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.
Mark Unno: From the Shin standpoint, the nembutsu arises not from the being who is living in this karmic world but from the highest truth, or the Dharmakaya, which in Shin Buddhism manifests as Amida Buddha. Yet it’s not as if the two entities are separate. One could say that the nembutsu arises from Buddha-nature, even though initially one senses or invokes it from the side of the karmic human being, the person who is burdened with suffering due to blind passions and attachments. So Shinran said that the act of saying “Namu Amida Butsu”—which is an expression of what we call shinjin, or true entrusting—is actually the expression of Buddha-nature. It arises from our deepest, truest nature, which is ultimately none other than the awakening of infinite light, Amida Buddha herself. I say, “herself,” because Shinran refers to Amida as the Compassionate Mother, even though Amida originated in India as a male buddha.
You said the nembutsu is different from mantra and petitionary prayer. How so?
MU: It’s not used to pray for good health, wealth, and things like that. Petitionary prayers generally don’t work, and if you encourage too much petitionary prayer, then it makes it more difficult for people to relate to the teachings as a vehicle of enlightenment and liberation. Such prayers encourage attachment, which leads to greater suffering.
There is a wide range of mantras. Teachers convey mantras to disciples depending on a disciple’s temperament and capacity and also for specific rituals and certain ceremonial occasions. This is not the case with the nembutsu. In the Shin school the nembutsu is not seen as a practice that needs to be adapted to the particular person or used just for a particular occasion. Regardless of time, place, and circumstance, the nembutsu touches the root of all that is beneficial in the Buddhist path. For that reason, it is the chant that everyone uses, and there is no need to adjust it.
Each time a person says the nembutsu, it is unique in that moment, because the karmic constellation of that person’s life and of the whole universe is unique in each moment. There’s something fundamentally the same, which is the deepest reality, the highest truth, yet each saying of the nembutsu is unique to the time it is uttered. But this is not difficult to understand. This is also true for love. Each time you express it, it’s unique in that moment, otherwise it’s not real love. But it’s the same love you’re feeling throughout.
TU: There is a popular poem in Shin regarding the nembutsu. A very famous teacher passed away and left this poem: “If you miss me, say ‘Namu Amida Butsu,’ for I too live in the nembutsu.” In other words, if you have any questions about death or dying or where I am, say “Namu Amida Butsu,” and that’s where I am. And you will also realize that’s where you are too.
Petitionary prayer is basically self-centered. Namu Amida Butsu is to release that kind of self-centeredness, and that’s where I like to think the idea of entrusting ourselves to the higher reality comes in. And the higher reality is not out there; it’s in Namu Amida Butsu.
The two main founders of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, Honen [founder of the Jodo school] and his disciple Shinran [founder of the Shin School] viewed chanting the nembutsu as the highest of all religious practices. Yet there were some important differences in their approaches.
TU: In the Jodo sect, there is an emphasis on the number of times you chant the name of Amida Buddha. During Honen’s time, the tendency was to think that the more you chanted the nembutsu, the more you erased karma. Shinran came after Honen, and he said that the important thing is to truly understand the working of nembutsu, to affirm that “Namu Amida Butsu” is not said by the practitioner but is, rather, the call of Amida within every person and their response to that call.
MU: In twelfth- and thirteenth-century Japan, the time of Honen and Shinran, 90 percent of the population were peasants. There was a great deal of suffering in their day-to-day lives, and the promises of the established Buddhist schools—that one could obtain enlightenment in this very body, or that one is already enlightened—didn’t make a whole lot of practical sense to the everyday person, who didn’t have the means and the privilege that the educated monks and priests had. Honen’s message was that everyone who chants the nembutsu and entrusts themselves to Amida will be born in the Pure Land, which he interpreted as being virtually synonymous with ultimate reality.
Shinran followed Honen’s views on the meaning of the Pure Land and nembutsu practice, but whereas Honen emphasized complete birth in the Pure Land at the end of physical life, Shinran emphasized the moment of true entrusting that occurs in this life and actually is inseparable from the here and now. Shinran sought to counteract the tendency to believe that you have to wait until death for all good things to happen, with an understanding of the significance of this life as the place of practice.
Shinran was very aware of human beings’ karmic limitations, so he stressed the moment of true entrusting— shinjin—over the number of times the nembutsu was chanted. It’s not that Shinran himself did not chant the nembutsu. In various places in his writings, he says that continual chanting is not separate from realization. But Shinran was aware that if practitioners focused on how often they were saying the nembutsu, they would get discouraged. So he said the meaning of continual repetition is to say the name as the occasion arises. If people worry that they’re not going to make it to the Pure Land or that their practice isn’t good enough, they get anxious, their minds wander, and nembutsu practice doesn’t deepen. By assuring people that the arising of nembutsu is itself continual repetition, Shinran brought them back to the center. It gave them the reassurance that the nembutsu is always there waiting for them, even when their mind wandered. It’s the kind of reassurance that tells people that we never leave the dharmakaya. The deepest, truest reality of the self doesn’t disappear
Do you think, as Honen did, that there’s benefit in chanting the nembutsu as often as possible?
MU: Most people, myself included, want to get some benefit from something. But in Buddhism, what we’re actually trying to do is to become released from the suffering that comes from wanting to get something. Chanting the nembutsu over and over is not very beneficial if I’m trying to get someplace like enlightenment by repeating the nembutsu over and over.
In nembutsu practice, one of the important things to understand is that this problem—the desire for a result—is unavoidable. I had a great Buddhist teacher who once said that the more pure and white the emptiness at the center of the circle becomes, the blacker the line of the circle itself becomes. The purer you become, the more you become attached to that purity. It’s unavoidable. The deeper I go into the path, the more I become attached to the results of my practice. So practice is an unending task.
That’s why in Shin Buddhism we emphasize that chanting nembutsu is not one’s own practice. It’s a practice that comes from Buddha-nature. Even though my deepest, truest reality is Buddha-nature, my immediate experience of myself is still of my deluded passions. The mind set that obsesses over “What am I going to get out of the nembutsu?” or “When am I going to get enlightenment?” is precisely what is causing me problems. Being reminded that practice comes from Buddha-nature helps release me from the calculations of the karmic self.
In Shin Buddhism we distinguish between “self power” (jiriki) and “other power” (tariki). Other power is more intimate to ourselves than self power, because self power is based on a self of our projection, of who we think we are or who we think we should be. When we speak of other power, we mean that it is other than the false ego. For that reason, other power is the most intimate reality. The Shin poet Saichi wrote, “In other power, there is neither self power nor other power. Only other power.”
Could you describe Shinran’s understanding of the relationship between true entrusting (shinjin) and nembutsu?
MU: “Namu Amida Butsu” as an expression of true entrusting is something that resonates deeply with human experience. The things we say that have the greatest significance for us are words that we use to speak about things for which there are no words.
Very often this occurs in relationships in which we feel a deep bond and trust. We are somehow able to be free of ourselves because we entrust ourselves to our relationship with that person, and that trust is reciprocated. This mutuality is very important. In a mature relationship of love, the trust does not go just one way. Whether the relationship is romantic, familial, or between a teacher and a student, deep trust nurtures deep love. When we feel that, we want to give voice to it. It’s something that’s beyond words, but we want to express it, because human beings are creatures of language. It’s a very natural thing, and this is actually one of the most important things to understand about the nembutsu. In one of his most famous letters, Shinran writes, “There is nothing special about the nembutsu. If you try to talk about it too much or explain it as doctrine, it starts to appear as something special. But at its heart, it is something very natural.”
TU: I think ultimately both shinjin and nembutsu are terms that describe human experience, but they also describe experience that transcends the human. Shinjin is something that I may experience, and yet the gift of shinjin comes from the other. When the other is lost, then my shinjin becomes a matter of pride: I’ve got it, and you don’t. I think the nembutsu too has a similar structure. I say “Namu Amida Butsu,” yes, but ultimately the saying of nembutsu comes because of a prompting of something deeper than my personal intention to say it. I think when we use the term “other power,” we tend to say, “This is other power, and that is self power,” but really, other power is below self power and in self power. Even what we take to be self power turns out, at its root, to be other power.
Do you have any advice for Westerners who are interested in meditation practice but who are also interested in exploring Shin Buddhism?
MU: In China, Zen and Pure Land became fused into a shared practice. They represented different aspects of the same system of practice. In the case of Japan, it’s much more separate. However, if you look at what happened in the development of Japanese culture, the two often melded together.
For example, one of the most popular figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism is the fifteenth-century Zen master Ikkyu. Ikkyu was very close friends with Rennyo, who is often considered the second greatest Shin teacher. He and Ikkyu were bosom buddies. At the end of his life, Ikkyu said, “If people ask what is my opinion, tell them I also turned to Shin Buddhism.” As someone who experienced the whole range of his own humanity in this world, with all its greatness and its failures, all its magnificence and its squalor, for him there was no separation between the austere path of Zen and the Shin path of saying nembutsu. Another example can be found in the Zen monk Ryokan (1758–1831) who lived among the people in the villages, and who, when asked for his death poem, replied, “If someone asks if Ryokan has a death poem, just let them know, ‘Namu Amida Butsu.’”
I think that kind of understanding can be very helpful for converts to Buddhism. In Asia, laypeople generally relate to Buddhism devotionally. But in America, when laypeople engage in these traditions they most often want to relate to them solely as a yogic path, beyond devotion. The problem is that they have all of the problems that lay Buddhists have always had. Trying to force yourself into the yogic path while living with all of the distractions, complications, and follies of the lay life may not always work so well. In order to ease some of the strain on this artificial image of what a Buddhist life might be, it could be very helpful to bring in the Shin emphasis and recognition of our blind passions and our natural limitations as laypeople. Of course, monks and nuns might also have limitations they have to contend with.
Some Western converts to Buddhism associate devotional practices with religions they don’t like, and so they reject the deep devotional traditions of Buddhism. But there is more to it than what they see on the surface. Initially, Shin devotion might appear to be very dualistic, but the deeper you go, the more yogic it becomes. Some Westerners also don’t seem to understand that Zen Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism—all these paths—have very strong devotional elements along with the meditative-yogic aspects. In fact, the deeper you go into the yogic dimension, the more devotional you become, because you realize how unenlightened you are.
In some approaches to Buddhism, you try to get rid of emotional attachments, but not in Shin. We want to treasure the blind passions, the defilements, because they are the fertilizer for realization. It’s hard to make the passions disappear, but they can be deepened into wisdom and compassion. Some people use the word “transform,” but I don’t like it myself. The passions don’t become something else; they become more pungent. Pungent dharma. That’s Shin Buddhism.
Shinran (1173-1262) was a disciple of Honen, the first of the great Kamakura-era reformers to break from the then-prevalent Tendai school and establish an approach based on the idea that a single practice—whether chanting the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu), doing zazen (sitting meditation), or chanting the daimoku (Namu myoho renge kyo)—was the necessary and sufficient means to enlightenment for all people. Shinran emphasized entrusting oneself with gratitude to the “other power” of Amida’s grace. For him, the chanting of the nembutsu was not just a means to enlightenment; it was the manifestation of Buddha-nature here and now. Shinran assumed a form of practice that was “neither priest nor layman,” and he married and had children. The Buddhist Churches of America, the oldest Buddhist organization in the U.S., belongs to the Jodo Shinshu tradition begun by Shinran.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.