By Rev. Jon Turner
In high school, I had an English teacher who once asked why one of the female characters in an Earnest Hemingway short story was atypical? I was confused by the question. It seemed that a word was missing. I thought he meant to ask why was she a typical heroine or a typical mother? But he told me that “a” in front of a word acts as a negater. So “atypical” means not typical. In other words, why was she not a typical Hemmingway female character?
It is the same with “Amida” Buddha. “Mida” is a Sanskrit word for a measurement or to measure. Our word “meter” – a measure of distance - derives from this word. If we put an “a” in front of “mida” then we have “Amida” – a word that describes something that is not measureable. In our case, it is a Buddha that is not measureable - it is an Immeasurable Buddha. Amida Buddha describes a reality that is constantly manifesting enlightenment all around us. It is both what caused Shakyamuni to seek the path and the content of his realization under the Bodhi tree.
Thus, Amida is not a person and not a god but it sometimes sounds like it is to the western ear within a Christian culture. Just yesterday, a woman new to our temple said that she was sometimes confused because what she hears often sounds a bit like Christianity. I told her that this is common and I felt the same way when I first began attending OCBC. This seeming similarity occurs for many reasons but one of the major ones is the statue of Amida Buddha.
We are taught that Amida Buddha is a personification of enlightenment but in the West it can seem much more like an actual real person. This is especially so whenever some one refers to Amida and his teachings. That pronoun “his” is very misleading. To a Christian ear it really does sound like a God.
Adding to the confusion, the Japanese do sometimes refer to Amida Buddha as a loving father but this is not a heavenly father. They are describing a relationship rather than a person. Amida as father is how enlightened reality feels. When one realizes that they are embraced by truth in their everyday lives then they feel safe and secure as does a child within the arms of their father.
But I have always been a little suspicious of this metaphor. The image of Amida as a heavenly father is hard to shake. I have secretly always wanted to ask a Japanese national if anyone in Japan really thinks of Amida Buddha as an actual God. I got my chance when a foreign minister stayed at our home for several days. This was part of an orientation program for minsters in Japan who might like to be assigned in America.
It was just he and I driving together. I was at the wheel and there was a pause in the small talk so I leaned in and asked the question, “Do the Japanese think of Amida Buddha as a God.” He looked at me like I just asked a really dumb question – almost verging on an insulting one. He said absolutely not. He said Amida is wisdom itself working within our lives.
Good answer, good answer. I thought to myself. It was the answer I was hoping for. Then the car grew silent again. I hoped I hadn’t been out of line. I began to think about his reaction to my question. Was it insulting?
Then it hit me. How would I have felt if he had asked me – in all seriousness – if Americans think of the Statue of Liberty as a real woman, a divine being, who actually welcomes and cares for visitors to the United States. I would have thought the question was a little insulting or even naïve. I likely would have thought that he was being sarcastic. Every one knows that the Statue of Liberty is a beautiful and powerful symbol of what it means and how it feels to be an American.
I have never confused the Statue of Liberty with a god. I have always understood that it is a personification of an ideal, a way of life, a feeling. But perhaps I could do this because this statue is a national symbol rather than a religious one. Interesting that it is so easy in one context yet so difficult in another.
I think that if I had grown up in Japan – a Buddhist country - then I would have naturally thought of Amida Buddha the same way I think of the Statue of Liberty. I would have internalized Amida Buddha as the Statue of Clarity rather than as a person or a god.
I don’t think referring to Amida Buddha as the Statue of Clarity will ever catch on but it is this kind of openness and wordplay that will one day bear fruit allowing the teachings to be accessible to anyone who is interested – without any special training. If ever confused about Amida Buddha just whisper the Statue of Clarity to yourself and then say Namuamidabutsu.
Rev. Jon Turner