Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


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

In his gracious preface to 'Shin Buddhism', Trace Murphy, Executive Editor at Doubleday, writes that the original idea for the book was to expand on the place of compassion in Jodo Shinshu. Taitetsu Unno has done that and so much more in this beautiful book.

The Buddha Dharma is the practice of Wisdom and Compassion. The vast literature of the Buddhist scriptures, the innumerable devotional and meditative practices all aim at transforming we limited human beings from our ignorant karmically bound state to the perfect freedom of nirvana where wisdom and compassion manifest spontaneously. The problem always is how to get from 'here to there'. Unno guides us to an understanding that it is Amida's compassion that accomplishes all for us. By the supra-rational means of the nembutsu our limited selves, our burdens of karmic evil are transformed.

Before I go on, I must confess a bias towards Unno's writings. After half a lifetimes intermittent struggle with (mainly) Zen practice, at a time of ongoing crisis in my professional life, the Pure Land way was opened to me by an encounter with a previous book of Unno's, 'River of Fire, River of Water'. I therefore came to 'Shin Buddhism' with high expectations. In so many ways 'Shin Buddhism' enlarges on ' River of Fire, River of Water', even though that book was complete in itself, so I was not disappointed.

'Shin Buddhism' is written in four sections. I will briefly discuss some of the concepts explored in each. The first is 'Transformation'. In these chapters Unno considers the nature of transformation in the lives of we ordinary people, the stages of 'deep hearing' in the transformative process and emphasises that 'awakening is dynamic'. He explores the essential role of the Primal Vow of Amida in making transformation possible and the concept of shinjin or true entrusting. Important too in this section is the stress on the role of religious practice and ritual in psychic transformation.

In the next section, 'Unfolding Awareness', the awareness considered is at once the awareness of our unworthiness and self-delusion ('inwardly foolish but outwardly wise ' - Shinran) and of the Light and compassion of Amida. Unno quotes one of my favourite passages from Hiroyuki Itsuki's 'Tariki: Embracing Despair, Discovering Peace' that concludes, 'the darker and blacker the shadow, the brighter the light that shines upon us.' This awareness allows us to 'come as we are' and live a life embraced by Amida's compassion, a life where 'the one who gives is the one who benefits, the one who teaches is the one who is taught, the one who saves is the one who is saved.' This life can be 'Life as Creative Act', the title of the third section. In this part of the book, Unno considers the stages of inner development in the life of nembutsu and uses space as a metaphor for a life lived 'within boundless compassion which grasps us, never to abandon us'. He gives us an understanding of the beautiful, but delicate concept of 'jinen' or 'naturalness' in the life of the nembutsu.

In the final section, 'Expanding Horizons' Unno continues to explore the implications of a life lived with 'the Inconceivable as Conceivable', when we are embraced by a power that 'exceeds our conceptual grasp but not our radical experience', how we foolish beings can live a life of gratitude and forgiveness.

This profound and beautiful exploration of the Jodo Shinshu way comes from an understanding at once deeply learned and authentically lived. However, it is the strength of Unno's writing that the outlook and style is accessible and intimate. The delicacy with which the material is handled is epitomised by the Epilogue. In the Epilogue, Unno summarizes an essay he has read on 'The Essence of Shin Buddhism'. The essay clearly sets out the key points and strengths of Shin Buddhism, and yet, and yet- - such certainty, such idealism are, he points out, beyond we foolish ones. Despite this, the 'power of compassion can make bits of rubble turn into gold.'

'Shin Buddhism' is a book to be recommended to all spiritual seekers Buddhist or otherwise. It can open our ears to Amida's call and our eyes to the light of Amida's compassion.


- Mark Healsmith.

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