Demythologizing Pure Land Buddhism

Yasuda Rijin and the Shin Buddhist Tradition

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Paul B. Watt
Pure Land Buddhist Studies
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , January
     196 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A thirty-nine page introduction by Paul Watt comprises part 1 of Demythologizing Pure Land Buddhism: Yasuda Rijin and the Shin Buddhist Tradition. Here the translator provides an excellent overview of the intellectual and political developments of Jōdo Shinshū (hereafter Shin) Buddhism in Japan. Watt also sketches the lives and projects of Yasuda Rijin (1900-1982) and his contemporaries. In the process, Watt sets up the dynamic tensions inherited by the early twentieth century scholars of the Ōtani (Higashi Honganji) branch of Shin Buddhism. Along with the Kyoto school of philosophy, these thinkers strove to integrate the philosophical and religious ideas of Japan with those of the West. Developing the work of their founder, Kiyozawa Manshi (1863-1903), members of the Ōtani school wanted to explain the everyday relevance they perceived in the writings of the Shin tradition. Challenging their efforts were colorful myths and ancient practices indexing a supernatural Pure Land and physical death as a precondition of birth into such a Pure Land.

Six of Yasuda’s essays are featured in part 2: “The Practical Understanding of Buddhism” (1931); “The Mirror of Nothingness” (1931); “A Name but Not a Name Alone” (1960); “Humans as Bodhisattvas” (1962); “The Homeland of Existence” (1964); and “Fundamental Vow, Fundamental Word” (1972). Grounded in Yogācāra philosophy and Tathāgatagarbha literature, and inspired by Martin Heidegger, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and other Western thinkers, Yasuda explores correspondence theory and phenomenology in a Shin Buddhist key. Yasuda characterizes Shin tradition as the history of the Primal Vow, the Tathāgata as all sentient beings, and transmigration as the “manner of existence in which, having lost the self itself, one manifests oneself in everydayness” (91). These interpretations represent an important step in the evolution of Shin Buddhist thought undertaken at the Ōtani school.

Distancing themselves from supernaturalism, and inspired to various extents by their encounters with Eastern nondual wisdom traditions, Western philosophers from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries embraced rationalism and constructed the ontotheologies and grand philosophical architectonics of the early modern, Enlightenment, phenomenological, and existentialist schools. Against this background of systematic philosophy Yasuda attempts to rehabilitate Shin doctrine. Yasuda posits an “eternal and present” (50) principle—the “One Dharma Principle” (ippokku)—supposedly laying at the heart of Buddhism. Yasuda adopts this term from Vasubandhu, develops it under the influence of a constellation of concepts that includes Kiyozawa’s “absolute infinity” (zettai mugen), and expresses it in various ways throughout his text. In “The Homeland of Existence,” Yasuda’s One Dharma Principle is expressed as “the religious mind,” a term he touts almost forty times. In “Fundamental Vow, Fundamental Word,” the One Dharma Principle takes on the form of the Tathāgata’s Primal Vow, “the transcendent foundation of all worlds…[and] human beings” (120). Not surprisingly, this cataphatic principle leaves Yasuda facing a host of difficult antinomies to pick through. In the earliest essays of the collection, “The Practical Understanding of Buddhism” and “The Mirror of Nothingness,” Yasuda sets up the problem of historical and cultural contingencies surrounding the One Dharma Principle. “There cannot be an unconditioned Dharma apart from the conditioned” (52). In the cosmology resulting from Yasuda’s One Dharma Principle we find the sum of the Name (Namu Amida Butsu) plus the practitioner equated with reality in toto. However, “if one takes the name as object—in other words, if one substantiates the name—the world that one experiences is the defiled land” (83). Yasuda resolves this tension in “A Name but Not a Name Alone” with some help from Buber: “The name of the Primal Vow…indicates the relationship of I and Thou, not the existence of something” (86). Here, and at other points in his writings, the complexities of Yasuda’s project give way to the central concern of living an authentically human life.

Yasuda’s focus in the selected essays drifts back and forth between a somewhat difficult ontology and a refreshingly original psychology, and the Shin master is at his best when dealing with Buddhist psychology in phenomenological terms. Here we find a Shin mind fully aware of the impossible predicament of being incapable of awakening itself from sources of distress and delusion, and yet, inconceivably, being also fully settled. “Consciousness is incomprehensible to itself. By realizing that, at that point, consciousness becomes at ease” (81). Yasuda treats traditional Buddhist concepts such as karma, the ālaya-vijñāna (storehouse consciousness), and ignorance as positive elements in a process of individuation. There is a distinct texture to these internal experiences, rich descriptions of which may prove to be Yasuda’s most enduring contribution to the Shin Buddhist tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Belcheff is Adjunct Professor at Glendale Community College.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017


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