In the Footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimages with Shantum Seth across India and South Asia. Other spiritual journeys that transform. Mindful travel.
Mark and Taitetsu Unno speak with Tricycle’s Jeff Wilson about the subtle wisdom at the heart of Pure Land Buddhist practice.
Do you have any advice for Westerners who are interested in meditation practice but who are also interested in exploring Shin Buddhism?
MU: In China, Zen and Pure Land became fused into a shared practice. They represented different aspects of the same system of practice. In the case of Japan, it’s much more separate. However, if you look at what happened in the development of Japanese culture, the two often melded together.
For example, one of the most popular figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism is the fifteenth-century Zen master Ikkyu. Ikkyu was very close friends with Rennyo, who is often considered the second greatest Shin teacher. He and Ikkyu were bosom buddies. At the end of his life, Ikkyu said, “If people ask what is my opinion, tell them I also turned to Shin Buddhism.” As someone who experienced the whole range of his own humanity in this world, with all its greatness and its failures, all its magnificence and its squalor, for him there was no separation between the austere path of Zen and the Shin path of saying nembutsu. Another example can be found in the Zen monk Ryokan (1758–1831) who lived among the people in the villages, and who, when asked for his death poem, replied, “If someone asks if Ryokan has a death poem, just let them know, ‘Namu Amida Butsu.’”
I think that kind of understanding can be very helpful for converts to Buddhism. In Asia, laypeople generally relate to Buddhism devotionally. But in America, when laypeople engage in these traditions they most often want to relate to them solely as a yogic path, beyond devotion. The problem is that they have all of the problems that lay Buddhists have always had. Trying to force yourself into the yogic path while living with all of the distractions, complications, and follies of the lay life may not always work so well. In order to ease some of the strain on this artificial image of what a Buddhist life might be, it could be very helpful to bring in the Shin emphasis and recognition of our blind passions and our natural limitations as laypeople. Of course, monks and nuns might also have limitations they have to contend with.
Some Western converts to Buddhism associate devotional practices with religions they don’t like, and so they reject the deep devotional traditions of Buddhism. But there is more to it than what they see on the surface. Initially, Shin devotion might appear to be very dualistic, but the deeper you go, the more yogic it becomes. Some Westerners also don’t seem to understand that Zen Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism—all these paths—have very strong devotional elements along with the meditative-yogic aspects. In fact, the deeper you go into the yogic dimension, the more devotional you become, because you realize how unenlightened you are.
In some approaches to Buddhism, you try to get rid of emotional attachments, but not in Shin. We want to treasure the blind passions, the defilements, because they are the fertilizer for realization. It’s hard to make the passions disappear, but they can be deepened into wisdom and compassion. Some people use the word “transform,” but I don’t like it myself. The passions don’t become something else; they become more pungent. Pungent dharma. That’s Shin Buddhism.
Shinran (1173-1262) was a disciple of Honen, the first of the great Kamakura-era reformers to break from the then-prevalent Tendai school and establish an approach based on the idea that a single practice—whether chanting the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu), doing zazen (sitting meditation), or chanting the daimoku (Namu myoho renge kyo)—was the necessary and sufficient means to enlightenment for all people. Shinran emphasized entrusting oneself with gratitude to the "other power" of Amida's grace. For him, the chanting of the nembutsu was not just a means to enlightenment; it was the manifestation of Buddha-nature here and now. Shinran assumed a form of practice that was "neither priest nor layman," and he married and had children. The Buddhist Churches of America, the oldest Buddhist organization in the U.S., belongs to the Jodo Shinshu tradition begun by Shinran.