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  • Whose Buddhism? Whose Identity? Presenting and/or Misrepresenting Shin Buddhism for a Christian AudienceAAR Panel on Multiple Religious Belonging and Buddhist Identity November, 2013
  • Kristin Johnston Largen

multiple religious belonging

The concept of multiple religious belonging has become much more popular in the past ten years, both in academic discourse and in public practice, particularly in the United States. One of the most common “pairings” in this regard is Buddhism and Christianity. Perhaps this is not surprising: Since at least the 1900s Christians have been fascinated with “oriental” religions in general and Buddhism in particular.1 And yet, here at the close of 2013, we can conclude that this fascination has not been unproblematic.

It is fair to say that from their first introduction, Christians have regarded Buddhism more as a humanistic philosophy than as a religion (as that term typically is understood in a Western context) and consequently as not putting forth any exclusive truth claims.2 This idea has led to the assumption that Buddhism can be easily mined for self-improvement techniques and attitudes that can be smoothly integrated into a Christian framework.

So, for example, Christian congregations and individuals alike pursue with alacrity meditation, mindfulness, and mantra recitation without much, if any, awareness of what they mean and how they function within a particular Buddhist context.3

This has had negative ramifications for Christians and Buddhists alike, and even though Shin Buddhism has not been a frequent dialogue partner with Christianity, it is particular vulnerable to these kind of distortions, given the apparent resemblances between them. Dennis Hirota notes that [End Page 29]

similarities with Christian teachings have often led to fundamental difficulties in expressing and understanding Shin thought in the context of dialogue with other religions. Because Shin Buddhist statements about reality and human engagement with it have seemed so similar in certain respects to some Christian doctrines, it has been assumed that the conceptions of truth are the same, and therefore such problems as the nature of religious engagement or the ontological status of a supreme being are the same.4

In the same vein, Gregory Gibbs writes that “We cannot escape the tendency that many scholars will have to elaborate Shinshū against the backdrop of Christian thought. Alfred Bloom and Unno Taitetsu have each expressed reservations about ‘the recourse to traditions other than Shin to explain its basic teachings.’”5

So, we find ourselves in a situation in which well-meaning Christian practitioners and academics, with the best of intentions, often seek to interpret Shin Buddhism through a Christian lens, such that it can be better understood, approached, and experienced by Christians. However, the linguistic and conceptual bridges that are built in this way unfortunately can distort the very ground on which they stand, facilitating a fabricated sense of multiple religious belonging by asserting false parallels. In my view, these bridges function more effectively when they are designed to facilitate a going out and a returning home [rather than travel to a new destination entirely], with the goal of what I might call a “Buddhist-infused” Christianity, which may well be both more authentic and more constructive than any “multiple” permutation of either.

In light of all this, then, my paper proceeds as follows. I first examine the portrayal of Amida, both as described by Shinran himself, and also as depicted in the three Pure Land sutras.6 I then explore how Amida has been characterized for a Christian audience, demonstrating how descriptions of Amida often are couched in Christian theistic language, resulting in the fact that Amida looks uncannily similar to “God,” particularly when the understanding of Amida’s relationship to those who invoke his name is defined using a christological and soteriological model.7 I then turn to the important concept of shinjin, arguing that the popular translation of shinjin as “faith” only furthers the assumption that Christianity and Shin Buddhism make the same basic claims about human existence.

who is amida buddha?

Beginning with Shinran and Shin Buddhism, the first thing that must be emphasized is that, according to The Larger Sutra on Amitāyus, Amida Buddha is not a “god,” as Christians understand the term, but originally, at...


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