Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Shin Buddhism Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold
Taitetsu Unno Doubleday, New York, 2002.

Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble into Gold is Taitetsu Unno's second book on the Japanese Pure Land tradition of Jodo Shin Shu (True Pure Land School). Shin Buddhism has long been a popular form of Buddhism in Japan and has an established history in the United States with the predominately ethnic Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). Unno's first book, River of Fire, introduced to a wider audience the basics of this tradition, long ignored (or unknown) by western 'seekers', in a style that was accessible, concise and intelligent. It was with this in mind that I approached his latest offering.

The book is divided into four sections: 'Transformation'; 'Unfolding Awareness'; 'Life as Creative Act'; 'Expanding Horizons'. These divisions are intended to elaborate on the stages of development the Shin Buddhist may open to. These stages should not be taken as absolutes or as mutually exclusive, but are offered as guidelines to the natural unfolding that occurs on the nembutsu path.

'Transformation' begins by defining what it means to be 'transformed' in the Shin tradition, citing demonstrative examples and anecdotes1 as way explanation. The notion of 'sedimentation' is used to introduce 'deep hearing' as Great Practice, a Shin term for the uncalculated reception of Amida's virtues as practice. Listening/studying the Dharma leads to sedimentation of the teaching and this lays the foundation for true, receptive, deep hearing of Amida's Vow, a deep hearing that reverberates in stages of increasing penetration.

Chapters 4 explains that the deep hearing is more than a psychological process but something that is at once somatic, psychological and spiritual. In other words, deep hearing is deeply experiential and not mere passive audition. This means that for Shin Buddhists, experiencing Amida's Vow takes precedence over any theoretical discussions of faith.

In chapter 5, Unno, affirms the importance of ritual/formal elements of Shin, but strangely reduces them to the psychological level - citing the emotional benefits of Sutra chanting and the role of ritual in directing subconscious forces. This kind of psychological reductionism does not do justice to the profound value of ritual, for Shin rituals are the very form of Amida's Vow, and therefore, when enacted, work as expedients to embodied deep hearing in all its levels. It is popular in America today to psychologise religion, therefore stripping it of its essential value. We must be wary of this tendency, especially as the expanding corpus of Shin literature in English is largely from and for a North American market. The danger is even greater with the prospect of an independent Shin movement in North America, removed from its Japanese origins, as is being debated currently in the BCA.

A similar tendency occurs later in this section, with Unno suggesting that Amida, Other Power and the Pure Land are not to be taken literally but figuratively. Some comment maybe worthwhile here. While a purely literal understanding of such things per se can be problematic, an element of literalism can also be highly expedient. Does the immanent experience of these realities mean we must sacrifice their objective transcendence relative to Samsaric dualism? Does objectifying these realities circumvent their subjective gifts? If this were the case, the grace of Pure Land art would have no positive value. There is also the great danger, as has already occurred among some commentators, that Amida and the Pure Land be interpreted as 'myth'. Amida is Real, The Real, and the Pure Land, His courtesy to our finitude. Yes, there is profound symbolism involved, but it is not abstract or contrived symbolism but symbolism in perfect harmony, and therefore in unity and identity, with Suchness Itself. Therefore the word 'figurative' is not adequate to the task as it implies a fiction. Howbeit, I am sure Unno did not intend any such reduction in his use of the word, nor do I think he meant to discount the literal value of these realities, but perhaps merely to point out a subjective emphasis that naturally occurs with a deepening awareness of such realities.

Part 2, 'Unfolding Awareness', begins with a discussion on the importance of this unrepeatable life. Given that Buddhism in America sometimes resembles nothing more than a fashion statement, this is a timely reminder that there are no second chances and that hell is our certain destination. What fortune to be born a human and what fortune to encounter the dharma. To abuse the dharma by not opening ourselves to its depths is nothing short of tragic. Unno goes on to discuss the subtle and clever self delusions that the ego seduces us into and how these can only be exposed through the transcendent light of Prajna conferred upon us by Amida's saving Vow.

In Unno's discussion on the symbolism of light, he says 'It must be underscored that we are not talking about some supernatural being emanating light in all directions'. This seems to diminish the value and role of traditional imagery employed by Pure Land Buddhists for centuries, imagery whose immediate beauty and grace has proven to be efficacious even for the most sagely. The image of the Buddha emanating rays of light is highly evocative and should not be discounted so quickly. Nor should it be assigned a purely psychological value. Yes, it is the subjective realisation of that light that ultimately counts, and for those whose karma does not allow such imagery to effect them, a subtle idolatry might lead to an exclusive and dry understanding, but for the majority, such dangers are far outweighed by the power of such images to open us to the possibilities of Amida's embrace.

The final few chapters of this section details the effect of our growing awareness of Amida's Vow upon everyday life and in community with others. Goodness or virtue is a natural consequence of this awareness, not because we become good, our karma still maintains its dark and heavy presence, but humility, gratitude and repentance, cultivated by our growing awareness of our own inadequacy, tempers our response to karmic tendencies while allowing our participation in Amida’s Virtues to become more transparent.

Part 3, 'Life as Creative act' leads us to what might be described as the natural grace that that issues from a person of Shinjin. The life of naturalness (jinen) is a life that is beyond preconceptions, one that responds with perfect courtesy to each moment as-it-is is. The Buddhist parable offered in Chapter 22 illustrates how such creative 'responsitivity'2 can lead to helping others along the path. A comparison is made between jinen and the contemplative approach taken in traditional Japanese arts such as poetry, where the poet must contemplate and respond to the object's own expression, and not impose any artifice. Giving up control and responding to things as they are seems be the essence of jinen.

Unno makes a strange comparison between the creative life in Shin and Nietzsche's Will to Power in Birth of Tragedy. I can see some superficial similarities, but this would lead us to compare a person of jinen or perhaps even a Buddha with the monstrosity of Nietzsche's Superman. Nietzsche's Will to Power, because it denies Transcendence, (thus also denying immanence by default) is ultimately megalomaniacal - 20th century European history perhaps proves this point. Admittedly, in this early work, Will to Power had something of Schopenhauer's Will-to-live, but Nietzsche's 'life as a work of art', while wishing to go beyond the machinations of the rational mind, is ultimately profane and therefore the possibility of true creativity is thus denied. The simplicity, compassion and humility of a person of shinjin would have puzzled Nietzsche, and may well have drawn his contempt. One wonders what Nietzsche would have made of Other Power and Amida's Vow to save the weakest and meekest?

The final chapter of this section goes to a central feature of Shin Buddhism - ignorance of good and evil. It is disappointing to see Unno referring to Nietzsche's notion of class resentment as the basis for morality. 'Thus he [Nietzsche] advocated an ethics that arises from the self and not from its suppression' says Unno. He does not directly endorse this position but it's a strange inclusion given that in Buddhism, morality is not considered a weapon of the weak, as Nietzsche advocated. Indeed, in the self-power schools, it is the precondition to self-control, conducive to Buddhist meditative techniques, that leads to knowledge that brings genuine power. Conventional morality is not binding but liberating in this sense. Unno discusses the distinction between conventional and genuine good and illustrates why the latter is superior to the former as it is a 'creative and spontaneous response' to situations. In the Shin tradition, morality is the effect and not cause of shinjin and therefore, for the person of shinjin, is a response of perfect courtesy and naturalness to each moment as-it-is is..

The final section 'Expanding Horizons' looks at traditional Shin virtues such as charity, forgiveness and gratitude in the light of the Inconceivable as lived. Unno juxtaposes the chapters on these virtues with those of the Inconceivable as present in every day life, to show the connection between the two. This leads to a discussion on the importance of active engagement with life for the Shin practitioner:

The creative life in sum, is based on the awakening and contradictions in life and admission of one’s limited powers, not to retreat into self-enclosure but to actively becoming engaged in the task before us. (p.207)

Just as 'the Primal Vow means that the religious quest does not begin with us; rather, the impetus comes from the movements of the Uncreate itself' (p.206) the realisation of that impetus finds its expression in everyday activity. The Inconceivable as lived is the Simple (non-discursive, non-calculating) lived, and often finds expression and engagement in the simplest of everyday acts. This might explain the plethora of anecdotes provided in this last section, which, unfortunately, gave this reader an impression of being somewhat sentimental. The book as whole has a tendency to slip into moments of sentimentality, so characteristic of North American popular psychology and religion. This tendency is most apparent in the last section. For example, Unno writes 'Anyone... who provides care for the needy is a bodhisattva, whether the person knows anything about Buddhism not' (p.185). This is either a sentimental statement or pure hyperbole.

The final chapter of this section on updating the classification of doctrines is an interesting one. Given the proliferation of pseudo-Buddhist schools in North America, not to mention the sheer variety of new-age pseudo-religions, I think the traditional Buddhist classifications of true, perverted, and pagan (outside) teachings, is fundamental. I'm however unsure how useful Shinran's system of classification would be on anything other than 'true teachings'3, so I cannot really comment on Unno's thoughts on the need to update them in the light of religious pluralism. How, as Unno asserts, developments in biological sciences effect such a classification is also a mystery to me. As for profane pseudo-sciences such as psychology, and psychiatry, any classification should not mix these with the psychology found in Buddhism4. This will not end up sacralizing these profane 'sciences' but merely profane and psychologise Buddhist metaphysics. The goal in Buddhism is not a happy well-adjusted life on route to hell as modern psychology offers, but to be emancipated completely from the round of samsara.

Overall, I found this book to be well written and informative. I think the directness and simplicity of River of Fire is less apparent in this volume and at times it seemed to give way to the North American fetish for the sentimental. However, any faults I have found with this book may be the result of my own misreading, and as with Unno's first book, further readings may well deepen my understanding - thus allaying any misgivings. I would recommend it to all who are interested in Shin Buddhism.

- Chris Morgan.

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