The following extract is from “River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism” by Taitetsu Unno.
Pure Land Buddhism, though relatively unknown in the West, is the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan. It emphasises tariki or “other-power”, rather than jiriki (“self-power”), which comes through entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha. Thus in some respects it is much closer to Christianity than other branches of Buddhism.
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, I 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. Both pull us away from moving forward on the path. The voice of encouragement from the eastern shore is that of the historical Buddha, the teachings of Sakyamuni; the beckoning call from the western shore comes from the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life, Amida. As one heeds the urging of Sakyamuni, the aspiration to move forward becomes pure and powerful. And as one embodies the call of Amida, it becomes single-minded and unshakable. This aspiration for supreme enlightenment is none other than the white path, now expanded and made safe, now an open passage through the flames of anger and waves of greed.
But even though the first step has been taken on the path, the threat is not over. As the traveler moves forward, the bandits make enticing promises and the beasts offer all kinds of temptations, attempting to call him back to this shore of delusion. But, sustained by the words of Sakyamuni and the call of Amida, the traveler does not hesitate, moves forward, and reaches the Other Shore safely into the waiting arms of a good friend (kalyanamitra) who is none other than Amida Buddha.
In reflecting on the parable I saw myself as that traveler, a sojourner in life with a checkered history. Pushed by false ambitions and pursued by demons within, I now confronted “three kinds of certain death.” While being comforted to see my predicament described precisely by this parable, it did not tell me enough about how to get out of it. I began desperately searching for teachers to point the way. When I could not find anyone around me, I began a random, voracious reading of existential literature—Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger—and the scriptures of world religions—Buddhist literature, including contemporary interpretations, the Bhagavad Gita, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, the New Testament, and so on. Some of this was useful on one level, but none cleared the confusion that prevailed. The glaring light of day was difficult to bear, the darkness of night seemed to lessen the agitation, alcohol definitely eased the pain. At one time I thought of abandoning my studies altogether; at another time I played with the idea of becoming a monk.
Slowly, however, after months of indecision and uncertainties, I began to find a faint sense of direction. The weight of my family background—generations of Shin Buddhist priests on both my mother’s and father’s sides—became decisive. Until that point my interest in Buddhism was primarily academic; in fact, I had little interest in the solace it promised, especially in its Pure Land form. But now my focus became a personal quest. As I moved forward on the white path, the world of Japanese Pure Land opened up. Welcomed by fine teachers and exemplary lay devotees, they helped me to formulate answers, however tentative, to the three questions that had arrested the course of my life. But the process of finding inner peace was not easy because of the maze of abstruse doctrines and technical religious terms that I needed to unravel. I needed to reduce them to the point that they resonated with the pragmatic turn in my nature. My varied excursions since that time into philosophical, religious, and psychological fields have focused on pursuing answers within the framework of the three basic questions concerning death and dying, the meaning of true compassion, and my karmic existence as infinite finitude.