Seek a deeper understanding of the fundamental and enduring questions that have been raised by thoughtful human beings in the rich traditions of the East.
Mark and Taitetsu Unno speak with Tricycle’s Jeff Wilson about the subtle wisdom at the heart of Pure Land Buddhist practice.
Taitetsu Unno, professor emeritus of religious studies at Smith College, is one of the major figures in post–World War II American Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Besides his numerous scholarly publications on Buddhism, his books River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism (Doubleday, 1998) and Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold (Doubleday, 2002) have helped many people to discover the riches of this major Buddhist tradition. His son, Mark Unno, is also a professor of Buddhism (at the University of Oregon); he is the author of Shingon Refractions: Myoe and the Mantra of Light (Wisdom Publications, 2004), about Japanese Vajrayana Buddhism, and the editor of Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures: Essays on Theories and Practices (Wisdom Publications, 2006).
The Unnos are both ordained priests in the Jodo Shinshu (Shin) tradition of Pure Land Buddhism and lead an annual Shin retreat in mid-July at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, in Barre, Massachusetts. This interview was conducted between sessions at the 2008 retreat. As we sat in the lounge outside the center’s dharma hall, our conversation turned to the nembutsu, Shin Buddhism’s central practice. The nembutsu is a short chant—Namu Amida Butsu—that means “I entrust myself to the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life.” The attributes of light and life are understood as standing for great wisdom and compassion, which are embodied in Amida Butsu (Sanskrit, Amitabha Buddha). In the traditional sutras ascribed to the historical Buddha, Amida is described as existing in a Pure Land, a realm of bliss that is very close to nirvana, or complete liberation.
Devotion to Amida was present in the early phases of the Mahayana movement in the first century BCE and spread throughout most of Buddhist Asia, but it was in China and especially in Japan that it began to take on elements of a distinctive school. Today, the nembutsu is a common practice in virtually all forms of East Asian Buddhism, but as the Unnos pointed out, it has a particular interpretation in Shin Buddhism. For Shin followers, Amida Buddha is a manifestation of true reality, of emptiness or suchness, and the nembutsu manifests Amida Buddha. The nembutsu was recommended by Shinran (1173–1262), the founder of Jodo Shinshu, because it can be performed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. The ease of Shin practice, combined with its determined lay orientation and spirit of humility and deep self-introspection, has helped make Jodo Shinshu the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in Japan. Brought to Hawaii and North America by Japanese immigrants in the nineteenth century, it is the oldest organized form of Western Buddhism and continues to nurture tens of thousands in the United States and Canada today.
Can you tell us about chanting the nembutsu, Shin Buddhism’s central practice?
Taitetsu Unno: Chanting “Namu Amida Butsu,” which translates as “I entrust myself to the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life,” is not a form of petitionary prayer or mantra. It is a means of communication between a relative being or consciousness and the Buddha deep within. When I chant, there is the expression of Namu Amida Butsu not only from this side, but also from the side of the Buddha.
Mark Unno: From the Shin standpoint, the nembutsu arises not from the being who is living in this karmic world but from the highest truth, or the Dharmakaya, which in Shin Buddhism manifests as Amida Buddha. Yet it’s not as if the two entities are separate. One could say that the nembutsu arises from Buddha-nature, even though initially one senses or invokes it from the side of the karmic human being, the person who is burdened with suffering due to blind passions and attachments. So Shinran said that the act of saying “Namu Amida Butsu”—which is an expression of what we call shinjin, or true entrusting—is actually the expression of Buddha-nature. It arises from our deepest, truest nature, which is ultimately none other than the awakening of infinite light, Amida Buddha herself. I say, “herself,” because Shinran refers to Amida as the Compassionate Mother, even though Amida originated in India as a male buddha.
You said the nembutsu is different from mantra and petitionary prayer. How so?
MU: It’s not used to pray for good health, wealth, and things like that. Petitionary prayers generally don’t work, and if you encourage too much petitionary prayer, then it makes it more difficult for people to relate to the teachings as a vehicle of enlightenment and liberation. Such prayers encourage attachment, which leads to greater suffering.
There is a wide range of mantras. Teachers convey mantras to disciples depending on a disciple’s temperament and capacity and also for specific rituals and certain ceremonial occasions. This is not the case with the nembutsu. In the Shin school the nembutsu is not seen as a practice that needs to be adapted to the particular person or used just for a particular occasion. Regardless of time, place, and circumstance, the nembutsu touches the root of all that is beneficial in the Buddhist path. For that reason, it is the chant that everyone uses, and there is no need to adjust it.
Each time a person says the nembutsu, it is unique in that moment, because the karmic constellation of that person’s life and of the whole universe is unique in each moment. There’s something fundamentally the same, which is the deepest reality, the highest truth, yet each saying of the nembutsu is unique to the time it is uttered. But this is not difficult to understand. This is also true for love. Each time you express it, it’s unique in that moment, otherwise it’s not real love. But it’s the same love you’re feeling throughout.
TU: There is a popular poem in Shin regarding the nembutsu. A very famous teacher passed away and left this poem: “If you miss me, say ‘Namu Amida Butsu,’ for I too live in the nembutsu.” In other words, if you have any questions about death or dying or where I am, say “Namu Amida Butsu,” and that’s where I am. And you will also realize that’s where you are too.
Petitionary prayer is basically self-centered. Namu Amida Butsu is to release that kind of self-centeredness, and that’s where I like to think the idea of entrusting ourselves to the higher reality comes in. And the higher reality is not out there; it’s in Namu Amida Butsu.
The two main founders of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, Honen [founder of the Jodo school] and his disciple Shinran [founder of the Shin School] viewed chanting the nembutsu as the highest of all religious practices. Yet there were some important differences in their approaches.
TU: In the Jodo sect, there is an emphasis on the number of times you chant the name of Amida Buddha. During Honen’s time, the tendency was to think that the more you chanted the nembutsu, the more you erased karma. Shinran came after Honen, and he said that the important thing is to truly understand the working of nembutsu, to affirm that “Namu Amida Butsu” is not said by the practitioner but is, rather, the call of Amida within every person and their response to that call.
MU: In twelfth- and thirteenth-century Japan, the time of Honen and Shinran, 90 percent of the population were peasants. There was a great deal of suffering in their day-to-day lives, and the promises of the established Buddhist schools—that one could obtain enlightenment in this very body, or that one is already enlightened—didn’t make a whole lot of practical sense to the everyday person, who didn’t have the means and the privilege that the educated monks and priests had. Honen’s message was that everyone who chants the nembutsu and entrusts themselves to Amida will be born in the Pure Land, which he interpreted as being virtually synonymous with ultimate reality.
Shinran followed Honen’s views on the meaning of the Pure Land and nembutsu practice, but whereas Honen emphasized complete birth in the Pure Land at the end of physical life, Shinran emphasized the moment of true entrusting that occurs in this life and actually is inseparable from the here and now. Shinran sought to counteract the tendency to believe that you have to wait until death for all good things to happen, with an understanding of the significance of this life as the place of practice.
Shinran was very aware of human beings’ karmic limitations, so he stressed the moment of true entrusting— shinjin—over the number of times the nembutsu was chanted. It’s not that Shinran himself did not chant the nembutsu. In various places in his writings, he says that continual chanting is not separate from realization. But Shinran was aware that if practitioners focused on how often they were saying the nembutsu, they would get discouraged. So he said the meaning of continual repetition is to say the name as the occasion arises. If people worry that they’re not going to make it to the Pure Land or that their practice isn’t good enough, they get anxious, their minds wander, and nembutsu practice doesn’t deepen. By assuring people that the arising of nembutsu is itself continual repetition, Shinran brought them back to the center. It gave them the reassurance that the nembutsu is always there waiting for them, even when their mind wandered. It’s the kind of reassurance that tells people that we never leave the dharmakaya. The deepest, truest reality of the self doesn’t disappear.