Looking Back Amida

Today was my last day in Kyoto–I have been here as part of my sabbatical, just for 10 days or so. This is my second time in Kyoto, and I find that I love it just as much this time as last time (in 2012)–maybe more. It has been much hotter and more humid than last time, when I was here in April, but still–the cherry blossoms have been replaced by hydrangeas and the city still takes my breath away.

I love walking the narrow streets–somehow, because of the Kamo River, I find it pretty easy to orient myself, stopping to look at all the food and wondering what it all is, enjoying the views of the mountains, and, of course, visiting all the temples and shrines–the famous ones, but also the ones you run into on the side streets. They are always delightful surprises.

Each day, I thought about a blog post, but didn’t really know what I wanted to say, beyond, “Wow, another great day in Kyoto”–it’s not much of a story. But today is different, because today I saw my very favorite image of Amida Buddha, out of all the countless Buddhas I have seen in my time here. You can’t take a picture in the Amida-do itself, so this is an image from a poster on the wall as you enter the Eikando Zenrin-ji complex. It is called, obviously, the “Looking Back Amida.”

Eikan, from whom the temple gets its name, was the Abbot in the 11th century. The story goes that early on February 15th, 1082, Eikan was reciting the nembutsu and circumambulating a statue of Amida. As the dawn was breaking, the statue suddenly came to life, and came down from the pedestal and started walking away, beckoning to Eikan to follow. He was too shocked to move, and so Amida looked back and said in a gentle voice, “Eikan, come with me.” From this account, Eikan was moved to share with others this experience of Amida’s grace and mercy, and he prayed that the statue might keep that form permanently.

So, when you go in to the hall today, this is the statue you see, and in the description it emphasizes that although Amida has already brought so many people to birth in the Pure Land, he is continually looking back for those who are lagging behind, to make sure that no one is left behind or forgotten.

I love this story, and I love this image, because it so embodies the mercy of Amida Buddha; and, as a Christian, it is a story I can really relate to (especially as a Lutheran–one needs only know the littlest bit about Shin Buddhism to understand why Shinran and Martin Luther have been compared). I don’t think Jesus and Amida are the same or anything, but I can relate to individuals who also have had an experience of powerful divine mercy and grace. As someone who treasures the experience of grace that I have had in Jesus, I am also thankful and rejoice when I experience something analogous in another religious tradition.

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