Debate Over the Meaning of Faith

The interpretation of the meaning of the word “Faith” or Shinjin (as it is known in Japanese) is a word that is open to various interpretations. However, since truth is only one, there can be only one correct explanation of this profound experience. There is the common idea that Shinran’s explanation of Faith has got to do with one choosing to believe that they are already saved. Since Amida Buddha made the Vow to save all people into absolute happiness, people merely need to recite the nembutsu and their birth in the Pure Land after they die is a given. Other than that there is nothing else for the practitioner to do. (It reminds me of what is taught in Christiantiy: go to church, say prayers, believe, and you’re saved, being reborn in Heaven on dying).

It is unfortunate that people could understand the teachings of Shinran, he who devoted his entire life to spreading the Vow of Amida, in such a simple way. At the beginning of The Hymn of True Faith, Shinran says, “I was saved by the Buddha of immeasurable light. I was saved by the Buddha of infinite life.”

I feel the joy, happiness and relief in these words. He is overjoyed at being saved, and relief that he has accomplished what he has been seeking for countless lifetimes. From where does such happiness come from? Can they come from him choosing to believe that Amida has made the Vow and that he is already saved? Or does it come from something else, such as direct experience in having heard the call of Amida Buddha, and the darkness of his mind towards the afterlife is once and for all dispelled?

If Shinjin is compared to the lottery, believing that you have gained true faith just because the vow exists and you have said the Nembutsu is like saying that you have won the lottery just because you have bought a ticket and are imagining what your lifestyle will be like if you win. But having the true shinjin is actually winning the lottery. It is seeing the winning numbers on the ticket that you hold in your hand, and the joy that you experience at that moment, knowing that your life is forever changed.

The two experiences are worlds apart. The feeling of joy is worlds apart. No one jumps with joy over and over when they buy a lottery ticket. You jump with joy, shout and rejoice when you find out that you are the winner!

The salvation of Buddhism, Amida’s salvation, is not the former of the lottery examples. It is the latter. It’s a matter of direct experience, an experience that Shinran had at the age of 29.

The time this experience occurs is also called “Ichinen salvation”. “Ichinen” refers to the shortest moment of time, and salvation occurs in such a fashion. It is aimed at saving one who is just a moment away from death.

Amida’s salvation does not exist without Ichinen salvation. In his masterwork, Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment, Shinran says, “Ichinen indicates the utmost speed of the onset of Faith.” Ichinen salvation does not require the practitioner’s decision to believe. They are made to believe through hearing the call of Amida in that instant. To believe that one is saved without this experience is a grave misreading and misunderstanding of Shinran’s teachings.

In another example, it is like Amida has made a medicine, the Myogo, all beings are the sick patient, and Amida the doctor. The medicine has existed for a long time, but no matter how long it has existed if the patient does not take it then he won’t get better. “Taking the medicine” does not mean knowing that it exists and rejoicing over that. It means to experience it, and experience the great and permanent peace of mind and satisfaction that goes with Amida’s salvation.

Frank Costelloe, USA

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #31 | 2013, Debate Over the Meaning of Faith

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