Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Who Founded Buddhism? Notes on the Psychological Effectiveness of Religious Objects

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Who Founded Buddhism? Notes on the Psychological Effectiveness of Religious Objects

Article excerpt


What follows is an attempt to consider one puzzling thread in the history of Buddhism with a view to understanding better the psychological working of 'religious objects'. My knowledge of Buddhism is that of an amateur, and I can make no claim to know the languages in which it evolved, so I am heavily dependent on the work of scholars writing in English. However, its thoughtful history invites reflection on the nature of religious objects, and on the psychological forces at work in their development.


Those who look, even superficially, at an outline of Buddhist history are often astonished that what appears to have sprung from a rather modest root, the 'enlightenment' of Gautama Siddhartha as he meditated under a peepul tree, grew as it spread across Asia into a vast religious structure, with priestly hierarchies and ceremonies, many schools of philosophy and meditational practice, and mythologies speaking of countless Buddhas and bodhisattvas in this and many other realms and worlds, hells and Paradises, epochs and galaxies.

In this paper, I want to look at one of these later Buddhas in particular, Amitabha (Amida in Japanese), the Buddha of boundless light. His cult is based on Sanskrit sutras apparently originating in northern India, but is explicitly first heard of in 2nd century China where it became one of many cults of Buddhas 'without form'. It reached Japan in the 7th century, where it had varying degrees of importance but didn't become a 'school' in its own right until the 12th century, when a priest named Honen brought it centre-stage. Honen's disciple Shinran founded the Jodo Shinshu, a Buddhist denomination centred on the cult of Amida and now the largest denomination in Japan.

The key notion of Amidist Buddhism is love. Meditation is set to one side, the acquisition of wisdom ('enlightenment') is downplayed, and the goal of the Amidist Buddhist is to achieve rebirth in Amitabha's Pure Land, a sort of Paradise from which the attainment of nirvana is now certain. The language of goals is inappropriate: all the emphasis is on Amitabha's love; it is the recognition of that love, with appropriate joy and gratitude, that causes the believer to be reborn in the Pure Land; it has nothing to do with his/her own power or merit.

The extraordinary simplicity of this 'salvation', achieved by being intensely moved by the love of an invisible figure (with no back-story that Amitabha ever 'existed') is a little breath-taking, and early Western scholars, discovering Buddhism and impressed by its psychological and philosophical profundity, tended to be dismissive of a development that reminded them of a simplified evangelical Christianity. The historian of Buddhist thought, E.J. Thomas, writing in the 1930s, despatched Amidism in a couple of pages: "mere devotion", he remarked, .. cannot achieve salvation" (1933, p. 258). This is clearly not the view of the Amidist. The questions I want to consider first are: what relation does the cult of Amitabha have to mainstream Buddhism (superficially so different), and how, psychologically, can it be understood, given traditional Buddhist teaching? The answer to these questions throws light, I think, on the functioning of religious objects more generally. But we need to start at the beginning.

The Buddha's Enlightenment

Virtually all we know of the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, is legend. Some scholars have questioned whether he existed at all. Recent scholarship, however, tends to support the common-sense view that a coherent, radically new teaching is plausibly the creation of a single individual, even if, in an oral culture, it was then modified, misremembered, and so on, in ways we can no longer track. The Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich (2009, p. 194), noting the coherence of Buddhist ideas, has commented that to doubt the existence of a single mind behind them is like believing a team of blindfolded monkeys might accidentally type out "the complete works of Shakespeare". …

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