Filed in Pure Land (Shin)

"Shin Buddhism" by Taitetsu Unno

Clark Strand

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© Taitetsu UnnoShin Buddhism:
Bits of Rubble Turn to Gold

Taitetsu Unno
New York: Doubleday, 2002
224 pp.; $12.95 (paper)

Imagine entering a spiritual bookstore in Tokyo and encountering a book with the title Awakening Your Inner Francis: How to Become a Catholic Saint in Seven Weeks or Less, and you will have a pretty good idea of how a lot of Asian Americans feel about many of the Buddhist books that have become popular in America today. Even the ones written by Asian teachers (often with significant editorial coaching) sometimes leave them feeling queasy. And no wonder. Who wants to see the thing they hold most precious and beautiful reduced to paint-by-numbers? Were the situation reversed, I would surely feel the same way.

This is precisely why a book like Taitetsu Unno’s Shin Buddhism comes as a welcome relief. In a market glutted by formulaic approaches to self-perfection, Unno’s book reminds us that perfection is never accomplished by the self. Rather it comes at the moment of entrusting the self, with all its limitations left intact, to the measureless wisdom and compassion of the Tathagata—or, in the language of today’s more existentially-worded Buddhist vocabulary, by uniting with the boundless freedom of reality-as-is. This is the basic message of the book, and the meaning of the subtitle, Bits of Rubble Turn to Gold.

This message—which is worth hearing over and over—is repeated many times throughout the book. One instance stands out as memorable. Unno tells the story of being asked by a female colleague to help her friends. A couple, both physicians, they had each recently been diagnosed with cancer. Apparently, what she had in mind was some kind of Buddhist amulet to protect or comfort them. Unno and his wife thought of giving them one of their nenju—the beads that Shin Buddhists hold while reciting the Namu-Amida-Butsu to express their humility and gratitude to Amida Buddha—but decided that these would have no significance to a non-Buddhist. In the end they presented the couple with a photograph of a famous statue called “Amida Looking Back,” along with a poem of their own composition. It reads, in part:

The Buddha of boundless compassion
looks back so that no one is left behind,
Beckoning with her left hand,
“Come as you are!”
And with her right hand held up high, crying,
“Do not fear, for I shall protect you.”

The poem next offers a brief explanation of Namu-Amida-Butsu, in which Namu is “the lost and confused one, / seeking a direction home,” and Amida-Butsu is “the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and life / grasping the wayward being, never to abandon,” then concludes with the following verse:

The light of boundless compassion steadily focuses
on each pain and transforms it
as the jagged ice of immense difficulties melts to become
the flowing water of true and real life,
finding its own way slowly
into the calm ocean, peaceful and serene.

Reading Unno’s account, I was struck by two aspects of Shin Buddhism that are exemplified both by the poem and the book as a whole. The first is the flexibility of its doctrine. For instance, in the third line of the poem, the Unnos refer to Amida Buddha as female. This could be attributed to a feminist revisionist’s tendency, common enough among modern religious scholars like Dr. Unno, who is Jill Ker Conway Professor Emeritus of Religion at Smith College, were it not for the unique character of Shin doctrine itself. Not tightly controlled by a monastic elite like most other schools of Buddhism (it has priests, but no monks or nuns), Shin has always left wiggle room where personal conviction or imagination is concerned. As Unno himself points out, Eshinni, the wife of Shinran, founder of the sect, felt free to imagine herself and her daughter being reborn in Amida’s Pure Land as women, despite the fact that the sutras indicated that a woman must be reborn there as a man.

Second is the value placed on personal creativity in Shin. The relative absence of a fixed, religio-ethical formula in Shin (again, probably a by-product of its nonmonastic status) has, at its best, the effect of inspiring creativity in its adherents; feeling themselves to be the object of the Tathagata’s mercy, they are quick to extend that same mercy to others in a way most appropriate for a given situation. Witness the Unnos’ decision to present the couple in the story with a photograph and poem instead of just giving their nenju or a book or some other object with ready-made religious significance. This would seem remarkable if Shin lore weren’t already filled with stories of creative responses of this kind. Finally, that lore is the greatest strength of the book. Shin Buddhism is less an introduction to Jodo Shin-shu, or “True Pure Land,” Buddhism than it is an overview. For a clear, straightforward introduction, readers would do better to start with Unno’s first volume, River of Fire, River of Water.

By comparison, the present volume is somewhat unwieldy—not surely because of its length, which is about the same as River’s, nor the density of the material (like Shinran before him, Unno’s command of the “common speech” makes even the most subtle ideas understandable by all). Rather, it is because Unno has assembled in one volume the collective wisdom of so many different Shin practitioners, from medieval times to the present. Though not an anthology per se, the book is nevertheless a remarkably rich treasury of Shin Buddhist poems and anecdotes, in which we are as likely to find wisdom in the amateur poetic creation of an ordinary practitioner as we are from the musings of the author/expert. From Herbert, a retired chemist, for instance, we find the following Japanese tanka-style summary of the basic point of the Mahayana, only in a homespun language that virtually anyone can understand:

Consumed with anger,
The world is an ugly place.
Bathed in happiness,
The world is a wonderful place.
But, aha! the same world.

Unlike many books on spiritual themes, in which a single author’s expert voice and perspective dominate, often putting the reader at a distance, Shin Buddhism gives the feeling of being included in a sangha. In this, it is a remarkably welcoming and useful book. ▼

Clark Strand is a former Zen Buddhist monk and a contributing editor to Tricycle. He is the founder of the Koans of the Bible Study Groups in Woodstock, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota.

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