A Jodo Shinshu reading of Tolkien


Note: In what follows it is not intended to make the claim that Tolkien, a devout Christian, was a crypto-Buddhist. The intent is merely to convey what I, a Jodoshinshu Buddhist, get from reading Tolkien through that lens. Also, it should be noted that a deep reading of the Lord of the Rings is helpful in approaching the following essay as we make little attempt to provide clear explanations or proofs regarding the characters, events or conceptual themes in that work.

The Lord of the Rings (hereinafter LotR), by J. R. R. Tolkien, contains a great deal of material which speaks to issues near and dear to Jodo Shinshu Buddhists. After all, it is redolent with Pure Land imagery (as in descriptions of Lothlórien and Rivendell), LotR also develops themes relating to the calling of the name (of ‘Elbereth’), the Bodhisattva ideal (through Elrond and Gandalf), the dangers of self-power (as evident in Sauron, Saruman, Gollum, Boromir, Denethor, the Rings of Power, and the Uruk-hai), the limitations of the Pratyeka Buddha ideal (through Tom Bombadil), the inability to do good despite our best intentions (as seen in Frodo’s inability to destroy the Ring) and the value of compassion (which Bilbo, Gandalf, and Frodo show towards Gollum).

At present, I will only touch on these topics in a broad and suggestive way rather than going into great detail or with any attempt at comprehensiveness. For instance, there will be no scholarly discussions regarding any possible relationship between the Elven realm of Lórien presided over by Galadriel and her consort, Celeborn, which is located in Middle-Earth and the garden of the same name located in Valinor (the Undying Lands, where only immortals reside). Nor will I be discussing the likelihood (or symbolic meaning) of Glorfindel being the Elf of the same name who was head of the House of the Golden Flower.

I will place in bold such terms and phrases as can provide further points for comparative study.

Interconnectedness, Light and Pure Lands

One of the basic themes of Buddhism, reflected in the LotR, is the interconnectedness of all life. Taetestu Unno remarks:

This interconnectedness [of] life, however, extends not only to humans but to all beings, both animate and inanimate. Based upon the central Mahayana philosophy of interdependence and inter-penetration…

Shinran Shonin has written:

The [infinite life and light (wisdom and compassion) of the] Tathagata pervades countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings, thus plant, trees and land all attain Buddhahood.

Taetetsu Unno, in reference to this quote, explains:

The Tathagata or Buddha as fundamental reality … provid[es] the source of life and creativity. This source fuels the energy in nature, so that plants, trees and land fully realize their potentials. The same source enables human beings to become liberated from their ego-self and thus become truly human. This is none other than Buddha-nature actualized and attaining its fullest flowering. Human Beings, animals, plants, and the land all attain Buddhahood.

The idea of trees attaining their fullest flowering and attaining Buddhahood can be best seen in the lives and wisdom of the Ents: especially in Treebeard/Fangorn; while the idea of land and plants attaining their fullest flowering is, perhaps, best seen in descriptions of Lothlorien which are similar to those of the Pure Land.

Sukhavati (‘Land of Utmost Bliss’), the Western Pure Land of Amida (the Buddha of unhindered light and infinite life) is described as follows:

[T]his buddha-land continuously produces heavenly music, and the ground is yellow gold. In the six periods of the day and night, the heavens rain down māndārava flowers. In this land throughout the early morning, due to the precepts, all sentient beings have an abundant multitude of exquisite flowers.

In describing Lothlórien, the Sindarin Elf, Legolas, exclaims:

That is the fairest of all the dwellings of my people. There are no trees like the trees of that land. For in the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.

Frodo was also struck by the quality of Lothlorien’s light, by the land’s ineffability, antiquity and newness as well as its purity or stainlessness:

Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.

Similarly, Śākyamuni praises Amida’s light:

Amida Buddha’s Light is of the finest quality; it is the most excellent of all that is good; it is pleasing beyond compare; it is superb and unparalleled. Amida Buddha’s Light is pure, serene, and unblemished and lacks nothing. Amida Buddha’s Light is incomparably excellent…

The flowers, the yellow and golden colors, the quality of the light, the lack of blemish, the music coming from the land (not otherwise mentioned in this essay), are all very similar in descriptions of Lothlorien and Sukhavati. The time-dilation felt in those lands (also not mentioned here), the healing of physical wounds and emotional stresses (again, not mentioned) might also be taken as significant similarities; not to mention a certain vagueness about whether one is somehow both in the world and removed from the world at one and the same time while in those lands.

These are just a few of the similarities that immediately come to mind when reading Tolkien’s LoTR in the light of Jodoshinshu.

The Boddhisattva Ideal, Wisdom and Giving

Elrond, the half-Elven, clearly embodies the Boddhisattva ideal in resisting the temptation to pass over the ‘sundering seas‘ to Elvenhome in the West (the Blessed Realm of Aman) and stay there enjoying bliss and peace, instead choosing to remain in Middle Earth and endure—together with all life—pain and loss, until his work is ended. While some Elves seem quite content to keep to themselves and do not become actively involved in the plight of the other kindreds (indicative of the Arhat ideal), others, like Elrond, do concern themselves with the larger issues and events of the outside world. To such Elves as these (like Elrond and Galadriel), the following words from the Lotus Sutra aptly apply:

I see bodhisattvas
Dwelling in forests, radiating light,
Alleviating the suffering of beings in the hells
And causing them to enter the Buddha path.
I also see heirs of the Buddhas
Who have never fallen asleep,
And are constantly wandering in forests
In search of the Buddha path.
I see some who are pure like jewels,
Endowed with integrity
And faultless in behavior…

Furthermore, I see heirs of the Buddhas
Who have the power of perseverance
And patiently endure
Having single-mindedly rid themselves of inner confusion
They are meditating in mountain forests.
I also see bodhisattvas seeking
For the highest path,
Who are giving food and drink,
And a hundred kinds of medicine
They give superb garments and clothing
And priceless robes…
They give clean garden groves
Full of flowers and fruits,
Fountains and bathing pools…
Thus they give such various excellent things,
With joy and vigor,
Seeking the supreme path.

Wisdom and the capacity for giving are also important themes in the LoTR. Galadriel’s consort, Celeborn, is described by her as possessing these qualities:

…the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle Earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of Kings.

Nevertheless, it is Galadriel who bestows the greatest gift of all: the Phial of Galadriel (which, regrettably, we will not discuss in this essay – though this is briefly mentioned in a comment below).

Self-power, Other-power and Calling the Name

The Ring of Power is the ultimate symbol of self-power in the LotR. This One Ring was made by the Dark Lord, Sauron, to help him bring all of Middle-Earth under his dominion.

The fallen Wizard, Saruman, modeled his dwelling (Isengard) and its tower (Orthanc) on the realm of Sauron (Mordor), and its tower (Barad-dûr).

This is telling because Isengard means ‘Iron Fortress’ and is thus indicative of the Kali Yuga [or ‘Iron Age’], and thus of the rise of Mappo [the third and last age of the decline of the Dharma]). Orthanc means ‘Cunning Mind‘ and is thus indicative of self-power calculation).

Saruman also imitated Sauron in employing Orcs as servants. The largest and most vicious breed of Orc was the ‘Uruk-hai’. This term, coincidentally, is very close to one of the Japanese terms for self-power calculation: hakarai.

In Freedom and Necessity in Shinran’s Concept of Karma, Ueda Yoshifumi describes the import of the term, hakarai:

Although burdened with karmic evil, we are not aware of its working, believing ourselves capable of choosing good over evil, we value as essentially worthy our aspirations to perform good as best we can. To become free of hakarai, then, is to awaken to our karmic evil and to our actual ignorance of [and incapacity to perform] good and evil.

That the cunning and calculating mind of Saruman is governed by hakarai is clear from Gandalf’s narration of his meeting with Saruman, wherein Saruman declares:

A new Power has arisen. Against it, there is no hope. With it, there is such hope as we never had before. None can now doubt its victory, which is near at hand. We fought it in vain—and foolishly. We knew much but not enough. We looked always at it from the outside and through a mist of old falsehood and hate; and we did not consider its high and ultimate purpose. We saw not the reasons, but only the things done, and some of those seemed evil; but they were done under necessity. There has been a conspiracy to hinder and frustrate knowledge, wisdom, and government. The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The day of the Elves is over. But Our Days are begun! The Power grows, and I shall grow as it grows, until all things are ours. And listen, Gandalf, my old friend,” he said, coming near and speaking now suddenly in a soft voice. “In the end, I—or we, if you will join with me—we may come to control that Power. We can bide our time. We can keep our thoughts in our hearts. There need not be any real change of purpose—only of method. Why not use this new strength? By it we may well accomplish all and more than all that we have striven to do with the help of the weak and foolish.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The History of Middle-earth VII: The Treason of Isengard, The Council of Elrond (2) Fifth Version

As we have said, Saruman modeled himself upon Sauron, the epitome, embodiment and personification of self-power and self-will (hakarai) in the LotR, for it is he that forges (notice the double entendre in the term) the Ring of Power.

One ring to rule them all,
One ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them.
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

He also forges the nine rings “for mortal men doomed to die” which he bestows as ‘gifts‘ (a negative reflection of the gifts of the Elves) to “kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old” who are thus enslaved and become Nazgul (or Ring Wraiths), “shadows under his great shadow”. These Nazgul are Sauron’s primary servants.

The concept of hakarai / jiriki (self-serving calculation / self-power) is diametrically opposed to the concept of Tariki (or Other Power) which is a forsaking of calculation (or cunning) and self-will (or forging – in the sense of both ‘making’ and ‘deceit’) through sincerely and joyfully entrusting ourselves to the encompassing and penetrative virtue of Amida Buddha (the Buddha of unhindered light and infinite life). Gratitude for being grasped, never to be abandoned, and this joyful trusting of the power of the Primal Vow (hongan) manifest as calling the Name.

Deep Hearing of the Name that Calls and Calling the Name

In the LotR it is the Name of Elbereth that is called by the High-Elves. We first hear of Elbereth in the chapter “Three is company” when the Hobbits are hiding from an approaching Nazgul and Frodo is struggling with the temptation to put on the Ring of Power.

As Frodo watched he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees, and then halt. It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow. The black shadow stood close to the point where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of snuffling. The shadow bent to the ground, and then began to crawl towards him.

Once more the desire to slip on the Ring came over Frodo; but this time it was stronger than before. So strong that, almost before he realized what he was doing, his hand was groping in his pocket. But at that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air. The black shadow straightened up and retreated. It climbed on to the shadowy horse and seemed to vanish across the lane into the darkness on the other side. Frodo breathed again.

This is a perfect description of the phenomenology of temptation and the failure of jiriki / hakarai to resist temptation and make the choice of good over evil of its own accord. Nevertheless, temptation retreats and vanishes as the virtue of the Name approaches, for the Elves approaching Frodo and the Nazgul are singing a hymn to Elbereth:

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!

Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.

O stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!

O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.

Frodo, however, does not deeply hear and respond to the calling of the name until the attack of the Nazgul beneath Weathertop, when, having given in to the temptation to put on the Ring, Frodo actually enters the shadow-world of the Nazgul:

At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground and he heard himself crying aloud: ‘O Elbereth Gilthoniel!’ At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy. A shrill cry rang out in the night; and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder.

Notice that Tolkien does not say that Frodo “called the name” which might indicate that such was done out of self-power calculation, seeking to achieve a prudent, self-serving effect, but rather that he “heard himself crying aloud” – a clear indication of the deep hearing of the name and the Other-Power aspect of the call.

The leader of the Nazgul, the Witch-King of Angmar, was neither slain nor greatly discomfitted by Frodo’s sword-stroke. But, as Aragorn proclaims: “More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth.”

Healing the Wound of Ego-Infatuation and Self-Serving Calculation

The Witch-King pierced Frodo’s shoulder with his Morgul-knife, a splinter of which broke off in the wound and was making its way to Frodo’s heart which would have caused Frodo to become a wraith himself. When Frodo finally awakens, Gandalf tells him:

Elrond is a master of healing, but the weapons of our Enemy are deadly. To tell you the truth, I had very little hope; for I suspected that there was some fragment of the blade still in the closed wound. But it could not be found until last night. Then Elrond removed a splinter. It was deeply buried and it was working inwards.

It has been said that:

… the Buddha, when a Bodhisattva, found a barb in the human heart, which, when extracted, one no longer runs about nor sinks down.

This ‘running about’ refers to the futile motions of self-power calculative acts, which may be likened to the movements of a chicken without a head; while ‘sinking down’ refers to unconsciousness and heedlessness of reality caused by being weighed down under the sway of distracting thoughts.

Gandalf sums up this teaching about the ‘barb’ (or splinter):

‘Don’t be alarmed!’ said Gandalf. ‘It is gone now. It has been melted. And it seems that Hobbits fade very reluctantly. I have known strong warriors of the Big People who would quickly have been overcome by that splinter…

Which is to say, one’s own strength (however great it may be) is insufficient to resist, let alone remove, the splinter of self-power calculation and headlessness of reality from the human heart, for the weapons of the Enemy truly are deadly. It is only going for refuge, entrusting oneself to the Perfect Wisdom and Absolute Compassion of that which is True and Real, that avails against such an enemy and it’s weapons.

This is the ultimate meaning of the teaching of Gandalf who:

…so often counselled [his] friends to suspect even their own hands when dealing with the enemy.

And with that I will leave you to your own researches, for it was only my intent to indicate how Tolkien’s LotR might speak to one who reads it, as I do, through the lens provided by Shinran Shonin and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.

Concepts for Further Consideration

Light encircling the head

The ‘star-brow’ of the Elendili (“the Faithful”) can be related to one of the benefits of shinjin (true entrusting or faith):

Unhindered light constantly illumines the person of shinjin … Constantly illumines means constantly protects … hence, the Buddha‘s light encircles the head … the Buddha‘s compassion constantly and brightly shines upon the head of the person of shinjin.

Living with power in two worlds

Regarding the nature of the Elven Lords it is said:

Those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.

This is suggestive of the person of shinjin who is grasped never to be abandoned and who immediately attains birth without bodily loss and without calculation shares in the virtues of Amida:

Shinjin that is the inconceivable working of the power of the Vow is none other than the mind aspiring for great enlightenment; The evil spirits that abound in heaven and earth all hold in awe the person who has attained it.


The epithet ‘Elf-friend’ may be an appropriate description for one for whom deep-hearing of the name that calls has become ‘second-nature’.

Passing over the sundering seas and into the West

The phrase ‘passing into the West’, which in the LoTR describes sailing to the Blessed Realm, is analogous to being ferried to Amida‘s Western Pure Land:

Now, as I ride on the ship of the great compassionate vow and sail on the expansive ocean of wondrous light, the breeze of highest virtue blows peacefully and calms the waves of pain and sorrow. Quickly shall I reach the land of immeasurable light and attain unexcelled peace and freedom.

Rebirth and returning

Gandalf ‘the Grey’ may be likened to one who has attained shinjin in that, when he falls (in Moria), he immediately passes into the West, but returns to Middle Earth becoming Gandalf ‘the White’ until his ‘mission’ is fulfilled – clearly indicative of the Bodhisattva ideal.

The failure of self-power and the wisdom of compassion

Frodo, despite his desire and best attempt to do good and destroy the Ring (of self-power) fails due to congenital incapacity to know and do good relying solely upon self-power; Gollum too, despite his desire and best attempt to do evil, ensures a good ultimate outcome by inadvertently destroying the ring in his attempt to wrest it away from Frodo (which would not have been possible without the previous mercy and compassion shown to him by the Elves, Aragorn, Gandalf, Bilbo and Frodo).

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12 responses »

  1. Here is a excerpt of a letter from JRR Tolkien (Letter 192 in Carpenter’s “Letters”) which I happened to read today and which immediately reminded me of your post. I think it adds to your theme:

    “By chance, I have just had another letter regarding the failure of Frodo. Very few seem even to have observed it. But following the logic of the plot, it was clearly inevitable, as an event. And surely it is a more significant and real event than a mere ‘fairy-story’ ending in which the hero is indomitable?
    It is possible for the good, even the saintly, to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome–in themselves. In this case the cause (not the ‘hero’) was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy and forgiveness of injury, a situation was produced in which all was redressed and disaster averted. Gandalf certainly foresaw this. See Vol I p. 68-9. Of course, he did not mean to say that one must be merciful, for it may prove useful later — it would then not be mercy or pity, which are only truly present when contrary to prudence. Not ours to plan!
    But we are assured that we must ourselves be extravagantly generous, if we are to hope for the extravagant generosity which the slightest easing of, or escape from, the consequences of our own follies and errors represents. And that mercy does sometimes occur in this life.
    Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over …”

  2. Thank you for this!

    Tolkien had a truly religious viewpoint rather than a merely ethical one (a distinction often unrecognized or unappreciated by commentators – even perspicacious ones – see ‘Splintered Light’ for an example).

    At the level of ethical religion, what often happens is that the ego appropriates religion and becomes inflated. This creates a ‘heroic’ religious viewpoint where one strives to do and be good from the self. This requires perfection on the part of the practitioner and so is almost always doomed to failure. What then happens is that religion gets twisted into a judgemental moral cult supportive of the ego’s own drives (subconscious hopes and fears) and we get people justifying selfishness, brutality and terror in the name of religion.

    Tolkien, somewhat obliquely, discusses the flaw in the merely ethical religious viewpoint in a dialogue between Gimli and Elrond:

    Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’ said Gimli.
    Maybe,’ said Elrond, ‘but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.
    Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’ said Gimli.
    Or break it,’ said Elrond.’

    This is also the failure and catastrophe of the Oath of Fëanor, which keeps playing itself out in LotR, causing even the most well-intentioned acts to fail in the end (Isildur threw down Sauron and cut the Ring from his hand, but did not unmake it). Galadriel’s simple act of gifting the light of the Silmaril to Frodo (in the Phial of Galadriel) can be seen as the final overturning of the curse engendered by the self-willed and self-serving (hakarai) Oath of Fëanor.

    In any true religion, such as the Jodoshinshu of Shinran or the Christianity of Tolkien, it is religion that appropriates the ego and deflates it. That is to say, in Christian terms, the leaven of true spirituality or religion inflates the Spirit (Pneuma) and deflates the ego, and thereby redeems the ‘flesh’ (sarx) and thus the whole body (soma). It is said of this in the New Testament: “If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” And: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation: the Spirit (Pneuma) indeed is willing, but the Flesh (sarx) is weak.”

    The ‘great darkness’ of self-interest, self-will and self-calculation is the hamartia and hubris (or hakarai and jiriki) of Melkor, Sauron, Saruman, Feanor, Denethor, and Gollum (among others) – each in their own degree. None of these persons were inherently evil, rather they became so only in the relentless pursuit of their own designs rather than in following the Design of Eru Ilúvatar. This is the great blessing and curse of free-will.

    Again, thank you for bringing that letter to our attention.

    P.S. Tom Bombadil, master of his domain, is Tolkien’s example of a being with sufficient innate perfection to be capable of the exercise of ethical religion without failure. He is thus not tempted by the Ring, nor affected by its ‘Powers’. Nevertheless, ‘his’ perfection exists in being self-less and following the Design of Eru Ilúvatar – so the perfection of self is in emptiness of self and Tolkien thus brings us full circle.

    Few notice that the episode from the time the Hobbits enter the Old Forest and depart Tom’s land into Bree mirrors the pattern of the whole LoTR. And, what’s more, the Hobbits escape the danger of the Cairn because Frodo calls upon Tom’s name.

    Also, related to the topic of symmetry: it is Ungoliant who drains the light and life of the Two Trees of Valinor and the reserves from the Well of Varda (Elbereth). The Phial of Galadriel was filled with water from the Fountain of Galadriel (analog of the Well of Varda) which held the light of Eärendil’s star (itself a Silmaril). And it is this Phial that helps Sam and Frodo get past Shelob, Ungoliant’s descendant, and into Mordor. There are complex recursive themes at work in Tolkien’s LoTR.

  3. Thank you for that answer! I happen to be re-reading Tolkien at the moment, and I find that taking it slowly and considering it from the religious viewpoint you describe above adds great depth to the experience.

    If we look at Tolkien through the lens of Shin Buddhism, can we find significance in the “waybread” or “journey-bread” of lembas (which is also called coimas or “life-bread”)?

    This is the special food in the form of very thin cakes which Galadriel ordered given to the Company as they left Lórien to travel south, that which Gimli observed was “ … better than the honey-cakes of the Beornings, and that is great praise …”

    Tolkien described it more fully in a later chapter:
    “The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire … And yet this waybread … had a potency that increased as the travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”

    The gift of this food is followed up by the giving of clothing fitted to each traveller, which linked in my mind to that which you mentioned previously:

    I also see bodhisattvas seeking
    For the highest path,
    Who are giving food and drink,
    And a hundred kinds of medicine…
    They give superb garments and clothing…
    And priceless robes…

    • The answer to this question is relatively short, but it is likely to be best appreciated after a brief look at analogous elements from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

      In many ways the description of Lembas fits well the description of manna as mentioned in the Book of Exodus where it is described as being a fine thing which tasted like wafers that had been made with honey, and in the Book of Numbers where it is described as being ground and then pounded into cakes which were then baked, and which tasted like cakes baked with oil.

      Manna is also mentioned in Al-Quran and its commentaries.

      Ibn Abbas is related to have mentioned that:

      Manna, which was whiter than milk and sweeter than honey, used to rain down on the Children of Israel, just as the snow falls, from dawn until sunrise … [it] provides sufficient food when eaten alone, because it is nutritious and sweet … It also changes composition when mixed with other types of food.

      Al-Quran (34:15) states:

      Eat of the provision of your Lord, and be grateful to Him.

      It is noted that the Children of Israel rebelled, the consequence of which was:

      …they did not wrong Us but they wronged themselves.

      All of this is very suggestive, to say the least. But, as a Christian, Tolkien would have been more influenced by the eucharistic tradition, so for him Lembas would have been analogous to that panis vivus et vitalis (‘living bread and life-giving’) which is commemorated in the ‘Last Supper’ (Luke 22:19):

      And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’

      Before we proceed, let us return to the concept of Lembas (and manna, as also the eucharist) being better taken alone rather than mixed with other things. We can look to the lore of the Holy Grail to find a way to better appreciate this. In this legendarium, the Grail changes from being a dish of plenty (a feeding dish that provided for material desires) in the early tales, to being a reliquary of the eucharist (a vessel that provides for spiritual needs – for bestowing grace) in the later tales. So, Lembas is best when it is all a matter of Other-Power unmixed with self-power calculation (which may manifest as a prudent concern for one’s welfare).

      Now, let us take all that has been said (above) and keep in mind that the Last Supper (the Sacrament of Communion) was instituted by Jesus Christ with the words, “do this in remembrance of Me“. This term ‘rememberance’ well translates the Sanskrit term anusmriti (meaning ‘recollection’, ‘contemplation’, ‘remembrance’, ‘meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’). The term buddhanusmriti in early Buddhist scriptures had four meanings:

      • meditation on the virtues of Buddha;
      • meditation on the figure of Buddha;
      • hearing the name of Buddha; and
      • repetition of the name of Buddha.

      In the Japanese Pure Land tradition (Jodoshu and Jodoshinshu), the Sanskrit term buddhanusmriti is translated by the Japanese term nembutsu, which came more and more to be associated with the hearing and repetition of the Name (or Namu Amida Butsu) in gratitude. This reflects both the statement by Allah in Al-Quran, “Eat of the provision of your Lord, and be grateful to Him” and that statement in the New Testament where Jesus is said to have “taken some bread” and then immediately to have “given thanks” for it.

      And now, after our circuitous journey, we have come to the simple answer that nembutsu as remembrance, as refuge-taking, and as token of gratitude, answers well to the function of Lembas: for it serves to “[feed] the will” in the sense of emptying the will of self-power by replacing it with Other-Power; it gives “strength to endure” in that one’s faith is settled and one’s ‘birth’ assured while yet living in this saha world; and it allows one “to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind” in that, while still a bombu, one is nevertheless permeated by the diamond-like shinjin of Amida Butsu.

      I hope this answers your question sufficiently.

      There is so much else that might be said, but such is beyond the scope of this post.

  4. Thank you, and I wish to extend my gratitude to all the strands of Tradition which have been provided for our nourishment and support. For anyone who might doubt it, surely proof of boundless Compassion despite our folly and willfullness.

  5. First let me say how grateful I am to you (James) and to Xiaoyao for your remarkable interchange. For whatever reason, the description of Lembas truly made an impact on me. I have a few obvious questions: First, it sounds as if it is the desire for the call of the Name is itself a reflection of the mercy and compassion of Amida. In other words, the desire for the call of the Name is itself a Gift. Second, it also seems as if the the call of the Name can take a variety of forms as evidenced by the wealth of materials which you and Xioayao have accessed. Third, is the meditation of the virtues, and the figure of the Buddha still implicitly a part of Shinranshu?

    • Your first question is answered elsewhere [https://ekayanadharma.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/shinjin-as-refuge-taking/] :

      “Of yore I caused you to resolve on the Buddha-Way. But now you have entirely forgotten it and consider that you have attained extinction. Now again [I desire] to cause you to recollect the Way which you originally resolved to follow…”

      So, yes, even hearing the Name is not a contrivance of our own, thus it is known as the ‘Name that Calls’.

      As for the second question:

      ‘Remembrance’ of the one needful thing is not absent from any religious tradition, though discussed under a variety of terms.

      As to the third question, it is answered elsewhere [https://ekayanadharma.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/shinrans-distillation-of-the-essence-of-the-mahayana-into-the-quintessence-of-the-ekayana/] :

      “I [Sakyamuni] have constantly been preaching and teaching in this sāha-world, and also leading and benefiting all living beings in other places in hundreds of thousands of myriads of nayutas of asamkhyeya domains… During this time I have ever spoken of myself as the Buddha Burning Light and other [Buddhas], and have also told of their entering into nirvana. Thus have I tactfully described them all … Whenever living beings come to me, I behold with a Buddha’s eyes all the faculties, keen or dull, of their faith and so on. And I explain to them, in stage after stage, according to their capacity and degree of salvation, my different names and the length of my lives.”

      “Shinran was not extolling devotion to Amida over devotion to some other Buddha such as Vairocana [or Sakyamuni], he was skillfully removing the need to differentiate between Buddhas which ultimately have a single, shared nature.”

      So, meditation on the virtues and the figure of Sakyamuni is indeed an implicit part of Jodoshinshu, subsumed as they are in the light and life of the Name.


      Namu Amida Butsu

  6. James, I have read the recommended materials. Thank you so much for your kindness and consideration in directing my attention to them.

    • The links are for the use of any and all others who might have similar questions, now or in the future … and also so that complete lines of thought can be referenced without having to capitulate it every time it is needed.

      But, of course, you are welcome.

  7. I have just come across a book: The Battle for Middle Earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings by Fleming Rutledge.

    The author comes from an Episcopalian background and quotes Saint Paul quite often. Having only read the introduction, I cannot actually recommend the book per se, but I may post of a few of the author’s more salient observations here to compare and contrast how she approaches some of the issues we have discussed above.

    I have skipped around a bit to points in her text where I usually find scholarship wanting (a thing made possible because the author organizes her text based on the narrative structure itself), so it is interesting to see her come to very many of the same conclusions as are made here in this post and the various comments thereon, even though she has approached the text from a different set of basic premises. However, our hermeneutic and exegetical similarities may not be quite so odd …

    Another text, ‘Shinran’s Conversion in the Light of Paul’s Conversion’ (by Sadami Takayama), points out many of the similarities between the two conversion events (Gr. στρέφω, stréphō – to turn about, reverse course; also μετάνοια, metanoia – to change one’s mind). So, much common ground does exist here, as it does in so many places, if one merely takes the time to look for it; not with a will to equate two unique spiritual traditions, but to see essential unity behind apparent diversity and to be grateful for both the unity and the diversity.

  8. [ Note: this comment has been edited slightly for a variety of reasons. ]

    I [also] find a good deal in common [between the Pauline corpus and Jodoshinshu].

    First, there is the Call of Amida which reminds me of these lines from St. Paul from Romans”:

    For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.

    It would seem to me that the phrase “we cry, Abba Father” is received from the “spirit of Adoption“. In other words, the “cry Abba, Father” is not a self willed act but is the effect of grace. The idea that the nembutsu is the effect of Amida’s Call seems to me to be very similar.

    [T]he Call seems to me to be the same in both Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity. Certainly, many of Kurosawa’s films (Rashomon,Ikiru) have that moment in which despair is miraculously overcome and a Call arises that is neither solely from without or from within but transcends that dichotomy. The main characters in the movies are then moved by a mysterious motivation to reform or help that goes deeper than logic.

    [Y]ou [have] mentioned in many places in this blog the inability of our perceptions, conceptions or actions to achieve any kind of contact with Truth by our self-efforts (jiriki). It would seem [True and Real Religion] as I see it presented here goes beyond just simple fideism in which the intellect is tossed aside, but rather an awareness of the limitations of our own perceptions, conceptions and the actions which result works hand in hand with faith […] a recognition that awareness of both the limitations and strengths of the various religions can remove the stultifying influences that can arise when there is a perceived monopoly of truth by any one tradition.

    • Tolkien understands God in the biblical sense, not as the object of the human quest or journey, not as the goal of human moral striving or human religious activity, but as the active subject, calling and sending, independent of the creation but always engaged in redemptive activity on its behalf.

      – Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle Earth.

      This ties in quite nicely with the formless Dharmakaya as Suchness, and the Dharmakaya as Compassion – also related to the formal Sambhogakaya.

      And, of course, to the idea of The Divine Nature being the active agent in our leavening.

      As well as to the general theme of the previous comment.

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