When one recites the Buddha’s name (Namu-Amida-Butsu), Buddha Amitabha is one’s Self-Nature, the Pure Land is the blissful land of one’s own mind. Anyone who can singlemindedly recite the Buddha’s name in thought after thought and concentrate deeper and deeper will always find Amitabha Buddha appearing in their own mind.
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…
In the past the Buddha established expedients; one was called ‘rebirth in the Pure Land,’ another ‘seeing into one’s own Buddha-nature.’ How can these be two different things! Zen people who have not penetrated to this understanding look at a Pure Land practitioner and think that he is a stupid and evil common person who knows nothing about the Great Matter of seeing into one’s own Buddha-nature.
In Shin Buddhism, Ainida’s name, “Namu Amida Butsu (i.e., the six-character name),” is the most important thing. The reason it is considered the most important thing in Shin Buddhism is that it is one of the most compact and excellent expressions of the essence of Buddhism.
Namu Amida Butsu means “Bowing Amida Buddha.” (Besides “bowing” namu (Sk. namas] has other meanings such as “taking refuge in,” “worshipping,” and “revering.”) This Name expresses the “humble and dynamic spirit,” the essence of Buddhahood…
We can say that “Amida” symbolizes two things: (1) Shakyamuni, a historical person, and (2) the Dharma or universal Buddhahood.
First, “Amida” symbolizes Shakyamuni, a historical person… We can say that “Amida” symbolizes the “humble and dynamic spirit” of Shakyamuni…
Second, “Amida” symbolizes the Dharma or universal Buddhahood. Mahayanists created the concept not only to express the vital spirit of Shakyamuni, but also to show the spiritual basis of Shakyamuni and all human beings.
They wanted to show that just as Shakyamuni was awakened and liberated by the Dharma (or universal Buddhahood), all human beings are awakened and liberated by it. Thus, as far as our personal attainment of Buddhahood is concerned, this second meaning of “Amida” as a symbol of the Dharma (or universal Buddhahood) is more important than the first.
The goal in Buddhism is that we personally become Amida Buddhas. The Buddhahood that we are expected to attain in Buddhism is not the historical Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, but the universal Buddhahood that is symbolized in “Amida.”…
We must realize our deepest reality, our true selves, which is what the realization of Amida Buddhahood means…
Amida is a symbol of the “humble and dynamic spirit.” In our personal lives we must meet a person who embodies this spirit and discover “Amida” in ourselves. When we personally become one with it and become humble and dynamic students, we experience liberation. https://seattlebetsuin.com/what_is_amida_buddha.htm
The Supreme Buddha is formless, and because of being formless is called Suchness. The Buddha, when appearing with form, is not called the Supreme Nirvana. In order to make us realize that the true Buddha is formless, it is expressly called Amida Buddha; so I have been taught. Amida Buddha is the medium (relative truth) through which we are made to realize Suchness (Ultimate Truth).
Shinran Shōnin goes even further in explaining the importance of religious symbols. He
teaches us that the Buddha’s enlightenment is formless; we cannot see it, touch it, or grasp it. But,
because it is true, it makes itself known to us by taking form.
Shinran says that formless truth (Dharma-body) takes the form of the light of wisdom and the Name of Amida Buddha—Namu Amida Butsu. The
images and stories of Amida Buddha are all religious symbols, the form taken by wisdom and
compassion in order to guide us to enlightenment.
This is pretty confusing stuff. So Shinran Shōnin and Nâgârjuna (ca. 150–250 C.E.) used
the idea of a finger pointing to the moon to explain it.
Picture this: We are walking along a path
at night, staring at our footsteps as we try not to stumble. Suddenly, someone comes up to us,
taps us on the shoulder, and points up into the sky. We follow the direction of his finger and, for
the first time, we see the moon, gleaming high up in the dark sky.
Here, the finger is a symbol. It represents the teachings or imagery which point us to the
moon. The moon is like enlightenment itself. Normally, we don’t see it and, when we do, we
don’t know what it is. It seems so far away. We’re disconnected to it.
“What we need is a finger that can point us to the moon—the dharma, a teacher or a symbol,
which can connect us to it. Teachings of Amida Buddha, also painting and statues of Amida are
the finger. Enlightenment, to which a Buddha awakens, constitutes the moon.”
Religious symbols, such as teachings, images, songs and stories, all help to direct our
attention away from worldly matters and toward ultimate truth. Without the finger, we could not
see the moon. But, we should not mistake the finger for the moon. Religious symbols all help to
change the direction of our lives or the way we see things.
A statue of Amida Buddha may focus
our reverence and help to generate a sense of joyful faith in our hearts. But it is a statue
nonetheless; it is not the Buddha.
At the same time, however, Shinran Shōnin’s insight was deeper.
A finger is just a finger. It
simply points to the moon. However, without the light of the moon, we could not see the finger.
It could not guide us to see the moon. In other words, a symbol takes on religious power only
when it acts together with the working of enlightenment.
A statue, story or word can only do its
“symbolizing work” when enlightenment makes itself known to us through it.
Through the images of the Buddha, the story of Amida Buddha and even the Name of the
Buddha, timeless and formless truth takes the form of a symbol, pointing us to that truth and
revealing the deepest levels of our lives.
Shinran says that formless truth (Dharma-body) takes the form of the light of wisdom and the Name of Amida Buddha—Namu Amida Butsu. The images and stories of Amida Buddha are all religious symbols, the form taken by wisdom and compassion in order to guide us to enlightenment.