Taitetsu Unno is Jill Ker Conway Professor Emeritus of Religion at Smith College in Northampton, MA. He retired recently after a distinguished academic career and is an ordained priest in Shin Buddhism, which he teaches in various settings throughout the United States. He is the author of Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn Into Gold and River of Fire, River of Water.
How did you interest in Buddhism come about?
I had the privilege of meeting Dr. D. T. Suzuki in San Francisco in 1951, and he really turned me on. He was then 80 years old, and he came to UC Berkeley to give a talk on Buddhism. He really got my attention because his personality and humanity were so palpable. He was not quite famous at that time, but his way of being was so different from other speakers in that kind of setting. I had the sense of being in the presence of someone who was living his life out of his teachings.
He seemed to be an embodiment of a scholar-practitioner. I went to talk to Dr. Suzuki and asked him where I should go to study Buddhism. At that time the only places to study in America were Harvard and UC Berkeley. He suggested that I should go to Japan. That’s how the spark of Buddhism started for me.
And when did you get ordained?
In 1956. Actually, I come from a long line of Shin priests. My father was the 12th in his lineage and under normal circumstances I would have been the 13th. But growing up in America, I rebelled against that kind of career and had not seriously considered a deep connection with Shin Buddhism. But after studying in Japan and getting my degree there, I rediscovered my roots and by 1956 it seemed quite normal to ordain.
How did your academic pursuit of Buddhism and your interest in Shin Buddhism impact or reinforce each other?
At the time I went to study at Tokyo University, their approach was very European—philosophical and philological. The emphasis there was on studying Pali, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and so on. However, since my own inspiration was Suzuki’s personality, I was more interested in following the model of the scholar-practitioner. To my surprise, I could find very few models like him. It was a frustrating time for me at Tokyo University, as I was interested in bringing religion and scholarship together. I even had a fleeting thought of entering a monastery.
About this time my father pointed out to me that within Shin Buddhism there is also the tradition of great scholarship. This was news to me, as I had thought Shin Buddhism to be a simple religion of faith and devotion. Even though I have been an academic all my life, I also have great interest in explaining Shin Buddhism and its religious philosophy to non-academic Westerners.
Can you talk a bit more about the scholar-practitioner model within Shin Buddhism?
During Shinran’s time (1173-1263; the founder of Shin Buddhism), the Tendai sect was the most dominant and also produced the largest number of scholars. But Tendai had also become a church with its own problems. So during that time there was a saying that, “To become a monk you leave the secular world; to become a real monk you leave the Tendai order.” It may be that in recent years, Shin Buddhism in Japan has also become the same kind of church with perhaps similar problems. That situation has been one of my own motivations to articulate Shin Buddhism to Westerners who are lay people. Shin Buddhism itself never had a monastic order. It has always been an assembly of lay people.
Was there any difficulty in being a priest and teaching at Smith College?
No, not at all. Before I came to Smith College in 1971 I was teaching in the history department at a university, and it was not possible to talk about one’s personal religious practice. But when I came to Smith College, I was told I could teach Buddhism any way I wanted. It was very different at Smith, and it was a perfect fit for me personally. Following my inspiration from D. T. Suzuki, I presented Buddhism to my students in a way that had meaning for me. And I think that approach was in turn meaningful for the students. At least my class on Buddhism drew many students.
Compassion is not just the province of monks and nuns, but it’s for everyone, including those who have been left behind in society.
And now you have a sangha or community who meets with you on a regular basis. How do Westerners who study Shin Buddhism with you see themselves culturally?
People came to practice with me (our sangha began in our living room) after having practiced Tibetan Buddhism or Zen or vipassanā. I think one of the things they may have found appealing about Shin Buddhism is that it has always been lay-oriented. During Shinran’s time, it started as an assembly of lower classes, peasants mostly, but these were working people with families. In the 13th century, both Shinran and Nichiren addressed the needs of common people and emphasized compassion as the primary virtue. Compassion is not just the province of monks and nuns, but it’s for everyone, including those who have been left behind in society. This, I think, struck a deep chord among the general population of the time.
I have always felt confident that what motivates our small sangha is the Shin awakening to selfless compassion. It is something that people really appreciate even though we don’t have a tradition of monastic hierarchy and rituals and so forth. I believe that a broader, deeper understanding of compassion can contribute to the evolution of American Buddhism.
How is a Western person to understand the core teaching of Shin Buddhism?
There is a basic awareness of foolish beings (bonbu) at the core of Japanese Buddhist life, regardless of school, including Zen. And most of us are foolish beings because we do not easily awaken to the meaning of life’s evanescence, filled with unexpected tragedies and culminating in death, even if we personally experience them. It is to the foolish beings that hearing the call of Amida or boundless compassion is addressed. We awaken to the preciousness of the here and now, and we are reborn into the world of boundless compassion.
The paramount transformation in Shin Buddhism occurs when a foolish being attains Buddhahood by the wondrous working of boundless compassion.
And how does the foolish being get in touch with this boundless compassion?
It is done through the saying of nembutsu, NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU. What does this mean? In brief, the nembutsu is the flowing call of the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, coming from the fathomless center of life itself, as well as our response to that call without any hesitation or calculation. Thus, it is not a petitionary act, nor a mindless, mechanical repetition, nor a mantra with magical powers. Let me also add that when we use the term “saying the name of Amida,” it is not simply verbal but also somatic, involving one’s whole being, a voicing coming from both the conscious and unconscious depths.
The calling of nembutsu awakens us to a liberating power that sanctifies all life, because it comes from beyond the small-minded self that is always engaged in calculating life only in terms of gain and loss, winning or losing. Sooner or later we will respond to this call, if we are ever to know a sense of security and well-being. If I were to translate nembutsu into English, it would be the “Name-that-calls,” for it calls us to awaken to our fullest potential to becoming true, real and sincere as human beings.
In Shin Buddhism, this transformation expresses the boundless compassion, non-judgmental and all-inclusive, that is the moving force in the Buddhist tradition. It is not, however, a simple, naive optimism, for the starting point of Buddhism is a recognition of the universal fact of human suffering, born of both personal and collective karma.
In fact, it is a realistic appraisal of life as it is, not merely on the surface of things but at its most profound depth. In this depth, abundant with the accumulated pain and sorrow of humanity, is also found the capacity of the human spirit to achieve its fullest potential, no matter the obstacles, through awakening to the working of boundless compassion, deep within our life.
In your teaching you talk about being saved by Amida. How does this idea translate into Western culture?
The word “save” is used in a very different sense in Shin Buddhism than it is in Judeo-Christian tradition. I avoid using this word as much as I can. I use the word entrust instead to avoid confusion. In my understanding, entrusting the Name of Amida is trusting life itself. Normally in the working of our ego self we don’t trust ourselves. We are shut out from life. So, this trust is not something created as a personal story; it is trusting life itself; it is trust that comes from the Buddha, a trust that I am complete just as I am.
We cannot awaken to Buddhahood so long as we have the calculation of what can we get out of this practice, and how soon. When that kind of calculation is given up, life and heart open up. We open up to the trust that we are supported. In English, we can call it save, but in Japanese it has the sense of being supported, no matter what happens.
You speak of compassion as the central core of Shin Buddhism. How does this help us learn to let go?
Shinran talked about all of us being filled with 84,000 blind passions or kilesas. The other side of our blind passions is enlightenment, so there are 84,000 ways to get enlightened. Shin teaching was directed to farmers, fishermen, and householders, and for them it was a message of hope and optimism that they could also awaken to Buddhahood without the medium of priesthood. Their life was thus filled with 84,000 joys.
In our tradition, we also stress gratitude a lot. One Shin teacher has said, “To be grateful is to be alive.” Of course, within the tradition of Shin practice there can be tremendous struggle to come to this place of trusting Amida or boundless compassion.
We tend not to be aware of the interdependence of life. But this form of self-reflection puts us back very directly into that awareness of interdependence. This is just the beginning of entering into a wider, deeper understanding of spirituality.
What kind of context does a Shin practitioner bring to her self-reflection?
First, there are different cultural contexts to how a tradition is understood. In the Japanese tradition, rather than talk about the mind or the heart, they talk more about the body. There are many idiomatic expressions that convey a different sense of how a person is. For example, when someone is angry, we say, “his hara is standing up.” When a person is calm, we say, “his hara is doing zazen.” When an egocentric person is behaving selfishly, we say, “his hara is conniving.” (Hara is the centrum and lower abdomen).
Shin teaching was directed to farmers, fishermen, and householders, and for them it was a message of hope and optimism that they could also awaken to Buddhahood.
When a farmer goes to a Shin temple to listen to the teachings, he is reminded through stories and such expressions of his karmic limitations, no matter how much good he wants to do. These karmic limitations are illuminated in the light of compassion. It is not to judge the person, but to make him or her aware as a karmically limited human being. There is no systematic discipline for the person to follow except a self-understanding through the awakening to compassion.
The context that Shin Buddhism provides for the farmer is that of self-reflection and gratitude, an awareness of the interdependence of life. And it’s all very pragmatic and body-centered. There is not too much abstract thinking involved in these teachings. That way, a person’s constricted heart begins to open up.
When the heart opens up, he understands it as the light of Buddha’s compassion, not something that belongs to him. His life is illuminated by that light. In the midst of all his difficulties he continues to be grateful for life itself. He gets energized to deal with the difficulties of his life instead of getting down and saying to himself, “I am no good.”
How easy is it for a Westerner to share the same kind of view that comes naturally to a Shin Buddhist in Japan?
I must say here that in Japan Shin Buddhists have also lost their original context of the intermingling of culture and Shin teachings. The world there has also become very materialistic and goal-oriented. So we have to develop a new model of what it means to be religious.
I believe that this teaching of boundless compassion has to go deep, deep down into the consciousness, into body itself, where we unite with all beings, with all forms of life. That’s where Shin and Buddhist teachings have to work. You just cannot sit there and repeat, Namu Amida Butsu in a mechanical way. Its source has to be beyond mind, beyond words, tapping into life force itself.
In 13th century Japan, although Shin Buddhists were not doing the same type of meditation that monks in Zen or Shin-gon traditions were doing, lay people were trying to access the same deep imprinting on consciousness that would allow them to connect with the deeper currents of life. And these deeper currents have to do with the body. Japanese culture in the past has always stressed the wisdom of the body, like hara as the seat of being. Modem Japanese culture seems to have lost touch with that experience, even though it uses the language.
You have written about the “Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.” In what sense do you use this phrase?
In the earlier translations of Tannisho, it is rendered as Original Vow, but I translate it as Primal Vow because deep within each one of us there is a primal wish to fulfill our life, our short life on earth, to become the self truly. Primal means it is beyond the grasp of my consciousness; it’s much deeper than that.
To awaken to this primal wish means to let go of the needs of this ordinary self and to live life touched by boundless energy and infinite gratitude for the short human life.
I think at the core this approach is not different from the bodhisattva path of the Mahāyāna tradition or developing the factors of awakening in the Theravada. But Shin Buddhism does not itemize these qualities, just as Zen does not itemize them but strives to create those qualities in one’s life and practice.
The striving and effort are there in Shin, but they are not systematic largely because the practice is not guided by any monastic supervision or support. In a certain way, this practice is like a Quaker meeting. It is understood that there are 84,000 paths, and we all end up in the same place if our hearts are transformed. The value of this approach is that you don’t become doctrinaire.
How do you see other forms of Pure Land in relation to Shin Buddhism?
I think it’s correct to say that all later Buddhist traditions have some element of Pure Land Buddhism, such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Tibetan or Korean traditions. As far as I know, in these traditions whenever they talk about Pure Land practice, it’s related generally to monastic practice. There are many distinguishing characteristics in these traditions, but my impression is that they are part of a structured system, like formal meditation. Japanese Pure Land tradition abandoned all these formal practices and the emphasis is on awakening to the boundless power of life itself which is already there. Of course, the historical reason is that you could not tell fishermen and farmers to abandon their professions and become monks, but their life too was open to the possibilities of awakening in the midst of busy lives.
In Chinese Pure Land there is a clear goal of being reborn into the Pure Land of Amitabha, the so-called Western paradise. Is there a similar notion in Shin Buddhism?
No, not in the same way. An important part of Shinran’s teaching, and one that distinguishes him from all other forms of Pure Land teaching, is that he spoke not of being reborn in the Pure Land but of returning from Pure Land. In his understanding, Pure Land is like a way station. You go there not to stay but to recharge your batteries, and then return as a fully enlightened being.
In this human life we have to live our limited karmic self, but returning from Pure Land as a fully enlightened person means we become boundless compassion. Becoming boundless compassion means we have exhausted our limited karmic self. In the life of the karmic self, saṃsāra and nirvana are separate, but “returning from Pure Land” and living as boundless compassion means that there is no separation between the two. This is part of the Buddhist worldview where time is not linear from A to Z, but is circular—going and returning are part of the same equation, religiously speaking.
I believe that this teaching of boundless compassion has to go deep, deep down into the consciousness, into body itself, where we unite with all forms of life.
Is your presentation of Shin Buddhism to Westerners different than how it is understood in Japan?
Whenever Shin Buddhism was alive and vibrant in Japan, there were always teachers who expressed themselves in a language that everyone, not just the elite, could understand. Even farmers could express their awareness. I am trying to follow in those footsteps; though still very inadequately. So I am not doing anything new, except using Western vocabulary, stories, and so forth. I do not think any of the well-trained teachers of Shin in Japan would have any problem with how I am presenting it here in America.
How are American vipassanā practitioners to understand the various forms of Pure Land Buddhism in America, including the Nichiren-shoshu school?
The Nichiren school bases its teachings on the Lotus Sutra and they follow their own version of the bodhisattva practice. It is quite different from the Pure Land stream, but it has its own particular and positive approach to life’s problems.
Nichiren Shoshu people go out and help community members in times of crisis, and they perform a real service. One example might be paying off somebody’s debts so they can start a new life. For these people there is a real sense of calling: “I am doing what Nichiren wants me to do as a human being.” This is their understanding of bodhisattva action. All three paths ultimately teach compassion-in-action; otherwise, they are not Buddhist.
Might there be a bit of Buddhist evangelicalism in this sort of work? Where does Shin Buddhism stand in this?
It is very clear that Shinran himself was not an evangelical. He and his community of immediate followers saw this new practice as a meaningful way of life and they were very sincere about it. Later on, when Shin teachings became organized and a Church grew around those teachings, it look on some of the characteristics of evangelism.
Shinran himself lived to be 90 years old and he spent the last 30 years of his life in writing and practice. He did not go out to convert anybody. Thus his life is symbolic of the basic stance that Shin Buddhists have taken. For those who follow the model set up by Shinran, it is this going deeper and deeper into themselves that they find most meaningful, and in doing so they connect with all beings at the deeper core of life.
How does this process unfold?
Shin Buddhism talks about three aspects of practice: sincere mind, joyful practice and boundless compassion for all. Shinran redefined sincere mind by calling it the mind of the Buddha, not of ordinary human beings, because our minds are always clouded and polluted. The devotional practice of Shin Buddhism is to awaken that Buddha mind through the boundless compassion of Amida. Once that is fully realized there is no backsliding, because it is the joyful working of the Buddha rather than of the deluded mind.
If you talk about emptiness to the farmer, it will only confuse him; but if you talk about compassion, it is something he can readily understand.
Nembutsu (chanting the name) can be seen as the self-articulation of fundamental reality. Keep in mind that in Japan and in Shin Buddhism the words “fundamental reality” don’t have the same charge as in the English language.
It is more of a synonym for various qualities of mind than an ontology. So we use words like reality, but in Buddhism the only reality is emptiness. When shunyata really works in my life and your life, it has a truly liberating power.
Throughout the history of Buddhism there are different approaches to this liberating power. In Shin Buddhism the sincere mind is not the human mind but the mind of compassion of the Buddha. When this compassion works in us, we attain a condition of not sliding backwards. It is not me that does this, because I am full of kilesas (blind passions). But rather than focus on this dark side or the lack, I focus on the Buddha and compassion. Then as a natural process I become more and more liberated.
Fundamental reality is emptiness; but if you talk about emptiness to the farmer, it will only confuse him. But if you talk about compassion, it is something he can readily understand. So we can say to him that this compassion is more fundamental than your normal way of thinking. He can get motivated to cultivate compassion in his life, and not get so hung up on kilesas.
You have quoted Shinran as saying, “Since it is done without calculation…”
There’s no doubt that when people start chanting Namu Amida Butsu, they have all kinds of calculation. But at some point they come to a two-fold realization: first, the realization of my unlimited karmic ignorance; second, awakening to boundless compassion that enfolds my karmic ignorance. The moment I realize the working of boundless compassion, I am freed.
That doesn’t mean I am liberated from karmic ignorance. In fact I become even more aware of my ignorance. But when we put trust in the working of the Name of Amida, things work out on their own. It happens when we let go of ego’s pushing to make things work out its own way.
In Theravada Buddhism there is a lot of emphasis on striving to get rid of the kilesas. There does not seem to be as much striving in Shin Buddhism.
Shin Buddhists also talk about striving, but not in a systematic way. There is a saying from Shinran that You must be willing to go through the cosmos raging with fire. Unless you do that you will not reach an understanding.
Consider the case of the farmer who works very hard in clearing the soil, planting the crops, watering them, and so on. But he cannot program the forces of nature. He does not control rain or drought. Yet he has to continue, despite knowing he has no control over the forces of nature. He cannot sit back and say it’s all hopeless and I won’t work. There comes a point in the struggle where you have to let go. And the farmer has to let go of his wish to have his crops be always protected. The same can be said of all of us, regardless of our profession.
The core understanding is that saṃsāra and nirvana are not two different things. Amida is not outside, but is just the other side of kilesas, and they are both within us. We realize that so long as we have a body there will be some kilesas left, but by focusing on the Buddha mind and its working as boundless compassion we express the optimism that the working of the Buddha will eventually dispel it. Rather than focusing on limitations, I praise the working of the boundless compassion of Amida in my own life.
When we put trust in the working of the Name of Amida, things work out on their own.
In nembutsu, we hear the call of the Buddha, not Buddha the person but Buddha as life itself, Buddha as 84,000 kilesas, life as 84,000 Buddhas Amida. Our determination is to not let the 84,000 kilesas be an obstruction in our connecting with the 84,000 Amidas. We are taught that eventually each one of us becomes a Buddha through the practice of nembutsu. This is “84,000 joys abounding.”
Any final thoughts for the readers of the Insight Journal?
It’s important that we don’t become doctrinaire, for all the various denominations are means to an end. We all need to appreciate our encounter with the path of Buddhadharma, because regardless of age, background or social status, as long as we are open to these teachings the path of liberation and freedom will open up. All the struggles along the 84,000 paths are really a struggle within yourself. The practice of Buddhadharma is to go deeper and deeper within, and open up to true and real life itself.