Religious belief systems generally entail claims that are unsupported by evidence. For example, “The world was created in seven days,” or “Good karma leads to a fortunate rebirth.” Acceptance of such claims is based on faith rather than on empirical findings. This would tend to discourage rational human beings from becoming religious adherents. Hence, for religion to thrive, there must be strong motivating factors at work—factors that overcome our skepticism toward its speculative claims. British historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was a freethinker and a shrewd observer of Abrahamic and pagan religions. He identified two
principal characteristics that account for the enduring popular appeal of religious faith. The motivating factors are practices of devotion and moral duties:
“Every mode of religion, to make a deep and lasting impression on the human mind, must exercise our obedience by enjoining practices of devotion for which we can assign no reason; and it must acquire our esteem by inculcating moral duties analogous to the
dictates of our own hearts.”
The first factor is to “exercise our obedience by enjoining practices of devotion.” Believers are urged to perform reverential practices such as praying, worshiping, chanting, offering incense, or donating money. These actions are understood to be a manifestation of sincere religious feeling or commitment. Becoming obedient to the form of the practices will enhance our self-worth and will allow us, through a public display of devotion, to make a positive impression on the minds of fellow believers. As Gibbon noted, “we can assign no reason” for devotional practices in terms of tangible benefits, but the psychological rewards are considerable.
The second factor by which religion impresses the human mind is to “acquire our esteem by inculcating moral duties analogous to the dictates of our own hearts.” We look to religion to provide a stamp of moral goodness on our actions, whatever form those actions might take. History shows that there is no absolute standard for religious morality. It can include feeding the hungry, or burning the heretics, or anything in between. We are drawn to the moral standard that corresponds most closely to our natural impulses (“the dictates of our own hearts”), whether such impulses are benevolent or cruel. Gibbon never encountered Shinran’s ideas, but if he had, he would have questioned whether Jōdo Shinshū can be categorized as a religion. Shinran’s teaching does not rely on the factors mentioned above. It
overturns devotion and morality as methods of spiritual self-enhancement.
Against devotion. Jōdo Shinshū is a form of Pure Land Buddhism based on the Larger Sutra. In other forms of Pure Land Buddhism, Amida is regarded as a divine savior. Reciting Amida’s Name is understood as a devotional practice, through which one attains birth in the Pure Land after death—whatever such a “birth” might mean. However, in Jōdo Shinshū, Amida is not a personal savior, but rather a symbol of limitless reality, which is called dharmakāya. For Shinran, Namo Amida Butsu is “neither a religious practice nor a good act on the part of the practicer.” [CWS, p. 665] The Larger Sutra taught Shinran the path of “hearing the Name” and reflecting on its meaning. Therefore, Amida’s Name is not a devotional practice, but
rather a command extending from limitless reality toward sentient beings. In plain English it means, “Hey, Jim!” [Namo], “Wake up!” [Amida Butsu].
Against morality. Religious morality divides the world into goodness and evilness, with the presumption that goodness is on the side of one’s own religion. Shinran’s teaching negates this notion. He admonishes us “to abandon the conviction that one is good, to cease relying on the self, to stop reflecting knowingly on one’s evil heart, and further to abandon the judging of people as good and bad.” [CWS, p. 459] He confesses, “I am such that I do not know right and wrong and cannot distinguish truth from falsehood. I lack even small love and small compassion, and yet, for fame and profit, I enjoy teaching others.” [CWS, p. 429]
As I see it, Shinran’s teaching is not a belief system based on factually unsupported claims about the world. It is a path leading to the awareness of self and the awareness of dharmakāya. On this path, we might take up devotional practices and moral duties, but by carefully examining our motives (as Shinran did), we might see our self-centeredness more clearly. We might experience the limitations of the self and the limitlessness of dharmakāya.
This is the content of awakening in Jōdo Shinshū.