In memory of Taitetsu Unno, one of the world’s preeminent scholars of Shin Buddhism, who passed away in December 2014 at the age of 85.
The ideal of monastic Buddhism is transcendence of mundane existence, as if one were ascending to the mountaintop. In contrast, the praxis of Pure Land Buddhism takes place by descending into the valley, the shadow of the mountains. We find a similar contrast in Chinese civilization. Like monastic Buddhism, the Confucian ideal may be symbolized by the soaring mountain peaks, manifesting the highest achievements of the literati. And like the Pure Land, Taoism is found in the valley and lowlands, a haven for those who do not fit into conventional society for whatever reason. But it is in this valley that life and creativity flourish. In the words of the Tao te ching:
The Valley Spirit never dies.
It is named the Mysterious Female.
And the Doorway of the mysterious Female
Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.
It is there within us all the while;
Draw upon it as you will, it never runs dry.
In the valley fecundity is nourished and dynamic creativity is born. From its depth comes the life force that creates Heaven and Earth, immortalized as the Spirit of the Valley and identified with the feminine principle; its procreative vitality is inexhaustible. Hence, the name of this Taoist classic, the Way (tao) and its Power (te). The valley ultimately is the resting place for everything that is washed down from the mountaintop, collecting all kinds of refuse and garbage of society and welcoming the unwanted, the disappointed, and the broken.
In Japan, traditional Buddhist monasticism—whether Tendai, Shingon, or Zen—aims at the transcendence of earthly passions. Its basic precepts consist of renouncing all family ties, maintaining celibacy, mastering rigorous disciplines, avoiding contact with the opposite sex, and engaging in elaborate rituals. In contrast, Pure Land is the trans-descendence into the opposite world, the self-awakening to the immersion in the swamp of anger, jealousy, insecurity, fear, addiction, arrogance, hypocrisy. It was only natural that Pure Land teaching was originally welcomed especially by those of the lower classes, seen as unredeemable in the eyes of the privileged. But among this worthless debris and discarded refuse, a rich spirituality is cultivated, endowing a person with endless energy and boundless vitality.
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