Enlightenment as Awakening to Essential Kenosis Amida Buddha as the God of unlimited Compassion
Process theologians have been in dialogue with Buddhists for more than fifty years. They - we - have learned much from Buddhism, often sensing that traditional Buddhist insights concerning mutual becoming, no substantial selfhood, the aliveness of all things, inter-becoming and the primacy of compassion are more "process" than we are. Many of the dialogues have been with Zen Buddhists, an explicitly non-theistic form of Buddhism. But the most influential forms of Buddhism around the world are theistic, not non-theistic, and they generally called Pure Land traditions. In some ways the Pure Land traditions are more congenial to process theology than Zen, because they include within them trust in a cosmic Bodhisattva, Amitabha or Amida, whose nature resembles that of God in process theology.
In our time, process theology can rightly be understood as one form of open and relational theology, of which (happily) there are others. The essay below introduces readers to some of the ideas you might find in an Open and Relational Pure Land Buddhism. My hope is that some of the ideas introduced might be further explored and enriched by open and relational theologians, east and west, some of whom are Pure Land Buddhists.
Imagine that we – you and I - live in a universe with billions upon billions of sentient beings, all of whom possess the Buddha-Nature. Imagine also that one of them is the God of open and relational theology. God is an expression of, not an exception to, the quality of aliveness that is in all living beings: the Buddha-Nature.
If you are a Pure Land Buddhist, you will understand this God as a cosmic Bodhisattva, who embraces and includes the entire universe with tender care, seeking the salvation of each and all. You will address the Bodhisattva as Amida Buddha. If you are Christian, you may think of this Bodhisattva as the Abba of Jesus. You address the Bodhisattva as God.
Let God and Amida have the same referent: a loving and inclusive Life, with feelings of her own, whose very nature is kenotic or self-emptying love.
If you are Buddhist, you may want to qualify the suggestion just a bit. To speak of Amida as self-emptying could suggest that Amida first has a “self” and that then Amida “empties” himself/herself. Your Buddhist perspective suggests a slightly different way of thinking about it.
For you, we living beings do not “have” separate selves that then “empty” themselves. Rather we are already empty of substantial selfhood. This is the doctrine of Anatman or no-substantial self. The doctrine does not say that experiences are an illusion. Suffering and joy, love and hatred, kindness and greed, sadness and laughter are real. Anatman does not deny their reality. It says that the idea of a self, separate from our experiences, is an illusion. Our selves are not separate from our feelings and decisions; instead, our selves are our feelings and decisions. We do not stand over our lives as distant observers, unaffected by what is happening; we inhabit our lives. We are our lives. And God is God's life, too. This means that, when we say that God is self-emptying love, we really mean that there is a cosmic instance of self-emptying love, everywhere at once, who is God. There is no God outside of self-emptying love, who then chooses to embody such love. Self-emptying love is God's essence. God is essential kenosis.
It sounds a bit like Thomas Oord.
Now imagine that you, as a Buddhist, share this idea with a Christian friend. You suggest to your friend that he stop saying "God stands outside creation but chooses to empty himself" and say instead "The self-emptying love at the heart of creation is who and what God is."
Your friend, a theology student, laughs. “You sound like a radical theologian, like Thomas Altizer. Altizer speaks of the self-emptying of God as God’s self-embodiment in the world, almost as if in the act of self-embodying, God ceases to be God in Heaven and becomes, as it were, God on Earth.”
You offer a Pure Land Buddhist interpretation: “Maybe he is saying that the image of God in heaven, as separate from God’s self-emptying love, is the problem, because it suggests that God is separate from God’s love. Maybe the death of God refers to the death of an image of God as a separate self. This dying can make space for a deeper understanding of God as self-emptying love.”
What is this self-emptying love?
As an open and relational Buddhist, you believe that this it has two sides: beckoning and sympathy. It is an activity, everywhere at once, within the heart of the universe, that beckons or lures each creature and the world at large into well-being, never giving up, and it is an activity of compassion, of empathy, which shares in the joys and sufferings of all living beings.
It is not responsible for the violence in the world, but it can be a healing and comforting presence. We can live from faith, from trust, in self-emptying love.
Moreover, we can feel the self-emptying love as a personal presence: a friend.
As a Buddhist, you believe that each and every human being (and other sentient beings as well) is a subject and not simply an object. We can say You to plants and animals, hills and rivers, and, of course, people. And we can say You to Amida. We can feel Amida's presence as that of a loving subject, a holy and compassionate Thou, a friend, in whose light we walk. We can pray to Amida and light incense to Amida. And we can be eternally grateful to her thousand arms of compassion.
Indeed, we Pure Land Buddhists believe Amida's compassion has been everywhere on the planet, all the time. In all religions and outside religion, too. Never has Amida been a controlling influence, but always a beckoning influence.
We believe that a young Jew from Nazareth experienced Amida's compassion and spoke to Amida as Abba. Abba was his name for Amida.
Might we Pure Land Buddhists be Christian, too, albeit without abandoning our Buddhism?
A well-known Christian theologian, John Cobb, wrote a book proposing that Pure Land Buddhists can indeed see the healing ministry of Jesus as a central focus around which they might orient our lives. We wouldn't become Baptists or Methodists or Catholics, he said; we would become Pure Land Buddhists with a special place for Jesus in our hearts and live. We would be Buddhists for Jesus.
He also talked about how Christians can learn from Buddhism how to move beyond images of substantial selfhood and grow into what he called a perfection of love. For John Cobb, one of the most pernicious elements of historical Christianity has been its unwitting clinging to a substantial self. Such clinging gets in the way of love.
So what about God as creator? We open and relational Buddhists don't think Amida created the world out of nothing. If Christians believe this of God, then we can kindly disagree. But we know that many open and relational Christians don't believe this either. They speak of creation out of chaos, not creation out of nothing. That's how we see things, too. We believe that the universe has no temporal beginning and no temporal end; that it has always been unfolding.
We believe that Amida, the cosmic Bodhisattva of compassion, has been with the creation from the beginningless beginning: beckoning creatures into what is possible for them.
VIII. For us, as Buddhists, the deepest possibility into which we can be beckoned, available to us all, is awakening or enlightenment. We offer to the open and relational community an ideal that comes from our own tradition, but which can be relevant to all.
What is enlightenment? The open and relational community gives us fresh language. It is awakening to essential kenosis.
It is awakening to the interconnected nature of the whole of the universe. It is awakening to the fact that our very lives are composed of our relations with others. It is awakening to the fact that there is no self-contained ego that cuts us off from the world. It is awakening to living fact that our universe is enfolded within a cosmic love who shares in all joys and sufferings. It is awakening to the fact that we ourselves can be vessels of this love, extending its rays of light to each and all. We, too, can be bodhisattvas, in our small and human ways.
When we thus awaken, we realize that this very world, rightly understood, is the Pure Land.
The Pure Land is not this world alone. It includes all worlds: past and future, terrestrial and galactic, small and large, heavenly and hellish. There is no place where kenotic love is not. There is no place where Amida is absent. They say that Jesus descended into hell. We believe that, when he got there, he found that his Abba was already there, in kenotic love.
But we best begin where we are, blooming where we are planted. On this earth the Pure Land is not simply the way things are, it is the way things can be and need to be. The Pure Land happens when we give ourselves to Amida's love in small and important ways: at home and in the workplace, among friends and strangers, in small acts of kindness. And it happens when we try to build communities that are good for all: for people, animals, and the Earth. Kenotic love does not stop with what is, it moves into what can be.