Immeasurable Grace: How a Buddhist Reformer Led Me to the Gospel
The summer after my freshman year of high school, my family vacationed in Lahaina, a picturesque town on the western side of Maui. My parents and brother were drawn to the beach, but I was pulled in a different direction. There were Buddhist temples in town, and I was a starry-eyed, self-proclaimed admirer of Buddhism. One afternoon, my mother and I slipped away to take a tour of the closest temple I could find: the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission.
Sadly, the temple was closed for the summer. There were no services scheduled and the resident priest was nowhere to be found. But the grounds were open, and it was while wandering around the temple gardens that I discovered a statue of a man named Shinran Shonin (1173-1263)—the founder of the Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land) School of Japanese Buddhism. At the base of the statue was a quote, a brief poem from Shinran himself:
Although my eyes, blinded by passions
Do not see the brilliant light
That embraces me.
The Great Compassion never tires.
Always casting light upon me.
These words opened a floodgate in my soul. I copied them reverently in my small travel journal, repeating them over and over until they sunk into memory. The more I reflected, the more the unmistakable groundswell of truth began to gather in my heart and mind. I intuited that I was somehow blinded by my own passions. I also sensed this could not be the whole story of my life. I felt drawn ineluctably towards the mysterious promise of a Great Compassion tirelessly shining light upon my darkness. I wanted to know more.
Upon returning home, I made a trip to our local used bookstore and ransacked their religion section. To my utter amazement, I found a heavily marked copy of a Shin Buddhist classic: Tannisho, or Lamenting the Deviations. Compiled a decade after Shinran’s death by a disciple named Yui-en, this slim volume records not only important sayings of Shinran Shonin, but also early doctrinal discussions regarding disputed points in his teaching. Awed by a sense that Shinran and I were destined to be teacher and disciple, I rushed home with my tattered treasure and began to read.
Within the pages of Tannisho, I learned that the Great Compassion of Shinran’s poem was none other than Amida, the Buddha of infinite light and life, who had made a Primal Vow to save all sentient beings. Prior to his coming to faith in Amida, Shinran had been an ambitious monk at the prestigious Tendai monastic complex on Mt. Hiei in Japan. There he came face to face with his frailty and spiritual limitations. Despairing of his ability to master the esoteric practices of the Tendai order and attain enlightenment, Shinran left Mt. Hiei and began to wander. He eventually encountered an itinerant teacher named Honen, who was instructing his students to rely not on their own spiritual abilities but upon the immeasurable grace of Amida Buddha. By calling upon the name of Amida Buddha in faith (a practice known as “saying nembutsu”), Honen taught that even the wayward and the lost could one day be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land.
Honen’s message mesmerized Shinran. He became Honen’s disciple, but Shinran soon pressed and developed his teaching further, carrying the logic of Amida’s immeasurable grace to its uttermost limit. Whereas Honen thought some small amount of human effort was required to claim and secure salvation, Shinran insisted that even the desire to say nembutsu was already a full manifestation of Amida’s saving grace. “Amida’s Primal Vow does not discriminate between young and old, good and evil,” he taught, “true entrusting alone is essential.”
This true entrusting was to be total. Shinran believed that a person who thought he or she could “say nembutsu” with the goal of meriting salvation was profoundly mistaken; true entrusting is conferred by Amida alone as the compassionate outworking of his Primal Vow of boundless grace. The nembutsu is not a mantra. It is the Name-That-Calls. To say nembutsu is not to discover our own voice, but to hear Amida’s voice calling out within us on our behalf.
So radical was Shinran’s reliance upon this grace that Yui-en records him offering this astounding teaching to his disciples:
I really do not know whether the nembutsu may be the cause for my birth in the Pure Land, or the act that shall condemn me to hell. But I have nothing to regret, even if I should have been deceived by my teacher, and, saying nembutsu, fall into hell. The reason is that if I were capable of realizing Buddhahood by other religious practices and yet fell into hell for saying the nembutsu, I might have dire regrets about being deceived. But since I am absolutely incapable of any religious practice, hell is my only home.
Even now, these words pierce my heart. Shinran saw with brilliant clarity the folly of placing our trust in our own spiritual practices and abilities. In a world without grace, hell is our only home. But Shinran knew it was not so. He lived in a world drenched in grace, and I wanted to be part of it. I searched for a connection and was astounded to discover a Shin temple only thirty minutes from my home that held monthly services in English. Tentatively at first, but then with increasing tenderness and trust, I began to say nembutsu.
Learning to live by grace did not come easily. It came only in fits and starts as I tried to wrap head and heart around teachings that shattered my every assumption and expectation about the way spiritual life was supposed to work.
The first lesson I learned from Shinran was that grace is not a tidy, pious idea. Grace is ruddy with life and endlessly creative. It comes unbidden as tariki, or Other-Power. It gives the wandering human heart shinjin, the ability to call upon the Buddha’s name in faith. It reassures the bonbu or foolish person that Amida’s compassion is meant for them. It births the humble, fruitful lives of the myokonin, the lay saints of the Shin Buddhism known for their complete dedication to the way of nembutsu. For Shinran, grace is not merely an antidote to sin; it is also the elixir of life.
The second lesson I learned was that grace is a joyful and unbidden gift. Whereas other forms of Buddhism taught that devotees could initiate transfers of merit through actions and offerings, Shinran turned the classical perspective on its head. He preached that all merit lies solely within Amida Buddha, and that Amida’s grace is the sole vehicle capable of lavishing those riches upon foolish human beings. Faith in the Primal Vow is not the result of resolution to believe, insists Shinran, but rather, the gracious gift of Amida Buddha working within hearts and minds.
As I slowly absorbed these teachings, I came to see that Shinran Shonin had forged a wise and subtle path through the verdant forest of grace. On the one hand, he emphasizes our dependence on grace at every moment and believes that faith in Amida’s Primal Vow is a gracious gift beyond every act of Self-Power. On the other hand, he is acutely aware that human beings are capable of refusing and turning away from the givenness of grace. But what some might see as a spiritual problem to be solved, Shinran treats as a mystery to be explored. His teaching holds both truths in fruitful tension: we are fully dependent on grace, and we possess true dispositive liberty to resist the unfolding of grace in our lives. Shinjin, or true entrusting, is our acceptance of and reliance upon Amida’s always already given grace.
This was the heart of Shinran’s spiritual teaching. He saw the grace of Amida not so much as an irresistible grace, but as an indefectible grace. He understood Amida’s Primal Vow in terms of a persistent, patient and unalterable desire that all sentient beings be brought to the Pure Land. In this way, Shinran could offer universal hope while preserving the particular experience of human weakness, rebelliousness and ignorance. Amida’s grace shines upon all without distinction, yet unfolds according to individual capacities and karmic bonds.
It is hard to describe the effect this teaching had on me. It changed me and softened me and worked on me from the inside out. I was so devout, so suffused with the ardor of a new convert, that I went off to college with plans to study abroad in Japan and prepare for Jodo Shinshu ministry. Nothing, I thought, could make me deviate from Shinran’s life of grace.
I remember when things began to fall apart. It was in philosophy class. I had never studied metaphysics before, and I was shocked to discover my devotion to Amida did not provide me with satisfying answers to classical questions. I looked to Buddhist philosophy hoping for answers, but my discomfort worsened. I began to have an uneasy feeling that the resplendent cosmology of the Pure Land tradition did not sit well with basic Buddhist philosophical claims. Who or what was Amida? Not the infinite source of all that is, and certainly not the Creator. Perhaps a mythic cipher for the truth of sunyata. What was the Pure Land? Not a place or an objective reality. Mostly it was upaya, a skillful means to spur the simple towards practice. Who is being saved by Amida’s grace? Not my personhood in any straightforward sense, and certainly not the messy, fractured self trying to live and love in body bound to death. One teacher suggested it was a culturally-conditioned softening of the truth of anatta or no-self.
I remember trying to force the pieces to fit together. All around me I continued to sense the presence of grace. I knew my life was gift. I affirmed a hidden light shining in and through all things. I felt I could rightly attribute to that light qualities of wisdom, mercy and compassion. Shinran, I thought, could not be entirely wrong. And yet, something was missing.
I turned to the local churches near my college campus reluctantly, part of me hoping for spiritual connection and part of me desperate to reassure myself that Christianity wasn’t viable. I explored the Unitarians first. Then the Congregationalists. Then the Roman Catholics. Lastly, I darkened the door of the local Episcopal church. Sitting in the pews one Sunday for an early morning service, I listened attentively as the priest intoned several short passages of Scripture:
Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.
Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and
I will refresh you. Matthew 11:28
God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son,
to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but
have everlasting life. John 3:16
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received,
that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
1 Timothy 1:15
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus
Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our
sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole
world. 1 John 2:1-2
For a second time in my life, words opened a floodgate in my soul. As the Scriptures were read, I encountered even greater and more marvelous claims than those of Amida. The Great Compassion shines with more than just light, they told me. He is the Father who loves the world so much that He sent His only-begotten Son so that the world might not perish. This Son has done more than just vow; He has been made flesh and come into the world to dwell among us. His redemption is rooted not in the mere hope of a distant Pure Land in the Western Paradise, but in historical events that unfolded on an ordinary hill outside Jerusalem, where the Savior was crucified that He might take away the sin of the world and then raised on the third day that He might make the whole Creation new.
I thought I was living by grace before, but the Good News of God’s grace was beyond anything I could ask or imagine. This grace was enfleshed. This grace was personal. This grace was Jesus Christ, living and dying and rising for me. Sitting there in the pews, the true entrusting I had so often longed for arose in my heart and led me into the arms of Christ. I left the church that day with a paperback copy of the Book of Common Prayer in my hands, converted, excited and grateful. Grateful to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Grateful to Shinran Shonin, who led me to Him.
I’ve rarely been able to express this latter sense adequately, and I know that when I try, I am treading on dangerous ground. As Henri de Lubac once remarked, “Nothing is as fallacious as the transposition of one religion’s terms to another.” I am the first to admit that the Primal Vow and Paschal Mystery are not one and the same. Indeed, my love for Shin Buddhism demands it. Jodo Shinshu Buddhists have long had their religious practices scrutinized by Christians, and I know from personal experience that they are eager to differentiate themselves, to disagree vehemently with trite comparisons, to underscore the unique features and singular logic of their own religious tradition. And yet, I cannot understand my conversion to the Gospel except in terms of a profound sympathy and mutual fecundity between the teaching of Shinran Shonin and the teaching of the New Testament. To paraphrase St. Paul, it seems to me that Shinran Shonin struck the rock and the rock flowed with the grace of Jesus Christ, even though Shinran would never hear the Savior’s name spoken in his mortal life.
Perhaps Rowan Williams offers a more apt way of speaking about such things. In his lecture The finality of Christ in a pluralistic world, Williams suggests that “you can encounter in someone outside the family of faith things that are so central to the Gospel you are trying to communicate that you are bound to recognize the echo and pray that the relationship which seems to be at work there, really is what it seems to be.”
I have experienced such an encounter and been transformed by it, and so with Rowan Williams I too feel bound to recognize the echo and to pray that God’s good purposes for this grace-filled world flourish and find their proper end in Him. And if those good purposes can be trusted, then on that last great day when the Son hands over the Kingdom to His Father, it seems right and proper to me that I may hope to catch a glimpse of the radiant face of Shinran worshiping among the multitudes—for it was his astounding and courageous reliance on grace that opened my heart to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.