Pure Land was represented by one lecture (very poorly attended, I’m sorry to say) and at least one workshop on chanting and meditation (well attended); and by books etc. at more than one display table.
I am struck by at least three observations and the reflection they set in motion. These observations came primarily from an American Christian who said he has practiced Pure Land for four years; as well as from my early reading in book I bought at the festival, titled Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold by Taitetsu Unno. And let me say at the outset – and in spirit if not in fact as I close below – that I certainly may need to be corrected on much if not all of this! So as you read, please do note and make comments on where I need to be set straight J
In no particular order, FIRST: I cannot help but think Jesus, who claimed to be the “Light of the World” (John 8:12), is deeply connected with Amitabha, “The Immeasurable Light.” I put it first simply because this metaphor is very important for me personally. Jesus as the Light is a common theme in John’s Gospel, as well as several other places in the New Testament as well as in early non-canonical Christian writings (Gnostic literature, as well as the various writings of the “Church Fathers” (the “Patristics”) in the first centuries C.E.). The themes of God as the Unoriginate Light and the Uncreated Light also are significant in the Patristics, and remain so in Eastern Orthodox Christianity to this day. I needn’t tell this group how important the theme of Light is within the Buddhist tradition, and especially with Amitabha the Immeasurable Light. Indeed, light is one of the most – and perhaps the most – common metaphor for the sacred throughout the world of religious traditions.
SECOND: I was taken by the teaching that the Nembutsu is simultaneously a call from Amida Buddha and our response to that call. Much Christian tradition and teaching about what happens in worship and prayer, as well as about the role of both the Holy Spirit in the life of faith, is surprisingly similar. In most Christian traditions – and certainly in mine (Presbyterian) – worship is response to God’s initiative. That includes not only corporate prayer, but personal prayer and practice as well. [NOTE: In fact, in bedrock Calvinism (with which I'm generally uncomfortable, by the way) God's sovereignty is so sovereign -- if I can say it in such a redundant way -- that it can seem almost hard to avoid a sense of pantheism. God is so in control it is hard to avoid the conclusion that God is doing everything.] The Spirit in fact prays in us, according to St. Paul (Romans 8:26-27). In various writings about this and similar passages in the New Testament, one finds a strong sense that the role of the person of faith is to serve as a kind of circuit-closer: the movement begins and ends with the Holy One, and our task is to relay that current back to its Origin. It is a movement that in some way "foreshadows" the larger movement of creation back Home, back to its Origin (God, in these traditions, is seen is saving the cosmos, not just individual persons; c.f. Romans 8:19-25). Christian prayer, like the Nembutsu, is simultaneously a call from the Holy One and our response to that call. Buddhanature presumably pervades -- and in some sense is, whether recognized or not -- everything.
THIRD: I was greatly taken by the concern within Pure Land to make enlightenment accessible to everyone. My reading of the New Testament and its portrayal of Jesus’ ministry – in common with a great number of New Testament scholars I read, e.g. Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright – is that Jesus’ concern was to make God’s realm and reign accessible to everyone. [WARNING: I am going to use the word "salvation" pretty loosely here.] I’m less certain of the history of Pure Land of course, but my initial impressions are that its origins are in a time when much of Buddhism had become the exclusive preserve of a religious “caste,” a kind of spiritual elite; and so the impetus behind Pure Land was to break that barrier and let everyone in. I am certain that the history of First Century Palestinian Judaism represents a serious struggle with the Jerusalem Temple and the religious hierarchy that upheld it (and was upheld by it). The number of ordinary folks excluded from the Temple because of their ritual “uncleanness” – in other words, the sinners – is long and not a little cruel: lepers, “demon possessed” (read: mentally ill, although I have less trouble accepting the reality of "demons" and "unclean spirits" than a modern person is supposed to have :-P), shepherds, tax collectors, prostitutes, women generally (except within certain restricted areas and roles), non-Jews (especially Samaritans who ironically actually laid significant claim to much of “core Judaism”) … and so forth. When Jesus forgave people in a home or on the outskirts of town by a well (etc.), he was challenging the Temple, its stranglehold on dispensing “righteousness” and God’s mercy, the walls set up by the elite on who could and who could not enter God’s realm and reign, the institutional hierarchies, even the Jewish economy (the Temple doubled as a kind of “national bank”). “Salvation” -- the word I'm using loosely here, but in fairness to me (and history) it was a concept with multiple meanings in First Century Palestinian Judaism too) was the perk to which only a few were entitled; Jesus intended to invite everyone in. Almost immediately after his death he in turn was entrapped in conceptual and ultimately institutional structures. And I would argue that what he struggled to teach and enact – a finger pointing to the moon with words, a finger pointing to the same word with deeds of compassion and healing – was seriously compromised as the church simply redrew the old old boundaries (dualisms): sinner and saint, righteous and unclean, “believer” and “non-believer.”
Surely Jesus taught and practiced something deeply akin to what the founders of Pure Land taught and practiced: enlightenment and salvation (healing, wholeness) are for everyone. It is a “birthright,” it is ontology (the structure of existence), an ontology "personified" in Hebrew tradition through the metaphor of God and God’s “covenant” (ruler and contractual agreement with the ruled) but nevertheless – personified or not – a fact of existence, the sacred depths of which (a la Paul Tillich) is the Godhead, the Source.
And there my thoughts trickle off into the sand, as you can tell J But if it is not an indelicate (not to say blasphemous) thing to say here, and if I am not too far off in the above, then here is the source of the strange title to this piece,“YeshuAmida”:
“Yeshua” is the Hebrew word for “Joshua,” which, when Latinized, becomes “Jesus.” But the final A in “Jesuha” is transformed into the beginning of Amida Buddha … not because Jesus comes “before” Amida Buddha in any sense, but simply because that outlines the path I am on: beginning with Yeshua, but seemingly moving in the direction of the Amitabha, the Immeasurable Light, manifest in this case in Jesus of Nazareth
blessings, - bro. steve [email@example.com]