Taitetsu Unno, professor emeritus of religious studies at Smith College, is one of the major figures in post–World War II American Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Besides his numerous scholarly publications on Buddhism, his booksRiver of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism (Doubleday, 1998) andShin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold(Doubleday, 2002) have helped many people to discover the riches of this major Buddhist tradition. His son, Mark Unno, is also a professor of Buddhism (at the University of Oregon); he is the author of Shingon Refractions: Myoe and the Mantra of Light (Wisdom Publications, 2004), about Japanese Vajrayana Buddhism, and the editor of Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures: Essays on Theories and Practices (Wisdom Publications, 2006).
The Unnos are both ordained priests in the Jodo Shinshu (Shin) tradition of Pure Land Buddhism and lead an annual Shin retreat in mid-July at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, in Barre, Massachusetts. This interview was conducted between sessions at the 2008 retreat. As we sat in the lounge outside the center’s dharma hall, our conversation turned to the nembutsu, Shin Buddhism’s central practice. The nembutsu is a short chant—Namu Amida Butsu—that means “I entrust myself to the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life.” The attributes of light and life are understood as standing for great wisdom and compassion, which are embodied in Amida Butsu (Sanskrit, Amitabha Buddha). In the traditional sutras ascribed to the historical Buddha, Amida is described as existing in a Pure Land, a realm of bliss that is very close to nirvana, or complete liberation.
Devotion to Amida was present in the early phases of the Mahayana movement in the first century BCE and spread throughout most of Buddhist Asia, but it was in China and especially in Japan that it began to take on elements of a distinctive school. Today, the nembutsu is a common practice in virtually all forms of East Asian Buddhism, but as the Unnos pointed out, it has a particular interpretation in Shin Buddhism. For Shin followers, Amida Buddha is a manifestation of true reality, of emptiness or suchness, and the nembutsu manifests Amida Buddha. The nembutsu was recommended by Shinran (1173–1262), the founder of Jodo Shinshu, because it can be performed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. The ease of Shin practice, combined with its determined lay orientation and spirit of humility and deep self-introspection, has helped make Jodo Shinshu the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in Japan. Brought to Hawaii and North America by Japanese immigrants in the nineteenth century, it is the oldest organized form of Western Buddhism and continues to nurture tens of thousands in the United States and Canada today.
Can you tell us about chanting the nembutsu, Shin Buddhism’s central practice?
Taitetsu Unno: Chanting “Namu Amida Butsu,” which translates as “I entrust myself to the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life,” is not a form of petitionary prayer or mantra. It is a means of communication between a relative being or consciousness and the Buddha deep within. When I chant, there is the expression of Namu Amida Butsu not only from this side, but also from the side of the Buddha.
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