Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


River of Fire, River of Water
An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism
Taitetsu Unno
Doubleday, 1998

I have long been both impressed by, and grateful for the high standard of literature on the teachings of Shin Buddhism available in the English language. Professor Taitetsu Unno is one such highly skilled author who has long rendered distinguished service in presenting to his English-speaking readers the dharma's rich gift. Notwithstanding this happy state of affairs, books on Shin in English have hitherto been comparative rarities while those on other forms of Buddhism abound, an imbalance which has long called for redress.

'River of Fire, River of Water' thus represents an exciting and welcome development as this is the first introduction to Shin Buddhism to emerge from a major English-language publishing house. Indeed it is notable that at the outset Professor Unno acknowledges that the impetus for his book "came from Trace Murphy, editor at Doubleday, who felt a strong need for the aspect of compassion in Buddhism to be more widely introduced to the general public". The resultant initiative has addressed that authentic need very nicely. An excellent introduction to Shin is now available at mainstream bookstores just about everywhere and, I believe, is selling strongly.

The fact that Professor Unno with heartfelt intelligence once again deftly 'delivers the goods' makes of this successful publication a wonderful opportunity for those many persons encountering the dharma of great compassion for the first time. However, such is the quality of this incisive and engaging exposition that the opportunity it affords does not stop there. Established Shin followers stand to substantially benefit too. The spirit and human value of Nembutsu vividly inform Professor Unno's words and attentive reading of them helps foster and reflect that passionately unrequited relationship of Amida and I; Buddha and bombu. Here abides a very real sense of enlightenment alive amidst the everyday.

This luminous sense of relevance and rapport is what I most relish in 'River of Fire, River of Water'. The work keeps faith with the superb naturalness which is at the heart of the tariki teachings, and it lets the modesty and marvel of these teachings live for the ordinary folk to whom they are addressed. This is accomplished so well because the author, despite being an obviously outstanding scholar, speaks directly to the reader with intensely personal candour, humility and warmth. This genuinely prepares the ground and gives his scholarship a natural air of openness as if a friend of ours is intimating something profound between us; something both down-to-earth and in soaring bloom; something to which we are cogently called to listen and with which we consequently connect.

However, making the profound plain is no easy matter. Exploring the ease of the 'easy path' is paradoxically no picnic either. Those tasting the teachings in 'River of Fire..' are presented with a meal of substance, but one served with great care in many piquant and readily digestible dishes. The veritable dharma buffet is composed of forty two evocatively named short chapters which are indexed, clarified by a glossary of key Shin terminology, and fleshed out by useful endnotes with suitable references for those with an appetite for more. Within this structure each mini-chapter is an independently meaningful morsel which beautifully complements the others but is also amenable to being savoured in its own right, at leisure, and in any order. Such flexibility I find exemplary in a book of this nature, where accessibility is of paramount concern.

The well-rounded manner in which Prof. Unno articulates each of his vignettes is also exemplary. Erudite explanation, anecdote, allegory, lyrical verse etc are employed in a balanced, creative and winning way likely to exert the broadest possible appeal, and thus likely to broadcast this seminal message most effectively. And lastly, since this is also done in an admirably broad-minded way, tactfully touching base with other traditions in the process, even if 'River of Fire, River of Water' does not ultimately win for Shin Buddhism a myriad of converts it will doubtless win for true understanding many friends. Namo Amida Butsu.

- Gregg Heathcote

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