Rover of Fire, River of Water

Taitetsu Unno


There are eighty-four thousand paths to liberation and freedom from self-delusion, according to Buddhism. This wealth of possibilities may seem to make liberation more than accessible, but they are not spelled out in some enlightenment mail-order catalog. Which path a person takes is often not a matter of choice but decided by the accidents of birth, circumstance, encounters, and quirks of fate. Yet there are defining moments for each of us that can change the entire course of life. Such a moment for me was the shocking suicide of my best friend. I was twenty-four at that time.

I had been in Japan for two years, following my graduation from the University of California at Berkeley in 1951. My ambition was to become a Buddhist scholar. Through the intermediary of D. T. Suzuki, whom I had met during my senior year in San Francisco, I enrolled in the Tokyo University graduate school as a special student before matriculating in the regular program in Buddhist Studies.

Living in Japan, which at that time was still suffering the devastation of World War II, I came to have mixed feelings about my new home. Having grown up in a Japanese-American family, I could easily identify with its rich cultural past but not with its contemporary history and its people. It was difficult to fully comprehend the kind of suffering that war had brought to them. And yet, in America, I had never really felt at home either. My family and I had been among one hundred twenty-thousand Americans of Japanese ancestry who had been incarcerated behind barbed-wire fences in “concentration camps,” (so-called by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt) without due process of law. Now in Japan but still lost and confused, a stranger in a strange land, I was searching for some kind of mooring. It was at that point that I was befriended by Teruo, a brilliant, older philosophy student also at Tokyo University.

I felt a close kinship with him, in part because of our shared interest in discussing issues of a philosophical nature. We compared notes on Japanese and American cultures, gossiped about professors we knew and about courses we took, exchanged notes on impetuous liaisons with the opposite sex, and shared our dreams and hopes for the future. But a dark, persistent cloud hovered over the bright promise of Teruo’s future: his frail health, due to tuberculosis in his youth. Effective medical treatment was lacking at that time, and his body had been ravaged by the effects of the disease. He was frequently exhausted and in great pain. He became increasingly frustrated that he could not sustain the vigorous demands of a highly competitive academic life. One day of hard studying needed to be compensated by two full days of quiet rest.

When we experience pain and suffering, it is only natural to ask “Why?” Such was probably the case when Teruo one day asked me, “What is karma in Buddhism?” It was on the eve of his graduation from the university, and we were sitting having a beer in a German-speaking bar in Tokyo’s Ginza district. I failed to appreciate the deep feeling that motivated his question, and I glibly quoted some abstract theories that I had just read in a Buddhist text and abruptly changed subjects. As we left the bar to go home, Teruo said that he had tickets for a dance the next evening. We said good night, and I promised him that I would drop by his home the following afternoon. We could go to the social together.

The following day, as promised, I went to his home shortly after the noon hour. When I knocked on the door, Teruo’s mother came to the door with a worried look on her face. In an anxious whisper, she said, “Teruo didn’t come home last night!” Knowing that he could have stayed out all night drinking (as he sometimes did) I calmly assured her, “I’m sure that he’ll be home soon. I’ll come back again later.”

Late that afternoon I went to a noodle shop. The evening edition of the newspaper had just arrived, and as I picked up the paper, I read the headline with horror—”College Student Commits Suicide.” I instantly knew that it was Teruo. He had taken an overdose of sleeping pills, swallowing them with soft drinks, in the compounds of a Zen monastery south of Tokyo. Did he decide to take his life because of his failing health, the anxiety of academic competition, or some unknown existential crisis?

I rushed back to his home, hoping somehow to comfort his mother, who had also just heard the tragic news of her son. Devastated, she had lost her only son upon whom she had showered love and affection, and she just wailed in grief and mourning. This went on and on. Though I searched desperately for words to express my sympathy and for words that might comfort her, none came forth.

That evening, I stayed up all night going over the tragic happening again and again. Three questions loomed large in my mind. First, I wondered if Teruo was now happy—was he now at peace? I thought about this for a long time, but instead of an answer coming to me there was only silence. Secondly, I wondered what I could say to Teruo’s mother. What is the one word of compassion that I could offer her for her painful loss? I wasn’t looking for hackneyed phrases of condolence but truly uplifting words. But again, I didn’t know—there was only a void. And thirdly, I kept thinking of Teruo’s question to me—what is karma, really? As I thought deeply about it, I realized that such an objective question, having little to do with my own existence, would invite only empty, abstract answers, answers of the sort I had given Teruo on the previous night. For a truly meaningful answer, the question of karma had to become more concrete: Who am I? What am I? Where did my life come from and where was it going? There was only a blank.

I thus found myself at an absolute impasse. I could not change the past. I could not go forward. I could not stay still and find peace in the present. Somehow I would have to find my way out of this predicament, but I felt truly lost. Yet, as all these questions and frustrations were circulating in my mind, remembered the Pure Land parable of the two rivers and white path. Attributed to Shan-tao, the Pure Land master of seventh-century China, it captures the existential predicament in which one is made to awaken the aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta). My painful struggle became slowly illuminated by this ancient parable.

In the parable, a traveler is journeying through an unknown and dangerous wilderness. Soon he is pursued by bandits and wild beasts, and he races to get away from them. Running westward, he eventually comes to a river divided into two, separated by a narrow white path. The white path is only a few inches wide and runs from the near shore to the far shore. On one side of the path the river is filled with leaping flames that reach twenty feet into the air; on the other, the deep river has a powerful current that overflows with dangerous waves. Even though the white path is the only possibility of escape across the perilous river, it is not an alternative because of lapping fire and waves. Filled with fear, the traveler cannot go forward, cannot go back, and cannot stand still. In the words of Shan-tao, he faces “three kinds of imminent death.”

Just at that time, the desperate traveler hears a calming voice right behind him on the eastern shore, urging him to go forward on the white path: “Go forth without fear; no danger exists. But if you remain, you will surely die!” Just then, he hears a beckoning call from the far shore: “Come just as you are with singleness of heart. Do not fear the flames and waves; I shall protect you!” Shan-tao tells us that the river of fire connotes anger; the river of water, greed. The two joined together make an odd picture, but they illustrate how the overflowing abundance of greed and anger can fill our lives. In our greed we want to make life move according to our desires. When we do not get our way, our passions are stifled and anger erupts.
The eastern shore, the side where the traveler encountered his dilemma, is the world of delusion—samsara. The western shore is the Other Shore of enlightenment—nirvana. While this side is the defiled land, the far side is known as the Pure Land. Connecting the two is a narrow, white path. The tenuousness of the path shows the weakness of human aspiration to break through self-delusion into liberation and freedom.
The pursuing bandits represent enticing teachings that abound in our world, all promising immediate material benefits and psychological relief. They may provide temporary answers but no true liberation. The wild beasts manifest instinctual passions that keep us bound to this shore of delusion. …

Excerpt from
River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism
Taitetsu Unno