Filed in Pure Land (Shin)

Even Dewdrops Fall

An Interview with Taitetsu Unno

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Taitetsu Unno was born in Japan in the 1935 and moved to the United States at the age of six. During World War II he spent three and a half years behind barbed wire fences at a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas. He was later educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and reeicieved advanced degrees in Buddhist studies at Tokyo University. Currently, he is the Jill Ker Conway Professor of Religion at Smith College and an ordained priest of Shin Buddhism. Shin, or Pure Land Buddhism, was founded in Japan in the thirteenth century and emphasizes surrendering "self-power" to the "other-power" of Amida Buddha, a great cosmic buddha whose boundlesss compassion is a sacred energy that pervades all of life with "infinite light" and "infinite life."This interview was conducted last fall at the New York Buddhist Church in New York City by Tricycle’s Consulting Editor Tracy Cochran and is adapted from Cochran’s Transformations: Awakening to the Sacred in Ourselves, forthcoming from Crown Publishing this fall.

Tricycle: Can you talk a little bit about how you understand surrender in Buddhist practice?

Taitetsu Unno: In the first place, surrender is a Western religious category. In Buddhism, surrender is at the core of giving up the ego-self; but we don’t use a special term for it, because the whole thrust of Buddhist life revolves around surrender, giving up the ego.

Here there is a cultural difference—I can use the example of the martial arts. In this country, martial arts are described as “self-defense.” In the martial arts in East Asia, the aim is to train oneself to such an extent that there is no “self” to defend. That’s very hard for people to understand. I find the same problem in American Buddhism. For example, recently I read an article in which an American Zen Buddhist described visiting Japan, and I realized that American Buddhism is “psychotherapeutic” Buddhism, whereas in Japan, Buddhism is “faith” Buddhism. The core of faith is surrender, the giving up of the small-minded ego-self.

Tricycle: But how can we learn to surrender the ego-self voluntarily?

Taitetsu Unno: In the Shin Buddhist tradition, as we listen to the teaching we are made to realize that we can never surrender ourselves. Resistance comes from the deepest center of our karmic selves. That’s why the Buddha Amida’s compassion says, “Tai, you don’t have to surrender.” When I hear that, when I understand that I can’t do it because it’s not my nature—that it’s like saying, “Fly to the sky”—then I realize that I don’t have to surrender, yet, naturally and spontaneously, the surrender takes place by virtue of true compassion. This is “other-power” working through “self-power.” But this requires a tremendous struggle. As long as I think I can do it myself, it’s not going to work.

Tricycle: But how can we learn to let go like that more often? I know I can get there in unusual circumstances, but not ordinarily.

Taitetsu Unno: In Shin, the Pure Land tradition, it comes down to listening to the teaching. There is no meditative practice as such. Listening is becoming awakened. I have my own views of things, and Buddhism presents its views. Gradually, my views are displaced by the views that enlightened Buddhist teachers have cultivated for 2,500 years.

Tricycle: Do you think that American Buddhists overemphasize meditation?

Taitetsu Unno: Yes and no. The temple of modern life requires moments of silent meditation, but that’s not the goal of Buddhism. We were in Japan for six months recently, and while there I was reading articles and essays written by Buddhist laypeople and monks. The very distinguished abbot of a huge Zen monastery wrote this little article that said, “In Zen, there are only three things. First, cleaning. Second, chanting. And third, devotion. That’s all.” Many Americans go to Zen hoping to get enlightened, but they don’t want to do the cleaning. It’s very demanding and rigorous. You get up at 3:00 A.M.—and you not only sweep the floor, but you have to mop it. On your knees, you know? And then you have to chant, for an hour in the morning and an hour at night. You can understand why a bright young American boy would say, “What am I wasting my time for? I want to get enlightened.” But enlightenment can be manifested only in the daily chores of cleaning and sweeping and polishing—and chanting and devotion.

Tricycle: And the teaching.

Taitetsu Unno: Oh yes. Some people like to meditate and physically they’re able to, but some people can’t because of health reasons or life situations such as family obligations, economic problems, and so on. That doesn’t make them less of a person or less of a Buddhist, you know?

Tricycle: Some people think that there’s too much of a monastic attitude among Buddhists here.

Taitetsu Unno: Weekend monastics, yes. But weekend monastics will never make it. And I think this touches on another problem with American Buddhism, and that’s that too many people want to become gurus. That’s a real problem. At this stage in the evolution of American Buddhism, we need to get more Asian teacher—Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, Chinese, Korean, and others. We need mature guidance. Why are there so many sex scandals in the American Buddhist sangha? The Jodo Shin Buddhist Church has been here for one hundred years, and we hear of almost no sex scandals. Why? Because that kind of behavior is connected to a guru complex, to a power trip of the ego-self, to followers seeking self-gratification by dependence on a personal teacher. It’s all related.

Tricycle: But some of those teachers might claim that they were actually teaching—or that they were beyond ordinary moral codes.

Taitetsu Unno: As I said, I think that we have to learn from mature Buddhists who are not part of that kind of thinking. I don’t negate American Buddhism. Buddhism in America is just beginning. But we need to continually expand and deepen and enrich our understanding, based not on what we think, but on what the tradition teaches us.

Tricycle: Can you say more about what that act of surrender feels like in Shin?

Taitetsu Unno: We use the expression “returning home.” When we submit to something, we’re not just giving up our egos, we’re returning to our home ground. This morning at the temple I quoted a Japanese haiku poem by Ryokan: “Return to Amida/return to Amida/so even dewdrops fall.” The dewdrops vanish, of course. So what he’s saying is that the things of this world are as fragile as dewdrops on a summer morning. So you must entrust yourself not to these things, but to immeasurable life, which is our home ground.

Tricycle: Do you think that the historical Buddha was enlightened by Amida Buddha?

Taitetsu Unno: The way I understand it, the historical Buddha, like you and me, had physical form, was born, and was destined to die. But the content of his being did not die and continues to live. And that is immeasurable life. And not only life. Because it brings us to awakening, it is also immeasurable light. We call it Amida.

Tricycle: So what did the Buddha awaken to?

Taitetsu Unno: I think, fundamentally, he awakened to his limited self as a karmic being. Because in his first pronouncement he says, “I see you now, the ego-self, and you shall never again build the house that imprisons me. The rafters are broken, the house has come down, and I am liberated.” That liberation is complete recognition of the self as a limited being sustained by boundless life.

Tricycle: Do you think that awakening can happen spontaneously, outside a tradition? Say, in a brush with death, or in confronting great beauty, or in love?

Taitetsu Unno: Yes, but in order to enrich that kind of experience, you want to place it in a context, usually some religious context. Because I am a Shin Buddhist, I place experiences like that in the context of my tradition, which nurtures some measure of wisdom and compassion.

Tricycle: Do you think that American Buddhists are ready for this radical Shin view?

Taitetsu Unno: Whether American Buddhism is ready or not, it’s slowly happening. I think that American Buddhists, if they would listen to other manifestations of Buddhism, like Pure Land, would all be enriched.


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walterff456's picture

I appreciate his wonderful knowledge about Buddhist. A interesting talk but have many valueable things.
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Turbo996's picture

His (Taitetsu Unno - R.I.P., sir) mention of a martial arts understanding reminds me of a 2002 Chinese martial arts movie called "Hero." The most important point (to me) of that entire movie is man's removal of ego. At the end, the King of Qin character describes the noble warrior:

"I have just come to a realization! This scroll (calligraphy) by Broken Sword contains no secrets of his swordsmanship. What this reveals is his highest ideal. In the first state, man and sword become one and each other. Here, even a blade of grass can be used as a lethal weapon. In the next stage, the sword resides not in the hand but in the heart. Even without a weapon, the warrior can slay his enemy from a hundred paces. But the ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether. The warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists. Only peace remains."

jackelope65's picture

Wasn't Buddhist tradition evolving long before Shin Buddhist practice began and isn't itself an evolution/change from previous Buddhist practice. Unfortunately I do not have enough learning to answer these questions.

eric.koeppen's picture

Yes and yes. But I'm trying to understand the significance of your questions. Mind elaborating?


Could anyone explain the term ""other power "working through "self power"".
Is this akin to Ultimate Reality and Conventional Reality?

Danny's picture

Yes, it is akin to the 2 truths. First of all, Taitetsu Unno does not understand 'other power' as anything magical or Amida as a supernatural being. It refers to the socially constructed conditions (teachings, sangha, etc.) in which we have the opportunity to understand the truth of the socially produced and collective nature of the mind, moving toward enlightenment. "self power" implies a very real self that is also dependently arisen, and so "other power works through self power", on my understanding, means a collective progress toward liberation that is made through many individual selves. Conventionally real selves using conventionally real abilities to make the world (the collective social system) a better place. A "pure land".

Dominic Gomez's picture

In Christian terms "other power through self power" would be "God helps those who help themselves".
The Lotus Sutra teaches that ultimate reality IS conventional reality.

wilnerj's picture

If we attempt certain tasks by ourselves in our own name as though we alone have done them they might not be attained. An example of this is found in creative endeavors. The poet may find herself writing poetry as though through a muse - an alter ego. Creating on one's behalf through one's self can produce interference or static. When one attributes this creativity to something or someone else, this static or interference is circumvented. In answer to your question: it is both a mental projection from ourselves and something else.

coffeyhj's picture

So good to hear the firery words of the good professor....

Danny's picture

I just read Jeff Wilson's "Buddhism of the Heart", an elegant little introduction to Pure Land...a laymans Buddhism where humility, gratitude, and service to others is central... “just as you are, you are affirmed and included,"...highly recommended.