The Buddha declined to make any statement in regard to the ultimate divine Reality. All he would talk about was Nirvana… The Buddha would speak only of the spiritual experience, not of the metaphysical entity presumed by the theologians of other religions, as also of later Buddhism, to be the object and (since in contemplation the knower, the known and the knowledge are all one) at the same time the subject and substance of that experience.
In the Lotus Sutra, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni says his enlightenment is so far beyond our understanding, that he can only communicate it through similes and parables, various forms of upaya or skillful means.
It doesn’t matter whether or not Amida Buddha is a historical being, if what he symbolizes (as a upaya) is the Ultimate Truth itself. What matters is that Dharma-body, that which Amida Buddha signifies, is a true reality.
However, the source of skillful means does matter, since only an enlightened being such as the historical Buddha is qualified to know which provisional teachings will lead others to the Ultimate Truth of enlightenment.
Amida Buddha, as a symbol of the Dharmakaya, would be meaningless if there wasn’t the historical Shakyamuni in the first place, who experienced the Dharmakaya for himself, and then symbolized it as Amida Buddha.*
In the Nembutsu, the name of Amida Buddha, Namu-Amida-Butsu, we are led by Dharma-body to the Pure Land, the realm of Nirvana. The heaven-like language used to describe the Pure Land is also a upaya for Nirvana itself.
*If the historical Buddha didn’t teach about Amida Buddha, then what matters is that enlightened teachers who came after Shakyamuni taught about Amida.
The concept of upaya in the Lotus Sutra is little different from the Pali concept of Buddhist teaching as a provisional raft to the other shore of Nirvana.
This is one of the Buddha’s most important quotes:
There is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. If there were not this Unborn, this Unoriginated, this Uncreated, this Unformed, escape from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the formed, would not be possible. But since there is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, therefore is escape possible from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the formed. https://www.budsas.org/ebud/word-of-buddha/wob4nt04.htm
Please compare the above to Shinran quoting the Chinese Pure Land master Shan-tao on the nature of the Pure Land:
The Pure Land is the realm of Nirvana, the “escape from the born, the originated, the created, the formed.” Shinran described the Pure Land as “the birth of non-birth,” just as the Buddha described Nirvana as “the unborn.”
The Buddha selected the name of Amida, Namu-Amida-Butsu, as a skillful device (upaya) for bringing ordinary beings like ourselves into the realm of Nirvana. Whether Amida is a literal historical being is beside the point.
Shinran understood the Pure Land to be the formless realm of Nirvana. This is why Shinran described rebirth into the Pure Land as “the birth of non-birth,” just as the Buddha described Nirvana as “the unborn.”
In the words of the larger Amitabha Sutra, “That Buddha-land, like the realm of unconditioned Nirvana, is pure and serene, resplendent and blissful.”
The name of the Pure Land itself, Sukhavati, means “ultimate bliss,” which is a positive description of Nirvana. (Usually, in other Buddhist texts, Nirvana is described in negative terms.)
If our future rebirth into the Pure Land is already assured through sincere trust in Amida Buddha, then everything we do in our Buddhist path, including reciting the Nembutsu, is in gratitude for what we’ve already received.
The popular conception of the Pure Land as a Buddhist heaven, where we’ll someday meet our deceased relatives, has perhaps more to do with Chinese ancestor worship, with its emphasis on filial piety, than with Buddhism itself.
Shinran, like Tan-luan and Shandao, understood the Pure Land as the formless realm of Nirvana, rather than a heaven, and therefore referred to it as “the birth of no-birth,” just as the Buddha described Nirvana as “the unborn.”
Buddhism was not immediately accepted in China, because the doctrines of non-self, rebirth, and Nirvana challenged traditional Chinese beliefs about the spirits of dead relatives, that good deeds should be done in their honor.
If there is no permanent, unchanging self, but instead a stream of consciousness from one lifetime to the next, what good is there in dedicating merit to one’s ancestors? The answer to this question might be unsettling for many.
Chinese folk religion therefore came to produce an image of the Pure Land as a Confucian-like and Taoist-like paradise, as an accommodation of Buddhism to traditional Chinese values and customs.
Shinran said that he never recited the Nembutsu out of filial piety. Nonetheless, Shinran had compassionate understanding for those who, however misguided, clung to the notion of a permanent self that will meet our deceased ancestors.
As the realm of Nirvana, the true Pure Land is inconceivable. The heaven-like language we use to describe it is a finger pointing to the moon, making the Ultimate Truth accessible to ordinary beings like ourselves:
Meaning itself is beyond debate of such matters as like against dislike, evil against virtue, falsity against truth. Hence, words may indeed have meaning, but the meaning is not the words. Consider, for example, a person instructing us by pointing to the moon with his finger. The person would say, ‘I am pointing to the moon with my finger in order to show it to you. Why do you look at my finger and not the moon?’ Similarly, words are the finger pointing to the meaning; they are not the meaning itself. Hence, do not rely upon words. http://shinranworks.com/the-major-expositions/chapter-on-transformed-buddha-bodies-and-lands/
As the realm of Nirvana, the true Pure Land is inconceivable. The heaven-like language we use to describe it is a finger pointing to the moon, making the Ultimate Truth accessible to ordinary beings like ourselves…
I really do not know whether the Nembutsu may be the cause for my rebirth into the Pure Land (the realm of Nirvana), or the act that shall condemn me to hell. But I have nothing to regret, even if I should have been deceived, and, saying the Nembutsu, fall into hell.
If I were capable of attaining Buddhahood by other religious practices and yet fell into hell for saying the Nembutsu, I might have dire regrets for having been deceived. But since I am absolutely incapable of any religious practice, hell is my only home.
If enlightenment is the abolishment of craving, how can we attain it by craving it? If enlightenment is the realization of non-self, how do we attain it through self-effort alone?In reciting the name of Amida Buddha, we are safely and effortlessly reborn into the Pure Land, the realm of Nirvana.
When the Buddha passed away into final Nirvana, he transcended the limitations of existence and non-existence. Shinran described rebirth into the Pure Land as the birth of non-birth, just as the Buddha described Nirvana as the unborn.