Occasionally, I receive inquiries concerning some contemporary Shin teachers who advocate a literal interpretation of the Sutras and claim that people who view Amida Buddha as a symbol lack true faith. If it were just a matter of interpretation of texts, we might consider the textual content by studying various interpretations and then engage in a beneficial mutual dialogue. Yet, rather than creating a basis for dialogue, these advocates challenge the legitimacy of their “opponents” as Shin Buddhists.
It’s unfortunate that literalists polarize Shin followers and judge their spiritual status.
Shinran had a clear grasp of how his followers should respond to those on a different path. In his Letter #2 (written when he was 83 years of age) he said: “…[Y]ou should not disparage the teachings of other Buddhas or the people who perform good acts other than nembutsu. Neither should you despise those who scorn and slander people of nembutsu; rather you should have compassion and care for them.” If Shinran would encourage this attitude toward those outside the fold, reason dictates that he couldn’t have agreed to judgmental and polarizing attitudes among nembutsu people themselves.
I can only comment that people who take the Shin texts literally are viewing them from a Western perspective, much like Christian fundamentalists see the Bible. They’re really not in line with Mahayana thought.
Mahayana Buddhism, of which Shin is a part, is highly symbolic, using metaphors and verbal imagery that expands the religious imagination beyond any literal interpretation. In the tradition, these accounts are viewed as upaya (Jp. “houben”) – tactful devices or compassionate means – employed to aid and advance the development of a person’s spiritual experience and understanding. The vital thing is to look for the principles embedded in the writings rather than take the narratives literally the way some biblical students look at scripture.
There are three Pure Land Sutras that became central in the tradition from among an extensive body of literature, numbering some 209 texts. The Larger Pure Land Sutra gives the foundational story for how Amida became Amida. The Smaller Amida Sutra describes the Pure Land, which Amida established. The Contemplation Sutra provides a series of meditations for visualization. The popular Pure Land tradition is largely based on these texts through commentaries of later teachers. If the texts are taken literally as claimed by the literalists, then ALL of the texts in the Mahayana canon must be taken literally, since they are all part of a general tradition sharing common features.
Literal interpretation creates many contradictions in the teaching.
Scholars generally regard Amida as an idealization and expansion of the life of Sakyamuni, involving renunciation and dedication to a goal. While for Sakyamuni, it was his own enlightenment, for Mahayanists it was broader, including all beings.
The presentations of Amida (and in other traditions, the respective Buddhas), contrast sharply with the depiction of Sakyamuni as a wandering teacher who meets with people in a realistic manner, which we would consider as completely possible and conceivable in our world and understanding. The narratives about Amida and the Pure Land, however, describe a wondrous world, beyond normal conception. They show that while using worldly language, the reality presented is beyond anything we could conceive. Our thought and imagination just can’t grasp it.
What it boils down to is this. Placing stress upon the literal interpretation of texts distracts from and distorts the true significance of Mahayana spirituality, and its expression in Shin Buddhism. To my way of thinking, it also places a wedge between people where mutual understanding and common support should be.
As always, I welcome your thoughts.