The question whether salvation (liberation, enlightenment) results from grace or effort arises in many faith traditions. The dispute is perhaps best known to us in its Christian manifestation as the debate of ‘grace vs. works’, but it is also present in Buddhism in the form of the Pure Land Gate and the Holy Path to Enlightenment.
In both traditions, it is possible to quote extensively from the scriptures in support of one or the other position. Among Christians, two of the main ‘proof texts’ for these divergent positions can be found in the Epistle to the Ephesians and the Gospel of Matthew:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Among Buddhists, the teachings of Shinran Shonin, founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect in Japan, most radically reject the possibility of self-effort, promoting full reliance on the grace of the Buddha Amida (Amitabha, Amideva):
We should know that Amida’s Primal Vow does not discriminate whether one is young or old, good or evil, and that true entrusting alone is needed, for it is the Vow that seeks to deliver sentient beings burdened with foolishness and blind passions.
In contrast, followers of the Holy Path remind us of the explicit words of the Buddha Shakyamuni:
No one saves us but ourselves.
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path.
Are these teachings mutually exclusive, or even contradictory? Although many ‘take sides’ in these debates, discounting or explaining away those statements that challenge their preferred view, others have attempted to explain the apparent conflict by noting that these teachings are given for various different audiences.
Although we do not discount that there are indeed teachings given for specific audiences (according to time, place, and circumstance), our understanding is that both approaches are necessary and complementary. In fact, we enter the Holy Path through the Pure Land gate.
Not only is it by grace —the compassion of the Buddhas, who give us the Dharma— that we enter the path of works (the accumulation of merit and wisdom), but it is through the Buddha’s grace that we need no longer be concerned for our own liberation and enlightenment. Because our ultimate good is assured by the compassionate activity of the Buddhas, we are free to act, here and now, exclusively for the benefit of others.
We who have received the Buddha’s grace can pay it forward.