.  In the Christian tradition, this means that participation in the life of a worshipping community provides the "means of grace".

            Despite the independence of faith from practice, practice is not unimportant.  The lure may call us to attend to it consciously and to develop particular disciplines.  For Christians, in addition to active participation in the church, personal prayer and the study of the Bible are typical practices.  But we must beware of supposing that faith is given to us as a result of these practices.  Faith can exist without them, and they can, and often do, occur as means of gaining merit and thus rejecting grace.  The practices by themselves can be "works righteousness" as easily as expressions of faith through which faith is deepened.

            Faith frees us from the need for special practices.  It also frees us to take part in practices that we find beneficial either for ourselves or others.  I believe, for example, that Christians are entirely free to adopt and adapt Buddhist meditational practices as long as they do not suppose that they need these for their salvation or that engaging in such practices lifts them to a higher spiritual level than their fellow Christians who do not do so.

            Faith expresses itself most consistently in love of the neighbor, understanding that all other creatures are neighbors.  This love is embodied in actions favoring the well being of these neighbors, including, but by no means limited to, their spiritual well being.  This well being may be sought either directly for individuals who are at hand or indirectly through social and ecological analysis and action guided by it.  This love is also compassion, feeling with others, and truly hearing them.

            From this perspective I ask my questions.  Can I understand shinjin as trusting the present working of the Primal Vow and deciding to be conformed to it?  Or is it a spiritual condition or secure state attained as a result of meditational practice?  Of course, I include the nembutsu and contemplation of the mandala as meditational practices.

            The question arises for me because in Buddhism generally it seems that the concern is to attain a spiritual condition or state and that the means of doing so is primarily meditational practice.  If shinjin is a spiritual state attained through meditiational practice, then this understanding of faith and practice is quite different from my Protestant one.  On the other hand, there are passages in Shinran and in these papers that give such priority to shinjin that it does not seem to be necessarily dependent on practice.  It seems to come to us by the power of the Primal Vow.  This does not preclude recitation of the nembutsu, but this is more response to the gift than a means of attaining a desired spiritual condition.  It is this impression that makes Shinran so attractive to Protestant theologians.  Have we taken him out of his Buddhist context and projected our ideas upon him?  Is trusting Amida simply a step toward the attainment of a higher spiritual condition in which such trust is no longer needed?

            In asking these questions I am not assuming that all Pure Land Buddhists speak with one voice.  In Tachikawa's essay faith as trust seems clearly subordinate to meditational practice.  In Hirota's they seem to be held in dialectical tension.  Yokota's work can be interpreted in a way that is closer to my form of Christianity.  Nevertheless, I would press for as much clarity as I can get as to whether there are significant differences here between Honen and Shinran and among the disciples of each.

                                                             IV. Amida and Christ


            Hirota quotes Karl Barth's emphatic statement that Christianity is bound up with the historical figure of Jesus Christ.  I believe Barth is correct in this respect.  I do not agree with him that doctrines in other communities similar to Christian ones lack similar effects.  His position here follows from his supernaturalistic view of Jesus Christ, a view I do not share.  If faith and practice similar to that of Christianity have emerged independently of Jesus Christ, then I would expect them to have similar salvific efficacy.

            Hirota points out that the emphasis on similarity abstracts from contexts that are very different.  In the previous sections I have been exploring the extent to which the different contexts lead to different conclusions on points that are important to me.  Here I want to ask whether the historical connection to Sakyamuni plays the same essential role for Pure Land Buddhists as the historical connection to Jesus Christ plays for Christians.

            Some Buddhists seem to answer negatively.  Buddhism, they say, has to do with the attainment of enlightenment rather that with a historical connection to a particular Enlightened One.  The historical context and tradition within which one becomes enlightened is secondary.  Some Buddhists have affirmed this difference between Christianity and Buddhism as displaying Buddhism's greater openness and freedom from exclusivity.

            These Buddhist arguments led me at an earlier point to propose that in the further development of some forms of Buddhism it would be possible to relate Buddhism to figures outside the Buddhist tradition equally with those within it.  I thought this might be particularly appropriate for Pure Land.  My argument was that Pure Land Buddhism identified its founder with a mythical figure, Dharmakara, that there are advantages in connecting one's tradition to historical reality, that the emphasis on other power or grace is clearer in the Christian tradition than in most Buddhism, and that Jesus could function as an historical embodiment and teacher of grace.

            I realized, of course, that this was not a step that many Pure Land Buddhists were ready to take.  And on the whole the proposal has been greeted by silence.  However, John Yokota has taken it seriously and gone to some length to reject it.  He agrees that connecting the act of compassion to an historical figure is desirable, but he shows that this can be done with Sakyamuni.  He apparently holds that since this is possible, there is no reason to consider other embodiments of compassion outside the Buddhist tradition.

            His point that the Pure Land emphasis on the compassion of Amida can be grounded in Sakyamuni's life and practice is well taken, and I am interested in the response of other Pure Land Buddhists to his proposal.  Is there recognition of the advantage of locating the act of compassion historically, or are most Pure Land Buddhists content with a mythical account recognized as mythical? 

            Nevertheless, I continue to wonder whether the embodiment of compassion must be found in the Buddhist tradition?  Is this a point of disagreement among Buddhists?  To sharpen my question, I again revert to an account of Christianity.

            I have said that virtually all Christians understand Christianity as inherently, essentially, related to Jesus Christ.  Many do not agree with Barth that salvation is effective only through this one historical event, but they then typically argue that God works salvifically outside of Christianity as well as within.  Christianity is tied to the historical event even though the salvation to which Christianity witnesses need not be.

            I am asking whether the relation of Buddhism to Sakyamuni is similar to that of Christianity to Jesus despite the statements by many Buddhists that there is a difference.  Specifically in Pure Land Buddhism, must faith be directed toward figures reverenced in traditional Buddhist teaching in order for it to be Buddhist faith?  If faith in the grace manifest in Jesus Christ had the same form and the same effect as faith in the compassion manifest in Gautama or the mythical vow of Dharmakara, would this be shinjin, and would it be Buddhist?

            To answer negatively is certainly not to make oneself vulnerable to Christian criticism.  It is to clarify that being Buddhist is being part of a community and tradition initiated historically by Gautama.  It then can be discussed whether one can realize Buddha nature or enlightenment apart from being Buddhist, and here, I assume, most Pure Land Buddhists would take the same position as many Christians, namely, that Amida's compassion works independently of the Buddhist community and tradition.  Would others take a position analogous to Barth's, namely, that apart from the nembutsu there can be no shinjin, whatever the formal similarities?

                                                     V. Language and Metaphysics


            Until recently the great majority of Christian theologians assumed that their language about God and Christ and grace had a referent, that in this sense it was metaphysical.  I continue to think and write in this way.  However, in the past few decades many Christian thinkers, recognizing the difficulty of supporting claims about cosmic realities, have emphasized the symbolic character of all such language.  Taken to its extreme, this means that each of the symbols has its meaning only in its interconnections with the other symbols, that there is no reference beyond the linguistic system.

            Buddhists in rather different ways have also taught us to suspect our concepts and to empty them.  They have refused to provide a cosmological account in answer to speculative questions.  Thus there seems to be some agreement between Buddhism and the direction in which Christian theologians have been led by the linguistic turn and its current deconstructionist form.

            On the other hand, I have interpreted pratitya samutpada as a statement about how all entities or events are in fact constituted, namely, nonsubstantially, through relationships.  That means that, in my language, Buddhism involves a metaphysical assertion of insubstantiality and nondualism.  The most important application of this assertion is to the human soul or self, but I have taken it to have universal application.  It is in this metaphysical sense that I share and affirm this Buddhist vision.

            I realize that many Buddhist accounts emphasize language and epistemology rather than ontology (or hayatology).  Perhaps for some this is not merely an emphasis but an exclusion, that is,  they do not intend to say anything about how things are, only about how they are conceived or known.  But much Buddhist writing makes more sense to me when I understand it to say something about how things are and especially about how the self is.  I identify this distinction because of its great importance in contemporary Christian theology and because I am curious whether it is felt as important for Buddhists and, if so, whether it is a source of contention among them.

            I raise this question particularly with Pure Land Buddhists because the affirmation of other power, or what Christians call grace, seems to place a greater emphasis on the metaphysical character of the world and human experience than is present in other Buddhist traditions.  To me as a Christian the metaphysical reality of grace is of central importance, whereas many of my fellow theologians regard this as a social construction or a linguistic convention characteristic of certain communities.  Is this division present in Pure Land Buddhism as well?

            The issue is a complex one.  Obviously there are a variety of ways of construing experience, and the notion of grace appears only in some of them.  Can one say that those which include this notion are more complete, at least in this respect, than those that do not?  My answer is affirmative.  I do assert that experience is more accurately described when the aspects of givenness and call are included than when these are ignored or denied.

            Nevertheless, I would not say that experience is a constant which is unaffected by the way it is thought of or described.  On the contrary, when grace is highlighted this affects the whole of experience.  An accurate description of experience in a context where grace is recognized leads to an increase in its role in the whole experience and to alteration of its other aspects.  The relation between experience and the way it is understood is a dialectical one.

            I believe that this way of thinking fits with what I read in Pure Land Buddhist writings.  But I know that when I read them in this way I may be projecting my Christian process theology upon them.  Hence I raise these questions in hopes of enlarging the community in which they are discussed.  I am sure the nuances of the Buddhist discussion will be different and that I, as a Christian, will be able to learn from the contributions of Pure Land Buddhists.


                                                          VI. Concluding Remarks


            I appreciate the invitation to take part in this critical dialogue.  In one sense, my remarks have not been particularly critical.  The three papers to which I have been asked to respond are richly informative and inspire confidence that they explain what Pure Land Buddhism is or can become.  I find what I read here far more congenial than much of what is written by fellow Christians.  Although I have no doubt about my own Christian identity, there are ways of distinguishing bvetween groups of thinkers in which I would be classified with these Pure Land Buddhists and separated from many Christians.

            It is obvious that there are some emphases, important to me as a Christian, that I have not found in Buddhism generally.  These have played a large role in my comments.  This is not because I want to establish the superiority of Christianity over Buddhism by showing what it has that Buddhism lacks.  It is because I believe that while Christians are learning from Buddhists, Buddhists in general, and Pure Land Buddhists in particular can also be enriched as they respond to questions with which Christians may have been wrestling more intensively for a longer period of time.  A Buddhism that grew in some of the ways I have suggested might gain some of Christianity's strengths without falling into the idolatries, superstitions, and distortions that clutter Christian history and contemporary reality.

            What I do not know is whether the developments in Pure Land Buddhism that would please me would be seen as undesirable by Pure Land Buddhists.  If so, then the differences between us are deeper than my comments would suggest.  Goals that are of nearly ultimate importance to me would then appear as irrelevant or marginal for Pure Land Buddhists.  If that is the case, we need to explore more deeply the sources of our contrasting sense of importance.  I hope that responses to my comments can advance us toward greater clarity as to the nature of our agreements and disagreements.