Christians sometimes wonder, debate, and pray about the salvation of non-Christians. An answer to this question by Wilfred Cantwell Smith was that if it takes faith to be saved, then those are saved whose central affirmation is, “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma (teaching). I take refuge in the sangha (Buddhist community).” If we make a distinction between spiritual faith and intellectual belief, we can find faith in sincere and wholehearted trust in a concept of a superhuman being of transcendent wisdom and compassion. The quality of faith is for God to judge; but I celebrate the faith in some Buddhists I have come to know.
One of them is Tai Unno, a Smith College professor of philosophy and religion now retired as a Shin Buddhist priest in Eugene, Oregon, near his son Mark, also a Shin priest and professor of religion. Shin Buddhism is a Japanese branch of Mahayana Buddhism. During the years when I taught world religions, in the unit on Buddhism I would use this story, a chapter in one of Tai’s books.
“True and Real Life”
In 1975 I taught at the University of Hawaii as a visiting professor of philosophy and religion, and simultaneously I was appointed as the Scholar-in-Residence at the Buddhist Study Center (BSCO located near the campus.) BSC is part of the Shin Buddhist organization knows as the Honpa Honwanji Mission of Hawaii. At this center I gave weekly lectures on Shin Buddhism to a general audience reflecting the multiethnic makeup of the community. Among the regular participants was a Causasian woman who came to participate from Wahiawa, a small town in Oahu, about a forty-five-minute drive from the Center.
One day she asked me to visit her mother in the Wahiawa General Hospital. The mother was eighty-six years old, totally deaf, and absolutely refusing to eat. This caused great distress and anguish for the family, and they wondered whether I could talk their mother into eating again. On the day I had agreed to visit her, I had a heavy schedule, so I had no time to prepare what I might say. I would be meeting a complete stranger who was deaf and who had never been exposed to Buddhism.
I was picked up and taken to the hospital where I was introduced to the mother. Although gaunt, pale, and looking weak, she struck me as the epitome of stubborn old age. When I held her hands, however, a faint smile crossed her face; her whispering was barely audible, but I understood that she had been waiting for me.
I took the writing pad next to her bed and with a felt pen wrote in large, bold letters, so the deaf woman could read them easily.
Your body is a container of life. It contains true and real life. Your body and your true and real life are two different things, related but different.
I tore off the sheet of paper and handed it to here. Then, I immediately began writing on the second sheet of paper:
Your body is old and tired and doesn’t want to go on living anymore, but true and real life within you is not. In fact, it wants to live on forever.
Tearing off this sheet and handing it over to her, I continued writing on eleven successive pages:
You have taken care of your body up to now, but now you must take care of true and real life that flows within you. Something deep within you wants you to awaken to the precious life that moves within you.
As you awaken to true and real life within you, you will feel good and warm and alive. Then everyone, including those who love you, will also awaken to that same true and real life.
Although I don’t know you at all, in one sense I have always known you—through true and real life that flows in you and me and everyone around us. Because of this shared life, I love you deeply as I love myself deeply.
When we appreciate true and real life that flows in the deepest parts of ourselves, then we also take good care of its container, this body, for without it we could never have come to realize true and real life.
To die or not to die—we really don’t have a choice. If we could choose, it would make things so simple. All we can do is to take good care of our body and our life, until the fullness of time and being brings to a close our existence on this earth.
As the woman read each successive page slowly as it was passed on to her, she became more and more alert, and her eyes focused on each word.
In my own life I often forget about true and real life deep within me. But whenever I do and get lonely, unhappy, frustrated, or angry, something deep within me calls me to awaken to true and real life.
The call is a call for me to return to my real home, the home of homes, where all existence really comes alive. I hear the call through the words, namu-amida-butsu. This is known as the Name-that-calls.
Namu is me—lost, confused, and wanting to find my real home. Amida is Immeasurable Life and Light—true and real life which is my home of homes. Butsu is Buddha—the awakening to this true and real life. The three are not separate but one, so we say namu-amida-butsu.
In response to the Name-that-calls, I say namu-amida-butsu. This is my acceptance and affirmation of true and real life. No need to understand, no need to explain anything, no need to convince anyone. Just namu-amida-butsu.
Although I myself am incapable of truly loving another person, many people love me—many times in ways unknown to me. Although I fail to appreciate others’ concern for me, they truly sustain my life. But when I live namu-amida-butsu, I am made to appreciate others and want to thank them—all this by virtue of true and real life.
I am then filled with warmth, love, and compassion. May you awaken to true and real life that flows in you, me, your loved ones, and all beings. Thank you for listening—not to me but to the call of true and real life coming from deep, deep within you and me.
Although I had a particularly heavy schedule that day—sitting meditation in early morning, meeting with students during the day, TV taping in the late afternoon, and preparing for the weekly Tannisho lecture that evening—the details have all but faded from my memory into the nebulous past. I learned later that she did begin eating again, but what remains with me is the gaunt yet hopeful face of the old woman, anticipating each sheet of paper.
Taitetsu Unno, River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism (New York: Doubleday, 1998), Chapter 39 (191-195).