- Reply to Amos Yong's "Ignorance, Knowledge, and Omniscience"
Amos Yong has provided a detailed outline for a comparison of parallel topics in Shinran and Calvinist thought, as well as reflections on epistemological issues he believes confront both traditions in similar ways. I have long sensed that the turn of thought by which the Augustinian problematic of predestination and free will became the Calvinist idea of unconditional election reflects a kind of thoroughgoing critique of self-power characteristic of Japanese Pure Land perceptions. Nevertheless, in this limited reply, I will focus chiefly on the understanding of Shinran in Yong's paper.
In my chapter in The Boundaries of Knowledge in Buddhism, Christianity, and Science, as well as my essay above, both of which Yong responds to, I suggest that the dominant Western paradigms for approaching Shinran have tended to obscure what is salient in his thought by presupposing the nature of religious engagement and focusing on conceptual analogues to Western ideas. For Shinran, however, self-power and Other Power are not simply subjective attitudes of the practitioner toward doctrinal teachings, but distinct modes of human existence; between them lies a transformative shift that Shinran terms the realization of shinjin. Thus, I wonder if, despite the resemblances Yong sets forth in his treatment of the Calvinist TULIP, Shinran's concern with the overcoming of the false reification of self and attainment, in some sense, of nondiscriminative wisdom or reality does not indicate a significant and persistent dissonance at the core of the thinking of the two religious figures.
It appears that the central concern in the Calvinist narrative is the relationship between human beings and God as agents of will. From the bedrock predicament of estrangement and need for reconciliation emerges the problems of sin, election, atonement, grace, and preservation from apostasy. Although noteworthy structural analogies between the traditions might be pursued, of these terms, it is only grace, perhaps, that has an unforced counterpart in Shinran's thought. Amida Buddha is not sinned against and does not select, judge, make righteous, or forgive. The dilemma that beings face is not disobedience and expiation, but the pain arising from clinging to a delusional self, one falsely imagined to be an enduring, transcendent subject and autonomous agent.
For this reason, moreover, Shinran's stance in his writings might better be characterized as phenomenological and hermeneutical than epistemological. When he [End Page 211] states, "Whether the nembutsu is truly the seed for being born in the Pure Land, or whether it is a karmic act that causes one to fall into hell, I do not know," he is manifesting a world of lived experience and challenging ontological presuppositions. From a Shin perspective, modern scientific knowledge belongs among human modes of apprehending the world but does not displace all others or resolve fundamental ignorance. Yong repeatedly refers to the notion of the last dharma-age, as though the times were a distorting medium that condemns its human inhabitants to lives of dissoluteness. Rather, for Shinran, human existence itself is irrevocably conditioned, and salvation lies in being pervaded by wisdom-compassion while remaining possessed of falsity and afflicting attachment. [End Page 212]