A member of the Amida Order put forward a question: "One way to formulate the question is as a comparison of Amida with the Christian God. As I understand it the Christian God is a creator - thus the creation myth. I can regard this in two distinct ways. Historically, God created the world, long ago. Phenomenologically, God is continually creating the manifest world out of the unmanifest. From a Buddhist perspective, this could be regarded as experience arising out of the void, and Amida being identified with that void - measureless - until it actually manifests and is specific. We can then have access to the experience at different levels, in different dimensions, the everyday, the archetypal, and the ineffable - our relationship to the sublime. So my question is, can Amida be understood as a creator in this sense of the ground out of which experience arises?"
My immediate thought is that the subject of creation is (a) a matter of Christian-Buddhist dialogue and (b) such a big one that I do not want to deal with it at Questions in the Sand but would like to open it up to debate, so here it is on Interlog. I hope others will respond.
Here are some initial thoughts.
The way the question is framed seems to raise the issue of a subjective-objective dichotomy. Are we talking about the creation of what we experience or the creation of experience itself? There seem to be three great origin mysteries: how come things exist? how come there is life? how come life has developed into consciousness? The last two may merge is you think consciousness of some kind is an intrinsic quality of life - are trees conscious? They may all three merge if you do not think that "life started". Almost all writers assume that life started in order to account for its presence on this planet and absence elsewhere, but science has never managed to explain or replicate the beginning of life so strictly speaking it remains an open question in that domain whether life can start by natural means. The three origin questions are all quasi-scientific as well as quasi-theological. In the nineteeth century particularly this sort of question was regarded as very important. It went with such questions as: Is God a fact?
Then, philosophically, there is a second type of thought also creeping in here. This is the kind of thought that talks about "ground" ("dhatu" in Buddhist terminology). Theology is fond of questions like: What is the ground of our being? This kind of question also keys into the Buddhist notion of dependent origination. According to the dependent origination doctrine the arising of things is conditional upon other prior things being in place. The questions that arise in relation to the DO doctrine are, (a) is it an infinite regress? i.e. no beginning; and (b) does it cover absolutely everything or are there exceptions? If there are exceptions, then those exceptions are of exceptional importance. Thus, in standard Theravada doctrine there is only one exception and that is nirvana. In Christian doctrine the exception is God. The question thus arises whether nirvana and God are in any way related.
This matter of exceptions to causality is a fundamental conceptual importance to metaphysics. With it comes the additional item, can a causeless entity itself be a cause? God often appears as the cause of the world, but nirvana does not do so. Nirvana appears more as an end than a beginning. Like a black hole in spiritual space, once one has crossed the event horizon of nirvana there is no coming back. Mahayana Buddhism built a slightly different structure. The notion of irreversibility remains, but return was not ruled out as a voluntary option. The idea that a bodhisattva could enter a semi-nirvana and still be able to return to this world poses the same conceptual obstacles as the dilemma for theology as to how God can enter or influence this world.
To go back to the dhatu question, the issue of infinite regress always hovers. If God made the world, who made God? If there was a beginning, what happened before that? This type of question hangs over assertions of priority whether they are temporal or logical.
Mathematics is a form of metaphysics. Oneness and twoness are not objects that appear in the world. Yet they are extremely useful concepts. Measurement is a human artefact, Things in the world are not divided up into inches or meters. All this is metaphysical activity on our part. From this we can see that metaphysics has been extremely useful. We should not forget that the theory of relativity was not discovered by obervation of the physical world, but was worked out by Einstein in his study, primarily from the logic of measurement. Now modern mathematics depends for its usefulness not just upon the measurement of finite quantities but critically upon the metafinite entity that we call infinity. The tendency toward infinity is a vital component of modern mathematical calculation. We try to arrive at what happens as things tend toward infinity - either intinite largeness or infinitessimalness. The domain of the metafinite is not enterably yet is indispensible. All modern science has this metafinitude as an essential part of its ground.
This is very interesting from the persoective of Pureland Buddhism since A-mida means meta-finite. Perhaps we could say that Amida is at least a vital element in the grounding of all understanding. Infinity and infinitessimalness are in one sense ineffable, but they nonetheless have a vital function. Our lives are full of calculation. But many of those calculations involve moral calculus. We act in manner X because if X were extended to its limit in infinity, the outcome would be better than if not-X were. However, nobody thinks that either the infinite projection of X or that of not-X are practical propositions. Thus people may recycle their small quantity of paper waste, not because this particular act is going to save the world, but because if this act were replicated everywhere many trees would indeed by saved. Moral acts are often enough simply a case of a person "doing their bit".
Does it make sense to say that finite numbers are emergent phenomena on a ground of infinity? Some might like to say so, but the utility of infinity is not primarily that of being the grounding of the finite but that of being in counter-distinction to it while still being in relation to it. However, the relation is quite different from the relation between two finites. Though we do quite meaningfully talk about "approaching infinity" the gap between a large quantity and infinity is no less than that between a small one and infinity. The relationship between a finite and an infinite reflects the nature of the latter rather than the former term in the relationship. Finites relate in finite ways, but a finite can only relate to an infinite in an infinite way.
This has its parallel in the moral domain. When we relate to Amida, the relationship is entirely constituted by his nature and not in the least by ours. However much we approach, he is still just as far away and yet, an action formed by a reflection upon its infinite extension does partake of Amida's nature, not of ours. We remain always finite, or, as we say, foolish. This, however, does not really mean that Amida creates such acts, it is just that they cannot be conceived without him. He dwells in them, but he is not their author. We are the author and so no such act is ever perfect. This shows rather precisely how the finite and the metafinite interact. Inasmuch as my action is conceived in the light of eternity it has the nature of Amida, but since it is my act, it is imperfect. We might then be tempted to say that the act itself is "everyday"; the infinite dimension of it is ineffable; and the archetypal is the frame that holds the two in relation.