Monday, January 12, 2015

In the Tall Shadow of Taitetsu Unno

[We are reminded] that within boundless compassion each of us is Number One, whether in last place or not. In fact, it is the last-place finisher, the foolish being, who is first in the eyes of Amida Buddha.
                                                From Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn Into Gold
                                                Excerpted in Tricycle as “Number One Fool”

Jodo Shinshu lost its foremost spokesperson in the West when Dr. Taitetsu Unno passed away on Dec. 13, 2014. Our Chicago temple is indebted to him for the several times he came to be our Ho-on-ko seminar speaker and of course, his books and translations have been invaluable for our study-minded members.

At one of the Ho-on-ko seminars he started off telling a story (which I’ve forgotten) by saying he hated the cocktail parties he had to attend early in his academic career. I thought to myself, “What’s so bad about cocktail parties? Casual chit-chat with colleagues while sipping tasty alcoholic drinks sounds fine to me.” But he explained the thing he hated was: everyone had to stand.

For most women and especially Asians, there is a dread of situations where you know your short stature will put you at a disadvantage. As scientific studies have shown, humans like other animals tend to consider larger bodies as indicative of authority. The shallowest thinker in the room will be looked at as the expert if he towers above everyone else. I know at Buddhist gatherings I’ve felt invisible in crowds of non-Asian women – the stout gal with the shaved head and brown robes is looked up to as the venerable and this under-five-foot tall pipsqueak is too far below everyone’s eye-level to be noticed even if I’m dressed in my fanciest Japanese garb.

What Dr. Unno developed was a way of making himself seem tall. His voice was deep and deliberate. He carried himself in the way he stood, walked and sat as man of unshakable confidence. One trait he had that bothered me in the past is now something I envy. Although the professors in Japan enjoy being the sole speaker in the classroom (students are to be seen and not heard), at American colleges, students are allowed not only to ask questions but to challenge the instructor. What I’ve seen Dr. Unno do at his lectures is sternly shut someone down if they start to veer in a direction apart from his presentation. In some cases, students are just voicing their comments, but one time at our temple, Dr. Unno in what seemed a cruel stroke, put down a person who started to assert his opinion. After the seminar I told Dr. Unno he didn’t have to be so hard on that person because he’s a long time member of the temple and participant in the study groups, not someone making an ignorant generalization about Buddhism. But now considering how much that same person has been disrupting my study groups, openly questioning at public seminars my qualifications to be the teacher, I wish had Dr. Unno’s swift samurai sword of words.

It may rub some of my fellow baby-boomers the wrong way, but Dr. Unno was like the Louie DePalma character in the TV show “Taxi.” He knew if he didn’t gain the upperhand and let people know he was boss, they would feel justified by their height to rule over him.


The fact that Dr. Unno spent most of his academic career at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, shows he was free of many of the ethnocentric pressures on Jodo Shinshu scholars and ministers on the West Coast and Hawaii, who are used to speaking to primarily Japanese American “baggage Buddhists.” Dr. Unno was the key influence on dozens of people on the East Coast and beyond to become not just “convert Buddhists” but to whole-heartedly embrace Jodo Shinshu as the ultimate expression of Mahayana. Although many Buddhist writers have been published by niche presses such as Wisdom and Shambhala, what an accomplishment for Dr. Unno that he had two books published by Doubleday, a mainstream press. I started reading Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn Into Gold again and I’m struck by the wide variety of Western cultural references he brings into his presentation. Of course, he values his Japanese heritage but he knows that to speak to an ethnically diverse audience you have to go beyond “Bachan Jichan” (“Granny, Grandpa”) stories of old Japan. At his last visit to Chicago, I was impressed that he felt comfortable going beyond the set phrases to describe Amida, and was stretching out into parallels found in Western art and philosophy.


To be the Number One Fool is to settle humbly (Namu) in the embrace of unlimited wisdom (Amitabha) and to shout that message with a lion’s roar, unintimidated by anyone who happens to be taller.

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