Interview with Taitetsu Unno

‘Even Dewdrops Fall’ – An Interview with Taitetsu Unno, from: Tricycle, Summer 1995

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?

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