Bits of Rubble Turn to Gold
New York: Doubleday, 2002
224 pp.; $12.95 (paper)
Imagine entering a spiritual bookstore in Tokyo and encountering a book with the title Awakening Your Inner Francis: How to Become a Catholic Saint in Seven Weeks or Less, and you will have a pretty good idea of how a lot of Asian Americans feel about many of the Buddhist books that have become popular in America today. Even the ones written by Asian teachers (often with significant editorial coaching) sometimes leave them feeling queasy. And no wonder. Who wants to see the thing they hold most precious and beautiful reduced to paint-by-numbers? Were the situation reversed, I would surely feel the same way.
This is precisely why a book like Taitetsu Unno’s Shin Buddhism comes as a welcome relief. In a market glutted by formulaic approaches to self-perfection, Unno’s book reminds us that perfection is never accomplished by the self. Rather it comes at the moment of entrusting the self, with all its limitations left intact, to the measureless wisdom and compassion of the Tathagata—or, in the language of today’s more existentially-worded Buddhist vocabulary, by uniting with the boundless freedom of reality-as-is. This is the basic message of the book, and the meaning of the subtitle, Bits of Rubble Turn to Gold.
This message—which is worth hearing over and over—is repeated many times throughout the book. One instance stands out as memorable. Unno tells the story of being asked by a female colleague to help her friends. A couple, both physicians, they had each recently been diagnosed with cancer. Apparently, what she had in mind was some kind of Buddhist amulet to protect or comfort them. Unno and his wife thought of giving them one of their nenju—the beads that Shin Buddhists hold while reciting the Namu-Amida-Butsuto express their humility and gratitude to Amida Buddha—but decided that these would have no significance to a non-Buddhist. In the end they presented the couple with a photograph of a famous statue called “Amida Looking Back,” along with a poem of their own composition. It reads, in part:
The Buddha of boundless compassion
looks back so that no one is left behind,
Beckoning with her left hand,
“Come as you are!”
And with her right hand held up high, crying,
“Do not fear, for I shall protect you.”
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