Taitetsu Unno was born in Japan in the 1935 and moved to the United States at the age of six. During World War II he spent three and a half years behind barbed wire fences at a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas. He was later educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and reeicieved advanced degrees in Buddhist studies at Tokyo University. Currently, he is the Jill Ker Conway Professor of Religion at Smith College and an ordained priest of Shin Buddhism. Shin, or Pure Land Buddhism, was founded in Japan in the thirteenth century and emphasizes surrendering “self-power” to the “other-power” of Amida Buddha, a great cosmic buddha whose boundlesss compassion is a sacred energy that pervades all of life with “infinite light” and “infinite life.”This interview was conducted last fall at the New York Buddhist Church in New York City by Tricycle’s Consulting Editor Tracy Cochran and is adapted from Cochran’s Transformations: Awakening to the Sacred in Ourselves, forthcoming from Crown Publishing this fall.
Tricycle: Can you talk a little bit about how you understand surrender in Buddhist practice?
Taitetsu Unno: In the first place, surrender is a Western religious category. In Buddhism, surrender is at the core of giving up the ego-self; but we don’t use a special term for it, because the whole thrust of Buddhist life revolves around surrender, giving up the ego.
Here there is a cultural difference—I can use the example of the martial arts. In this country, martial arts are described as “self-defense.” In the martial arts in East Asia, the aim is to train oneself to such an extent that there is no “self” to defend. That’s very hard for people to understand. I find the same problem in American Buddhism. For example, recently I read an article in which an American Zen Buddhist described visiting Japan, and I realized that American Buddhism is “psychotherapeutic” Buddhism, whereas in Japan, Buddhism is “faith” Buddhism. The core of faith is surrender, the giving up of the small-minded ego-self.
Tricycle: But how can we learn to surrender the ego-self voluntarily?
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