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 received 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.

Taitetsu Unno
Taitetsu Unno

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?

Taitetsu Unno: In the Shin Buddhist tradition, as we listen to the teaching we are made to realize that we can never surrender ourselves. Resistance comes from the deepest center of our karmic selves. That’s why the Buddha Amida’s compassion says, “Tai, you don’t have to surrender.” When I hear that, when I understand that I can’t do it because it’s not my nature—that it’s like saying, “Fly to the sky”—then I realize that I don’t have to surrender, yet, naturally and spontaneously, the surrender takes place by virtue of true compassion. This is “other-power” working through “self-power.” But this requires a tremendous struggle. As long as I think I can do it myself, it’s not going to work.

Tricycle: But how can we learn to let go like that more often? I know I can get there in unusual circumstances, but not ordinarily.

Taitetsu Unno: In Shin, the Pure Land tradition, it comes down to listening to the teaching. There is no meditative practice as such. Listening is becoming awakened. I have my own views of things, and Buddhism presents its views. Gradually, my views are displaced by the views that enlightened Buddhist teachers have cultivated for 2,500 years.

Tricycle: Do you think that American Buddhists overemphasize meditation?

Taitetsu Unno: Yes and no. The temple of modern life requires moments of silent meditation, but that’s not the goal of Buddhism. We were in Japan for six months recently, and while there I was reading articles and essays written by Buddhist laypeople and monks. The very distinguished abbot of a huge Zen monastery wrote this little article that said, “In Zen, there are only three things. First, cleaning. Second, chanting. And third, devotion. That’s all.” Many Americans go to Zen hoping to get enlightened, but they don’t want to do the cleaning. It’s very demanding and rigorous. You get up at 3:00 A.M.—and you not only sweep the floor, but you have to mop it. On your knees, you know? And then you have to chant, for an hour in the morning and an hour at night. You can understand why a bright young American boy would say, “What am I wasting my time for? I want to get enlightened.” But enlightenment can be manifested only in the daily chores of cleaning and sweeping and polishing—and chanting and devotion.

Tricycle: And the teaching.

Taitetsu Unno: Oh yes. Some people like to meditate and physically they’re able to, but some people can’t because of health reasons or life situations such as family obligations, economic problems, and so on. That doesn’t make them less of a person or less of a Buddhist, you know?

Tricycle: Some people think that there’s too much of a monastic attitude among Buddhists here.

Taitetsu Unno: Weekend monastics, yes. But weekend monastics will never make it. And I think this touches on another problem with American Buddhism, and that’s that too many people want to become gurus. That’s a real problem. At this stage in the evolution of American Buddhism, we need to get more Asian teacher—Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, Chinese, Korean, and others. We need mature guidance. Why are there so many sex scandals in the American Buddhist sangha? The Jodo Shin Buddhist Church has been here for one hundred years, and we hear of almost no sex scandals. Why? Because that kind of behavior is connected to a guru complex, to a power trip of the ego-self, to followers seeking self-gratification by dependence on a personal teacher. It’s all related.

Tricycle: But some of those teachers might claim that they were actually teaching—or that they were beyond ordinary moral codes.

Taitetsu Unno: As I said, I think that we have to learn from mature Buddhists who are not part of that kind of thinking. I don’t negate American Buddhism. Buddhism in America is just beginning. But we need to continually expand and deepen and enrich our understanding, based not on what we think, but on what the tradition teaches us.

Tricycle: Can you say more about what that act of surrender feels like in Shin?

Taitetsu Unno: We use the expression “returning home.” When we submit to something, we’re not just giving up our egos, we’re returning to our home ground. This morning at the temple I quoted a Japanese haiku poem by Ryokan: “Return to Amida/return to Amida/so even dewdrops fall.” The dewdrops vanish, of course. So what he’s saying is that the things of this world are as fragile as dewdrops on a summer morning. So you must entrust yourself not to these things, but to immeasurable life, which is our home ground.

Tricycle: Do you think that the historical Buddha was enlightened by Amida Buddha?

Taitetsu Unno: The way I understand it, the historical Buddha, like you and me, had physical form, was born, and was destined to die. But the content of his being did not die and continues to live. And that is immeasurable life. And not only life. Because it brings us to awakening, it is also immeasurable light. We call it Amida.

Tricycle: So what did the Buddha awaken to?

Taitetsu Unno: I think, fundamentally, he awakened to his limited self as a karmic being. Because in his first pronouncement he says, “I see you now, the ego-self, and you shall never again build the house that imprisons me. The rafters are broken, the house has come down, and I am liberated.” That liberation is complete recognition of the self as a limited being sustained by boundless life.

Tricycle: Do you think that awakening can happen spontaneously, outside a tradition? Say, in a brush with death, or in confronting great beauty, or in love?

Taitetsu Unno: Yes, but in order to enrich that kind of experience, you want to place it in a context, usually some religious context. Because I am a Shin Buddhist, I place experiences like that in the context of my tradition, which nurtures some measure of wisdom and compassion.

Tricycle: Do you think that American Buddhists are ready for this radical Shin view?

Taitetsu Unno: Whether American Buddhism is ready or not, it’s slowly happening. I think that American Buddhists, if they would listen to other manifestations of Buddhism, like Pure Land, would all be enriched.

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