Q: What do Amidists think about the Christian idea that "Nobody comes to the Father except by me"?
A: I don't think that we have to disagree about that. What we disagree about is monotheism and creationism.
The Christain god seems to be a kind of cosmic buddha. According to the Larger Sutra there are many such buddhas. We, of course, think that Amida is the most accomplished of them all, but there are many "buddhas in other regions" and they each have their paradise and each has its particular entrance criteria, so if the Christian one says that people can only enter his paradise by keeping to the Christian protocol, that's up to him.
Q: So you do not agree that there is only one god?
A: Without getting into quibbles about definitions of the divine, basically, that is correct.
Q: So do you think that the actions of Christians and Amidists here on this earth are compatible?
A: Yes and no. Both are trying to replicate their particular vision of heaven here. We Amidists think that the Amidist Pure Land is more inclusive and Buddhist ethics more complete than the Christian ones. The Christian paradise on earth will probably still have abattoirs, for instance. Amidists do not see humans as "given dominion" over all the other creatures. We seek harmony rather than control. So there are some differences of substance and some of tenor, but on many points we would be working for similar, if not exactly the same, things. Christians seem to want "justice" where Amidists want "compassion", though real Christian's (who seem to be a minority) probably want that too - "justice" is really an Old Testament theme, not a New Testament one. So there is a lot of scope for Christians and Buddhists to work in coalition on practical matters, and Buddhists can learn from Christians, too - it was Christians who abolished slavery, for instance - but the Christian idea of exclusiveness is often a real barrier to what could otherwise sometimes be a very productive partnership.
Q: So the point that you find difficult in the Christian vision is the idea that there are no other “Fathers” than theirs?
A: Yes. It is short sighted.
Q: But was not the idea on “one god” a great advance?
A: Well, not if it leads to intolerance and war as it so often does. Judge them by their fruit. People seem to have become mesmerized by the special qualities of the number one; though, nowadays, of course, many people have decided that zero is an even more special number and become atheists. From a Buddhist perspective that is the other extreme. Buddhism avoids the extremes of oneism and zeroism - or eternalism and nihilism as they are called in the Buddhist texts. What the contemporary world needs is a religion that validates pluralism.
Q: But you can’t really have two or more creators of the universe, can you?
A: Creationism is a doctrine with many problems. Creation as all of us know it, however, seems to take a least two forces or principles in interaction. Amida made a Pure Land by seeing what was needed and what was possible. He did not start from an empty cosmos. Amidism allows for eternal evolution and this is much more in keeping with contemporary scientific thinking.
Q: But do you think that Amida’s paradise is a literal fact?
A: There is no reason why it should not be. If we can imagine something then in the infinitude of space and time is it not likely that an example exists? We may not have every detail right, but in general principle it seems quite possible that there are better and worse worlds than this one somewhere.
Q: But don’t most people think of the Pure Land or heaven as symbolic or on another dimension?
A: Well, these terms illustrate the fact that we are not sure. It is our bombu nature to not be sure. How can we know? We cannot know for certain. But we can imagine better worlds. If we could not we could not make them either. But what we imagine probably does exist somewhere. It is an implication of infinitude. Amida is faith in infinitude, after all. To believe in Amida is to believe that all things are possible given the right conditions.
Q: So Amidism is a profound pluralism?
A: Yes, precisely, and whether you take our myth literally or symbolically probably does not matter too much within this life. It informs a more tolerant and inclusive and positive orientation to life and death. You can’t do much better.
Q: But isn’t “oneness” quite a big idea in Buddhism too?
A: Yes, that’s true. There are many Buddhists who are sold on oneness. It is a different kind of oneness from the Christian one - pantheistic rather than monotheistic - but it is certainly influential. It is difficult to escape the prestige of the number one these days unless you go for the zero option, but really what we need in this ecological age is a mythology that validates pluralism and complexity. We need to allow everything to be beautiful in its own way and we need to create respect for the intellect and intelligent thought as well as the whole range of human feelings and sentiments. Those forms of One-ism that disparage intellect are dangerous - more dangerous than their adherents realise. One should not forget that when Nazis take over a country, the first thing they do is liquidate the intellectuals so that there is no serious opposition to the imposition of their monolithic vision. Christians can go to their Father via their messiah, no problem. It only becomes a problem when they think that that gives them a right to invalidate everybody else. Monotheism is the ideology of divine right kings. It is reactionary. The Larger Sutra requires Amidists to honour the other buddhas each in a way that accords with what they need. If we take that as our guiding myth, we can have a much more tolerant and less stressful world. That would be our request to Christians - lighten up and be willing to share the world with people of many faiths. Many Christians are getting this message - it is quite hopeful - but there are many people in all faiths - including many Buddhists - who still cling to “we are the only ones”. I’ve nothing against people arguing for the superiority of their system - that’s healthy - but it is not healthy when it spills over beyond civilized debate into exclusivity. The idea of oneness in Buddhism can also be a serious pitfall, not least because of the compelling sense of certainty that it imparts to its advocates. Of course, there is always an in-built contradiction because you cannot advocate oneness without rejecting not-oneness and then oneness and non-oneness are no longer a oneness, but when you are entranced by this kind of absolutist thinking you do not see your own self-contradiction - that is what is dangerous bout it.
A: So do people get to the Pureland except by Amida?
Q: They no doubt get to other Pure Lands. Why not? There are any number of cosmic Buddhas. This makes it possible for there to be many good visions. Let’s learn to work together on what we can even when we disagree about some things. That is the more mature approach.
Q: Thank you