River of Fire, River of Water
Taitetsu Unno


Prof. Unno's River of Fire, River of Water, published in 1998, remains one of the most insightful, luminous and accessible introductions to the Pure Land tradition of Shin Buddhism. We hope these brief excerpts will inspire you to read Ty Unno's invaluable introduction to Jodo Shinshu.


The Historical Legacy


The beginnings of the Pure Land tradition go back to the time of the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism in the first century B.C.E., approximately five centuries after the founding of the religion by the historical Buddha in India. The Pure Land way bases its teaching on three Mahayana scriptures: The Larger Sutra of Pure Land, The Smaller Sutra of Pure Land, and The Sutra on Contemplating Amida Buddha. Known commonly today as the Triple Sutras, they originated in India and Central Asia and came to Japan in the sixth century soon after the introduction of Buddhism to this island nation. But during this early period few took notice of these writings. Even the monk-scholars who were the most literate people around regarded them as secondary.

A familiarity with these essential sutras helps us appreciate some of the unique aspects of Pure Land Buddhism. The Larger Sutra, also known as the Sutra of Immeasurable Life, contains a discourse given by Sakyamuni Buddha at the Mount of Vulture Peak in Rajagriha, India. He tells the story of Dharmakara who makes a series of forty-eight vows to save all beings, ultimately fulfills them, and attains supreme enlightenment to become Amida Buddha the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life. This is a story that is not a story but the emergence of fundamental reality in a person's life.

The Smaller Sutra is a much shorter scripture that depicts the indescribable beauty of the Pure Land in fantastic imagery, symbolic of the state of supreme enlightenment. The Sutra on Contemplating Amida outlines sixteen forms of meditative practice that leads to liberation and freedom.

The Color Gold

Though Shin Buddhism improvised a radically new form of practice, its goal is one and the same with that of Mahayana Buddhism The goal is to awaken to the true self as a manifestation of dharma or "reality-as-is." What this means may be illustrated by some popular metaphors in the Pure Land tradition.

The lotus flower, the second metaphor, reveals the distinctive meaning of suchness or thatness. The lotus has been an important religious symbol in the Asian world for more than five thousand years with different signilications. In the Pure Land tradition it represents the uniqueness of each person, or each reality-as-is, distinct from all others each with its own uniqueness.

The multiple colors of the lotus blossoms, each radiating its distinctive luster, creates the glory of the enlightened realm. This is the realm of the Pure Land, the world of enlightenment. But this world is not a given; it is to be realized through undergoing a radical transformation.

This transformation is suggested in the third metaphor of transformed rubble, based on scripture that reads: "We who are like bits of rubble are transformed into gold." All-embracing and nonexclusive, this path accepts everyone, even the lowliest who are considered nothing more than "bits of rubble" in the eyes of society. But no matter who or what one is, everyone is transformed through the power of compassion to become authentically real as an awakened person. "Bits of rubble" is the realization of those who, illuminated by Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life that is Amida, are made to see their essential finitude, imperfection, and mortality. This realization may not sound too inspiring, but affirming one's basic reality is the crucial factor in the transformative process. To bring about such a transformation is the sole purpose, of the Primal Vow of Amida, the working of great compassion that courses through the universe.

This metaphor of alchemical transmutation is based on the Mahayana teaching of the nonduality of samsara and nirvana, delusion and enlightenment, rubble and gold. This is not a simple identity, for it involves a dialectical tension between the two poles, between limited karmic beings and unbounded como passion. The two remain separate, yet they are one; they are one, yet always remain separate.

The Spirit of the Valley

In contrast, Pure Land is the transendence 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.

Pure Land Buddhism might suggest an otherworldly orientation, but its primary focus is on the here and now. Not the here and now grasped by the controlling ego-self but the here and now cherished as a gift of life itself to be lived creatively and gratefully, granted us by boundless compassion. The bountifulness of great compassion makes possible our liberation from the iron cage of our own making.

Home Composting

The wonder of the nembutsu path is that it makes no demands upon a person to become wiser, better, or more perfect. But it does ask us to become authentically real as human beings by awakening to the boundless compassion that sustains us. In doing so we recognize our limitations and imperfections as karmic beings that are ultimately transformed into the contents of highest good. When “bits of rubble are transformed into gold," the fullness of Buddha Dharma is manifested in a person's life.

Since the garbage we carry around with us–our ignorance, mistakes, addictions, Vanities, and neuroses-are completely accepted without any questions, Amida is like a garbage collector who willingly takes the refuse and dumps them into his Pure Landfill (aptly coined by an astute friend). Since everything is biodegradable in the compassionate hands of' Amida, the landfill transforms itself' 'into nutrients that can contribute to a rich and fertile life

Primal Vow

The transformation of bits of rubble into gold is due solely to the working of the Primal Vow. Originating in the mythic past, the bodhisattva by the name of Dharmakara identified with the pains of all living beings and attempted to find solutions to human suffering. Expending countless eons of time in suprahuman resolve, reflection, and praxis, Dharmakara fulfilled the Primal Vow to save all beings. This resulted in the attainment of Buddhahood known as Amida, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life. This drama of salvation is contained in the Name, namu-amida-butsu, which resounds throughout the universe.
The Primal Vow of salvation is likened to a powerful magnet that draws all beings to itself. Even if one is unaware of it or resists it, its power of attraction will eventually prevail.

The essence of the Primal Vow is boundless compassion, articulated in the eighteenth of the forty-eight vows fulfilled by Bodhisattva Dharmakara as a condition of attaining Buddhahood. According to the Larger Sutra, used extensively in East Asia, this fundamental vow proclaims:

If when I attain Buddhahood, the sentient beings of the ten quarters with sincere mind, joyful trust, and aspiration for birth in my land and saying my Name perhaps even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment. Excluded are those who commit the five transgressions and those who slander the right dharma.

The key terms in the vow–sincere mind, joyful trust, and aspiration for birth–are known as the Three Minds. The sincere mind in the Primal Vow has nothing to do with the mind of a karma-bound being that is devoid of that which is true and real. Rather it denotes the mind of Amida, which enters the defiled mind of a sentient being. This results in true entrusting with joy and spontaneity. The sincere mind of Amida working in a person also awakens the aspiration for transcendence, or birth in the Pure Land. The goal of transcendence is to become a Buddha, endowed with wisdom and compassion, in order to work for the salvation of all beings.

Nebetsu: The Name that Calls

Amida combines the dual connotation of its Sanskrit originals, Amitabba, Immeasurable Light, and Amitayus, Immeasurable Life. Butsu is the Japanese rendition for Buddha. Thus, illuminated by the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life, I am made to realize my reality as a karma-bound being-limited, imperfect, and mortal-contained within boundless compassion. In the full acknowledgment of my finitude, of my karmic bondage, liberation and freedom are realized.

The saying of nembutsu confirms the boundless, endless life (amida-butsu) in which the insecure self (namu) finds itself at home. Human reason cannot fathom the fullness of living namu-amida-butsu, for much of it is beyond our conscious awareness. On the conscious level, however, there is constant tension between the awareness of a limited being, namu, asserting itself at every occasion, and the openness of compassion, amida-lmtsu, providing the space for us to be ourselves. But this tension ultimately culminates in supreme enlightenment through the power of the Primal Vow.

Other Power

The working of the Primal Vow, the compassion of the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, is called Other Power...

Other Power is the working of great compassion that gives itself completely to each form of life. It is beyond the ordinary comprehension of the small-minded, entangled with all kinds of false discriminations. Other Power thus should not be regarded as an object within the conventional subject-object framework. It operates at the very foundation of life, nullifying all our dualistic calculations (hakarai).

Self Power

The term self-power, contrasted to Other Power, should not be thought of as negating self-reliance in everyday life. To become a mature, independent adult, we must rely on the powers developed within oneself-rational, psychological, and intuitive. It is within the realm of the religious quest that self-power becomes a real problem.

According to Shinran, self-power becomes manifest in several ways. First, whenever one is “conscious of doing good" in whatever form, including religious practice, even in the saying of nembutsu, self-power is at work. Unaware of the hidden, ego-centered agenda, a person becomes self-righteous and arrogant, passing judgments on others as good or bad.

Second, whenever one believes in one’s ability to “amending confusion in . . . acts, words, and thoughts" through some means, such as meditative practice, self-power is at work. One then turns to other Buddhas and deities for supplication, and engages in practices other than the nembutsu. One relies solely on one’s own whims as to what is conducive to the religious life.

Third, whenever one becomes prideful in the ability to know oneself; this is the working of self-power. This includes the claim to fully recognize the limitation, imperfection, and fallibility of oneself through the power of rational self-reflection alone.

Finally, when one’s religious practice, no matter how committed and dedicated, becomes ineffectual and unproductive, self-power has reached a dead end. It is at this time that the self is opened up to the working of Other Power that is all-pervasive and all-sustaining.

In everyday life, self-power manifests itself in unconscious, deep-rooted egocentric impulses. We rarely notice this, because our eyes are turned outward and we cannot see ourselves. We constantly judge and criticize others, completely unaware of our own superficial self-knowledge. This ignorance leads to all kinds of unnecessary turmoil in our personal lives and in the world. As Carl Jung once wrote, "How can anyone see straight when he does not even see himself and that darkness which he himself carries unconsciously into all his dealing."

The Quest

Self-power does not negate the effort that is required to progress on the path of awakening. Hidden within the so-called easy path of Pure Land Buddhism is the great tradition of self-cultivation (shugyo) in the Asian tradition. Self-cultivation disciplines both body and mind, builds character and inner strength, curbs willfulness, and draws out the fullest potential of a person. It is central to Confucian educational process, Taoist psychosomatic training, Buddhist praxis based on precepts, contemplation, and wisdom, and the arts whether it be calligraphy, archery, painting, tea ceremony, floral arranging, or other cultural achievements.

Self-cultivation is the driving force in a person's attempt to live the highest ethical life, not in words but in deeds. It is at the core of the quest for authenticity as a human being in the diverse paths of spirituality.

In spite of different vocabularies, self-power and Other Power working together is also the foundation of Zen. One of the leading contemporary teachers of Soto Zen, Kosho Uchiyaina, describes the goal of sitting meditation as “the throwing away of calculating ways of thinking which supposes that as long as there's an aim there must be a target.”

Unhindered Light

Working together with the Name to cultivate spirituality is Unhindered Light. Shinran states that the truly religious life is nurtured by the Name as our compassionate father and Light as our compassionate mother.

The light of the sun and moon illuminates the world, but it does not penetrate objects and casts shadows. In contrast, Unhindered Light penetrates even the hardest substance in the world, the ego-shell of karmic beings, and never casts shadows. Nothing can obstruct its illumination.

The light dispels the darkness of ignorance;
Thus Amida is called "Buddha of the Light of Wisdom."
All the Buddhas and sages of the three vehicles
Together offer their praise.

Alfred Bloom, the author of Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace, describes Shinran's religious thought as the theology of light. This is a very apt description, for the Pure Land scriptures are filled with abundant references to Light. The Smaller Sutra, for example, states: "This Buddha's beaming light is measureless. It shines without obstruction into buddha-fields in the ten directions. Therefore, he is called Amida."


Faith as True Entrusting

The central experience of Shin Buddhism is called shinjin, frequently translated as "faith,"...

Shinjin as true entrusting moves in two directions that ultimately become one. On the one hand, a person entrusts the self completely to the Primal Vow, the working of great compassion. And on the other, the person entrusts the self totally to the reality of one’s limited karmic self The latter is made possible by the former. Thus, they constitute a single awakening. This is shinjin or faith as true entrusting.

I translate shinjin in as not simply entrusting but true entrusting to underscore its source as that which is true, real, and sincere--the working of great compassion. Coming as a gift from reality that is true, real, and sincere, and thus not rooted in the unstable ego-self it can never be broken or shattered. This endowment enables us to naturally entrust ourselves to reality-as-is. When the consequences of karmic life' are spent, ultimately true entrusting culminates in supreme enlightenment.

The difficulty of true entrusting is due to self enclosure, the powerful urge for the ego self to shield and protect ltself The more it confronts life's difficulties, the more If withdraws into its protective shell What we must real1ze IS that true entrusting does not depend on what I do or what ‘I' believe, rather, the self opens itself up to the working of true compassion or, to put it more precisely in the words of Saichl:

My heart is your heart,
Your heart is my heart
It is your heart that becomes me,
It is not that I become Amida,
But Amida becomes me
Namu amida butsu

As Is: Sono-Mama

The goal of Shin Buddhism is transcendence, contained in the deep aspiration to be born in the Pure Land. But it is ultimately redirected to this life, affirming that the here and now brims with infinite significance. In colloquial Japanese, such a reaffirmation of everyday life is called living sono-mama or kono-mama. Either phrase means simply life “as is" or “just right as is.”

Sono-mama is reality affirmed as it is without being distorted by calculative thinking. Since it is beyond the conventional subject-object duality, it is described as being nondual. Although sono-mama is beyond conceptual grasp, it can be manifested in a person's life. Anna Pavlova suggests something akin to this in the case of dancing; once she is said to have proclaimed, “The secret of becoming a fine dancer is to learn the theory and the technique thoroughly–-then forget about it an just dance.” Just dance sono-mama, but only after mastering the theory and technique.


From River of Fire, River of Water by Taitetsu Unno. Copyright ©1998 by Taitetsu Un, Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

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