“River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism” by Taitetsu Unno

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Taitetsu Unno’s latest book River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism, is a sensible and easily reached introduction on Shin Buddhism. Shin Buddhism teaches faith in the great Buddha using Amida as the vehicle to attain enlightenment. Taitetsu Unno knows the topic well and this shows in the way he writes the book. He is the chief authority in the United States on Shin or Pure Land Buddhism He has the necessary background on Shin Buddhism being an ordained Shin Buddhist minister. He has written a number of pieces on Shin Buddhism. His previous works include a translation of the well-known Tannisho which is a collection of sayings by Shinran the founder of Shin Buddhism. This book serves as a quick introduction to Shin.

River of Fire requires deeper reflection. Dr. Taitetsu Unno introduces us to the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan providing spiritual insight. Unno does not only discuss in detail the Shin Buddhist doctrine but also relates his own experience and the changes that took place in his while practicing Shin Buddhism for decades. The book is partly autobiographical. The main theme though does not revolve around his life.

Shin Buddhism serves to enrich the increasing practice of Buddhism in the United States, which was already introduced to other forms such as the Zen and Tibetan traditions. River of Fire, River of Water is the first introduction to the practice of Pure Land Buddhism from a trade publisher and is intended for readers even those without prior knowledge about it.

The Pure Land tradition went as far back as the sixth century c.e., when Buddhism was first established in Japan. Unlike Zen where is practiced mostly by monasteries in remote areas, the Pure Land tradition was the form of Buddhism practiced by ordinary people. It is applicable on the daily life of a person. This makes the Pure Land tradition more adaptable to those who seek the Buddhist way. The method may differ but the end goal is similar to the others which is the development of the true self.

Shin Buddhism has been the widespread Buddhist faith of Japan. Its practice is mainly contained within the Japanese communities in the United States which somehow limits its growth to other groups. Books such as this will provide necessary information that will make Shin Buddhism easily understood and attractive to people.

Shin Buddhism requires the practice of conscience and faith. It does not encourage compulsion. Simple faith and conscience are the most important requirement to be able to attain enlightenment not strict discipline and morality.

River of Fire, River of Water is both an “easy read” and a reference work. Chapter 6, “Nembutsu: The Name-that-Calls” gets to the heart of Shin Buddhism. One quote that stuck is :

“Philosophically speaking, the nembutsu is the self-articulation of fundamental reality. As such, the saying of the Name contains the alpha and omega of the Buddhist soteriological path.”

Faith in Amida Buddha simply means uttering the name of Amida Buddha, or the Nembutsu – “Namu Amida Butsu.” It is not an automatic chant but celebrates deep faith to Amida Buddha’s promise to save all troubled beings who request for help.

Unno uses a variety of angles in Shin Buddhism to communicate the simple doctrine behind a difficult to understand faith. He describes what the practice is like:

“The person who chooses the Shin path devotes hours, days, and years to the interior practice of deep hearing…. This initial stage of deep hearing is like mastering the theory. But this must be followed by the saying of nembutsu, the practice equivalent to mastering technique in dance. After that everything must be forgotten and the person must “just live,” but now live with awareness, sensitivity, and grace.”

This book can be used as an introduction to a deeper study into the fundamentals and history of Shin Buddhism. Or, it can provide enlightenment to a person who seeks it and wants to experience this great faith. It depends on the reader but whatever options he or she chooses will work.

River of Fire, River of Water is a wonderful elucidation on Shin Buddhism and the tranquil life of faith in Amida Buddha. The fact that it is published by a major publisher, Doubleday, gives the book the prominence it deserves. Hopefully, it touches many lives as it preaches the constructive and life-affirming path of Shin Buddhism, the natural way to enlightenment.


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