SHIN BUDDHISM AND JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
IN PROTESTANT CHRISTIANITY.
Faith is, I think, the one thing that is common to all the innumerable religions that have existed and which now exist throughout the world.
Faith is, by definition, not something that depends on intellect.
It lies outside the realm of logic.
It owes its primacy and universality to the fact that, wherever it exists, belief in an afterlife of any sort is wholly dependent on it, as also is belief in any kind of God or gods with their attendant hosts of spiritual beings.
The Roman Catholic Church, which still has one thousand and two hundred million members worldwide, was completely dominant in Western Europe throughout the middle ages and has its direct successor in British Protestantism in the Church of England, or Anglicanism as it is called.
Its core beliefs were firstly in a Triune God, the creator of all that exists, indivisibly one, yet in three separate persons, the eternal God the Father, God the Son, the second member of the Trinity, who became man and as Jesus Christ was crucified for the redemption of fallen mankind, and God the Holy Ghost, the active principle working in the world; secondly it posits the existence of an indestructible, immortal soul within each human being.
Both of these key concepts, neither of them to be found in Buddhism, were handed down to the various Protestant Churches which broke away from the early sixteenth century onwards and placed a wholly new emphasis upon the role of faith, which became not merely a necessary, but a sufficient means for attaining heaven.
It is therefore important to remember that even in the highly structured context of Catholic theology, St Thomas Aquinas, that most logical of medieval theologians, felt himself obliged to state, after setting out his five proofs of the existence of God, that the gift of faith was still required.
In Shin Buddhism, complete faith in Amida Buddha and his Primal Vows is an absolute and central requirement which distinguishes it from all the other main forms of Buddhism and, of course, completely separates it from any kind of Protestant belief.
The heartfelt recitation of the Nembutsu, which stands for the mantra “Namu Amida Butsu”, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha,” is the essential and sufficient means of gaining entry to the Pure Land, a staging post on the way to fully enlightened Buddhahood and a gateway to Nirvana.
The gift of faith, flowing from Amida’s infinite compassion, is entirely his to give, and is the fruit of tariki or other-power, and no human exercise of jiriki or self-power, no accumulation of meritorious acts, no doing of good works, is either necessary or of the slightest avail in the attainment of his Pure Land.
The concept of justification by faith alone is, however, by no means confined to Shin Buddhism.
Quite apart from its presence in Hindu belief c.800-600 BC in the Upanishads of the Rig Veda, it was developed independently, some two and a half centuries after the days of Shinran Shonin, in late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Christian Europe.
Consequently, in the light of Shin Buddhism’s current involvement with the West, it is perhaps interesting, and even important, to look at the things which it has in common with, as well as those which fundamentally differentiate it from, its nearest European counterparts.
The classic statement of justification by faith alone was set out as one of the 28 Articles put before the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 by the Protestant Reformers, who wished to bring about fundamental changes in the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church.
These were then summarised in the 28 Theses pinned to the door of the Cathedral in that same year by Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German monk and founding father of the Reformation, which gave birth to the Protestant Churches that spread throughout Northern Europe and the British Isles in the succeeding centuries, before expanding into the United States and elsewhere.
Article IV of the Confession of Augsburg itself reads:-
“Also they teach (i.e. the Reformers) that men cannot be justified before God by their own strengths, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favour, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by his death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.”
This single paragraph sums up both the major point of contact with Shin Buddhism and the major elements that are wholly foreign to it.
Justification by faith alone was completely contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which held, and still holds, that sinners can only attain the Kingdom of God through repentance, followed by the expiation of their sins.
Its introduction occurs, of course, as was mentioned earlier, in the context of belief in a Creator God, and also in an immortal soul, which is not mentioned in the Confession, since belief in it continued to be held in common with the Catholic Church and was taken for granted.
Just as the 18th Primal Vow retains, for Shin Buddhists, the role of primus inter pares, first among equals, so, for Lutheran Protestants, the 4th of the twenty-eight Theses, the condensed version of the Confession, holds a similar position.
It states, with unequivocal brevity, that “Man cannot be justified before God through our own abilities: we are wholly reliant on Jesus Christ for reconciliation with God.”
This echoes the words of Christ’s follower, the Apostle Paul (1st Cent. AD ), concerning “the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,” in his Epistle to the Romans (Chapter 4, Verse 6), referred to in Article IV of the Confession of Augsburg.
In his Epistle to the Ephesians ( Chapter 2, Verses 8-9 ), to which there is also reference in the Confession of Augsburg, he states
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
The parallel with Shin Buddhism could hardly be more striking.
True encounter, which plays such a significant part in Shin Buddhist practice, and is so important in the context of the Japanese contact with English speaking people, Protestants among them, is always greatly helped by a realisation of the attitudes of mind which are already held in common, however great the distance apart may be, and will remain, in other ways.
For some reason it made me think of that poem which I wrote many years ago, soon after we first met, and which Taira translated:-
You of pure
who am certain
The Lutherans were, not unexpectedly, extremely concerned about accusations that they were against good works, and in Article XX, in reiterating the primacy of faith, they quoted St. Ambrose:-
“Faith is the mother of good will and right doing.”
and also said;-
“Furthermore it is taught on our part that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them, but because it is the will of God.”
Shinran Shonin was clearly less exercised about any such attacks, evidently relying on the implications of Amida Buddha’s 19th Primal Vow and the centuries-old Pure Land tradition in this regard, and also on the interconnection of self-benefit and benefiting others, saying in Section 17 of the Kyogyoshinsho that:-
“having thus performed the practices of the five gates and accomplished both self-benefit and benefit to others, the Bodhisattva has swiftly realized the supreme perfect enlightenment.”
In Section 63 he refers, in the 6th of the Buddha’s six kinds of virtue, to:-
“The one who has perfectly fulfilled all the worldly and supramundane virtues.”
Then, in Section 82, says that:.
“……… we should know that, by fulfilling the benefit of others, he performs self-benefit,……”
These passages clearly show, in Shinran’s mind, the intimate relationship between `pure faith’ and `good works’ on the path to supreme enlightenment.
In many of the Lutheran Churches, with a worldwide membership now in the region of sixty-four million, the customs, vestments and furnishings deriving from Catholicism, were, and are, maintained providing they do not conflict with the teachings of the New Testament in the Bible.
The second among the great Protestant Reformers was a Frenchman, known as John Calvin (1509-64), a contemporary of Martin Luther, who was active in Geneva and a far more radical and rigorous man, regarding the Bible as the sole authority in all matters of religious faith and practice.
It is from him that the Calvinist, Reformed or Presbyterian Churches derive, with a membership of about forty million, to which some twenty-six million members of the more recently formed United Lutheran and Reformed Churches must be added.
In the Presbyterian Church, great emphasis is placed on the same passages in the writings of the Apostle Paul to which the Confession of Augsburg had referred, and great store is set, not only on the New testament, but also on those passages in the Old Testament of the Bible which can be adduced in support of their central belief in Justification by Faith Alone.
They also believe, in a far more rigorous way, in the Total Depravity of the human race, and add to justification by faith the concept of Predestination, or Unconditional Election.
By Total Depravity, which, of course, is virtually interchangeable with the Shin Buddhist concept of foolish beings inevitably beset by blind passions, they do not mean that all people are absolutely depraved and incapable of doing what is good from a human perspective.
However, that is only a relative good, and because it is not the outcome of true faith can never find favour in the eyes of God.
This is, to all intents and purposes identical with Shinran’s statement in the Kyogyoshinsho, quoting Tun-luau’s Commentary on Vasubandhu’s Treatise on the Pure Land, that
“……… there is the virtue that is produced from a defiled mind and that does not accord with dharma-nature. Whether with regard to their cause or their fruition, the good acts of foolish human beings and devas are all inverted, empty, and false. Hence they are called untrue virtue.”
The Calvinist concept of Predestination or Unconditional Election, is directly derived from belief not only in an omnipotent, but also in an omniscient God, who has known from all eternity the fate of each and every human being.
As Presbyterians see it, it is purely out of God’s benevolence that he has, from all eternity, elected certain human beings for salvation through belief in Christ, and intervenes on their behalf, leaving the rest of humanity to wallow in the evil that it has chosen, and to ultimate damnation.
Christ’s atonement for man’s original sin through his crucifixion is therefore a partial or limited atonement.
In this, of course, it differs radically from Shin Buddhism’s belief in Amida Buddha’s 18th Primal Vow which opens up the possibility of attaining the Pure Land to every human being and, indeed, to all sentient beings, without distinction or discrimination of any kind.
Allied to the three concepts of Total Depravity, Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement are the two further beliefs in Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints.
The first states that the Elect, whom God has chosen for salvation, however much they may backslide and fall away into all kinds of sin, can never, in the end, resist the power of Christ’s saving grace.
The second is summed up in the phrase “Once saved, always saved”.
Once you believe, you can never be lost, you can never go to hell, for Christ will always be your Saviour, and the Elect will never turn away from their belief, for it is their eternal destiny to be saved.
Leaving aside the matter of predestination, Presbyterians see themselves as being in a state which corresponds to what Shin Buddhists see as the stage of non-retrogression, of being truly settled and firmly grasped, never to be forsaken.
The central contradiction in Presbyterian belief, that on the one hand all has been foreordained by God, and yet that it is up to each and every person whether to believe in Christ or not and, if they do not, that they have no one but themselves to blame, is freely accepted.
Just as for Sakyamuni Buddha the Treatise of the Law is “incomprehensible and inexpressible” and for Roman Catholics there are several mysteries, or in lay terms absolute contradictions, which lie beyond the reach of reason, but are reconciled in faith, so for Calvinists the ways of God are simply accepted as lying beyond the reach of human understanding.
Similarly, although faith in the Bible, as God’s infallible word, rises above the limitations of human logic, it is the duty of each and every individual to read it and personally to come to terms with it.
In Shin Buddhism, from Shinran’s time onwards, a major change was the greatly increased role of the lay followers, and today The Religious Corporation Shogyoji is governed by an elected Head Priest and five lay Trustees.
In the case of Three Wheels, the original seven Trustees consisted of the Head Priest of Shogyoji, the Director, Rev. Kemmyo Taira Sato, and five lay Trustees, and now, eleven of its thirteen Trustees, three of them women, are lay people.
Somewhat similarly, Presbyterianism is run on a representational system in which, within each individual congregation, authority is given to elected lay leaders, known as `Elders’ (or Presbyters, from the Greek word for elder), who work with the congregation’s ordained Minister.
It is largely as a result of its insistence on individual reading of the Bible that Presbyterianism is not governed by a priestly hierarchy, and the images, appurtenances and ceremonial, associated with the priesthood in the Catholic Church have all been swept away.
It was not until some two centuries later that the Methodist Church, a rather more tolerant, less doctrinaire and austere body, with about 23 million members around the world, came into being.
Founded by John Wesley (1703-91) in 1738, it too eventually swept away many of the structures, adjuncts and beliefs originally handed down through the Catholic Church and still maintained by the established Anglican faith then dominant in England, but less so in Scotland, the stronghold of Presbyterianism.
Like Shin Buddhism, Methodism too is based on justification by faith alone.
When one reads of John Wesley’s attainment of faith, one cannot but recall Shinran Shonin’s repeated references, in his Letters and elsewhere, to the one thought moment of shinjin.
Early in 1738, John Wesley met a young Moravian Pastor called Peter Bohler, who influenced him greatly and, amongst other things, convinced him that instantaneous conversion was biblical.
As a result, he noted in his diary on 22nd April 1738, “I searched the Scriptures again touching this very thing, particularly the Acts of the Apostles; but, to my great astonishment, found scarce any instances there of other than instantaneous conversions …..”
This must undoubtedly be relevant to his own remarkable experience a month later, on May 24th.
He tells of how
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society at Aldersgate Street, where one was reading from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans (written by St. Paul).
About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.
I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
What is more, the parallel with Shinran’s own experience, of which of course he can have known nothing, does not end there.
His declaration of his “sure trust and confidence that Christ died for my sins, that he loved me, and gave himself for me” was central to what he referred to as the New Birth.
His words are almost a paraphrase of what Yuien reported in the Postscript to the Tannisho, when he wrote that The Master was wont to say
“When I deeply reflect on the Vow of Amida, created through five kalpas of profound thought, I find the Vow is entirely meant for me, Shinran, alone.”
On 18th June 1738, in The first of his Forty-Four Sermons, published in 1746, Wesley goes back, like the Lutherans and Calvinists before him, to the authority of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (Ch.2,V. 8) `By grace are ye saved through faith.”
He is as absolute as the Smaller Sukhavati- Vyuha, and subsequently Shinran Shonin, in declaring that there is nothing at all that sinful man can do through his own efforts to save himself, but that the certainty of salvation can indeed be attained in this life.
In his own words
“For there is nothing that we are, or have, or do which can deserve the least thing at God’s hand. All our works, Thou, O God, hast wrought in us.”
And in various later passages, he says
“Wherewithal then shall a sinful man atone for any the least of his sins? With his own works? No.”
Christ died to save us. `By grace’ then `are ye saved through faith.’ Grace is the source, faith the condition of salvation.
….. it is a present salvation ….. yea, actually attained here on earth, ….. For thus saith the Apostle to the believers at Ephesus, and in them to the believers of all ages ….. And neither here, nor in other parts of holy writ, is there any limitation or restriction.”
In passages such as these, Wesley is clearly distancing himself from the Calvinists, with their concepts of Predestination and Limited Atonement and, like Luther, he was also deeply concerned to refute any accusations that to believe in justification by faith, which means a deliverance from guilt and punishment for sin, is to attack or undermine the doing of good works.
He opens the third section of his Sermon by dealing with this primary objection, which goes back to the days of St. Paul,
“That to preach salvation, or justification, by faith only, is to preach against holiness and good works. To which a short answer might be given: `It would be so, if we spake, as some do, of a faith which was separate from these; but we speak of a faith which is not so, but is productive of all good works, and all holiness.”
He then goes on at great length to list and refute all the other objections that there might be.
In this, he is at one, not only with the Lutherans, but also, of course, with the teachings of Shinran Shonin and the practice of Shin Buddhists.
Totally opposed to Calvinism, Roman Catholicism or `Popery’ as it was called, and later on to compliance with the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, which then was, and still is, the country’s established or official religion, Methodism was primarily based on four things.
The first of these was, of course, Scripture, the reading of Holy Writ, and to that was added Experience, Reason and Tradition, and it is perhaps not wholly unjustified, if one substitutes the Sutras for Christian Holy Writ, to see a certain parallel with Buddhism, despite the vast gulf which lies between them in other respects.
The history of Methodism is extremely complex, with the formation of many separate
denominations or breakaway groupings, and subsequent reunions.
But although, in hindsight, an eventual split was inevitable, Wesley, himself an ordained Anglican Deacon, did not set out to break away from the Church of England, and in 1784, declared “I believe I shall not separate from the Church of England until my soul separates from my body” and three years later that “when Methodists leave the Church, God will leave them.”
Early Methodists regularly attended Anglican services, and Methodism started out as a series of local Societies, initially often led by Anglican parish priests, assisted by local lay preachers, to whom were soon added teams of itinerant lay preachers who were assigned to a series of seven circuits, the priests and preachers then assembling in Conferences, strictly controlled by Wesley himself, who was, by nature an autocrat rather than a democrat.
However, in that same year, of 1784, three events accelerated the process of secession.
Firstly, Conference signed the Deed of Declaration, giving Methodism independent legal status. Secondly, the shortage of clergy in America forced Wesley to agree to the independent ordination of Methodist Ministers. Finally, he revised the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and soon after his death in 1791, the breakaway was completed.
As usual, in learning a little, I have also learnt the vast range of my ignorance and the extent to which I have undoubtedly been led to over-simplify and merely skate over the surface of the things that I have tried to discuss in the hope of enriching the process of encounter for Shin Buddhist followers as they get to know the English speaking world in Britain and America.
Appreciation of the extent to which belief in justification by faith alone is common to Shin Buddhists, and to Lutheran, Calvinist and Methodist Christians alike, does not entail, and should not lead to, a less clear realization of the many fundamental concepts that separate them.
Similarities and differences are the two sides of a single coin, and both need to be fully taken into account, if any true encounter, in the Buddhist sense of the term, is to take place.
Nevertheless, it might, perhaps, be appropriate to end by quoting the haiku on the UCL Monument to the pioneers of 1863 and 1865:
When distant minds
Note: This talk was given by Prof. John White at both Shogyoji Temple in Japan and Three Wheels.