O'Leary on Watt, 'Demythologizing Pure Land Buddhism: Yasuda Rijin and the Shin Buddhist Tradition'

Paul Brooks Watt
Joseph S. O'Leary

Paul Brooks Watt. Demythologizing Pure Land Buddhism: Yasuda Rijin and the Shin Buddhist Tradition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2016. xii + 181 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-5632-8.

Reviewed by Joseph S. O'Leary (Sophia University) Published on H-Buddhism (January, 2017) Commissioned by Erez Joskovich

Yasuda Rijin (1900-1982) has an important place in Japanese religious philosophy, as a friend of Nishida Kitarō and D. T. Suzuki and the successor of Kiyozawa Manshi, Soga Ryōjin, and Kaneko Daiei at Otani University, where he belongs to a tradition of liberal, philosophizing interpretation of Shin Buddhism (the teaching of the Japanese True Pure Land School, or Jōdo Shinshū). Three of his essays were translated by Paul Watt in Cultivating Spirituality: A Modern Shin Buddhist Anthology (2011). The present book offers revised versions of these translations and three further texts. The introductory chapter gives a biography of Yasuda and locates him in the development of Shin Buddhist tradition, and this is filled out in the introductions provided for each of the texts (which could have been set off more clearly from the texts themselves).

The title, Demythologizing Pure Land Buddhism, is not a cute misappropriation of a Western term, but situates Yasuda’s thought correctly. Influenced by Rudolf Bultmann and the Heidegger of Sein und Zeit, he sought to purge Shin Buddhism of its mythological trappings, even to the point of reducing it to a doctrine of authentic existence, so that the “religious mind” he analyzes is quite hard to distinguish from a secular philosophical mind. Meeting Paul Tillich in Japan in 1960, “Yasuda was concerned that Tillich understand that, contrary to popular treatments of Shin Buddhism, it is not based on belief in an otherworldly Buddha and the experience of his grace” (p. 58). The idea of karma means that “I myself create my destiny, not a deity” (p. 58), that “one has a sense of responsibility for one’s existence” (p. 59). “Amida is one and the same with human beings. He has no form,” but takes form through human action (p. 59). Amida is thusness or emptiness, and invoking his name allows a transformation of consciousness and an awakening to the true nature of reality.

Yasuda went back to the origins of the tradition for this interpretation, especially to the philosophies of Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu, and the work of the Pure Land patriarch Tanluan (476–542). This step back conferred on what is often thought of as a devotional variety of Buddhism an impressive philosophical anchorage in the thinking of emptiness. Yasuda’s embrace of these classical thinkers is more through meditative osmosis than by constructing rigorous arguments, and the formulation of his own religious vision proceeds by cumulative touches. This hardly makes for artful literary composition, though there are moments of eloquence.       

Having recently been exposed to theologian Bernard Nitsche’s quizzing of Buddhologists and Buddhist-Christian thinkers on the question of transcendence in Buddhism, as well as to Robert Magliola’s insistence on Facing Up to Real Doctrinal Difference (2015), I could not but note the elusiveness of Yasuda’s language of transcendence. This version of Shin Buddhism is radically monistic. No asymmetry is allowed between the Tathāgata and sentient beings. How happy would Shinran be with this? Sometimes Shinran sounds as if he is warning in advance against this kind of revisionism: “The awakening of true faith occurs through the compassionate skillful means of the Great Sage. However, monks and laypeople of this latter age and the masters of these days, drowned in the concepts of ‘one’s self-nature [being identical with Buddha]’ and ‘[all that exists is in] one’s mind,’ despise true enlightenment in the Pure Land.”[1] Even supposing that Amida Buddha can be seen as a personal embodiment of the ultimate Dharma-body, the  themes of faith, grace, and salvation that Yasuda played down in his chat with Tillich are factually central in this highly devotional tradition, and might at least have been upheld as indispensable skillful means or conventional truth. 

“Human beings ‘do not exist within reality itself’ but only within their subjective interpretations of reality which are created through names.... ‘We do not live in a world of direct experience. Discriminating among names and objects is the basis of human existence’” (pp. 35-36). This is supposed to be inspired by the Yogācāra tradition, but does Yogācāra generally not aim at a purified consciousness free of subjective constructions, and marked by immediacy? No doubt Yasuda is referring only to ordinary deluded existence, for he speaks of “beings who, while originally existing in thusness, have in reality lost this thusness” (p. 36). One wonders how operative is the hope of recovering one’s grounding in thusness or emptiness. In any case this theme is perhaps the most powerful in Yasuda’s repertory, allowing Pure Land thought to resonate with modern Western themes of alienation, inauthenticity, bad faith, and false consciousness.

The compassionate vow is called “a positive love, like the love of destiny”; the translation introduces ambiguity in calling amor fati “a way of existing for human beings” (p. 92); “of human beings” would be better, for the phrase, associated with Nietzsche, has no altruistic connotations; its association with Amida’s vow seems arbitrary and undeveloped. Another category that receives a demythologized existential interpretation is karma: “It causes the ‘da’ in ‘Da-sein’ to be established. We can think of karma as the category of the nature of reality that causes existence to be real” (p. 92). He links it with Heidegger’s notion of being “thrown out into existence” (p. 96). One would like to see Yasuda attempt to differentiate the Buddhist from the Western concepts more sharply, instead of resting content with their mutual boosting. Another demythologization reduces the Pure Land to “the homeland of existence,” which “more fundamentally, must be existence itself” (p. 102). This monism of existence might recall Heidegger’s wry comment on Bultmann’s article, “Faith,” in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1959): “That’s too Heideggerian for me!” To be sure, authentic existence transcends current existence in a religious sense. “Present existences cannot settle down in present existence,” and they need to awaken to “the exceedingly deep and vast nature of existence” (p. 108), which transcends the human and both fulfills and dissolves human desires. The role of reciting Amida’s name (nembutsu) in Shin Buddhism sits oddly with philosophical interpretations, so that when Yasuda says, “because the recitation of the name is true, the entrusting mind is true” (p. 137), one wonders if an entire existential vision is not being jeopardized by being suspended on a devotional exercise. Dennis Hirota would invoke on this point the role of the poetic word in later Heidegger, but it is not the correlation of language and awakening that is problematic, for the philosophical interpreter of Shin Buddhism, but rather the stark particularity of this devotional practice.[2] To say that “it is the shingon of the Dharma that bears witness to the Dharma that gave birth to the Buddha, and through the Buddha’s birth, all human beings as well have been caused to be Buddhas” (p. 114) seeks to universalize the nembutsu by identifying it with the “true word” of Shingon Buddhism. To absolutize a devotional particularity seems incompatible with the essence of Buddhism, so the particularity must somehow be converted into a universal. 

(A sentence has accidentally dropped out in the translation on p. 103.)


[1].  Shinran and Hisao Inagaki, Kyōgyōshinshō: On teaching, Practice, faith, and Enlightenment (Berkeley, Calif: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003), 83.

[2]. Dennis Hirota, Asura's Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006).

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Citation: Joseph S. O'Leary. Review of Watt, Paul Brooks, Demythologizing Pure Land Buddhism: Yasuda Rijin and the Shin Buddhist Tradition. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. January, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46909

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