In memoriam: Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno

M. Editor  |  December 14, 2014

Update: The Memorial Service for Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno will be held on Saturday, 3 January, 2015, at 11 am, at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple. Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto will officiate. The temple is located at 2121 Channing Way, Berkeley CA, 94704.

We are saddened to announce the death of Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno, a colleague to many in the world of Buddhist studies, and to many of us a friend as well. The family has requested privacy at this time, and we ask that you respect their wishes.

A funeral service is being planned, and it will be held at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, Rev. Dr. Matsumoto presiding. The date and time have yet to be announced. A follow up to this announcement will be made. The family have suggested that, rather than sending flowers, academic colleagues and friends who wish to express their respect and appreciation make a donation in his memory to the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Please address any donations to the attention of Richard K. Payne, Dean, Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2140 Durant Avenue, Berkeley CA 94704, USA.

Any personal communications that you wish to share with the family may be sent to Rev. Ronald Kobata, Buddhist Church of San Francisco, 1881 Pine Street, San Francisco, CA 94109.

Taitetsu’s son Mark prepared the following short biography, which we would like to share with you:

Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno completed his life journey on Saturday, Dec 13, 2014. To the very end, he was fully aware and at peace, saying, “Thank you for everything, Namu Amida Butsu,” and when he could no longer speak, simply putting his palms together in gassho. His family and close friends who came to visit in his last days and hours experienced the deep joy of being with him and chanting together, immersed in the rhythms of boundless compassion. He received the remarkably good fortune, the great gift of the Dharma, of the life of Namu Amida Butsu, which he was able to share with so many.

He was born in Shojoji temple in Kokura, in the city of Kita-Kyushu, February 5, 1929, the son of Rev. Enryo Unno and Mrs. Hana Unno, the first of five siblings. He arrived in the U.S. in 1935 at the age of six, went through the turbulent years of the Pacific War when he and his family were put into internment camps, first at Rohwer, Arkansas, then at Tule Lake, California. After the war, his family settled in California, where he eventually graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Well into his eighties, he could recite Chaucer in the original Middle English. It was at the end of his career at Berkeley that he met D. T. Suzuki who encouraged him to study Buddhism in Japan, and Taitetsu Unno went on to receive his M.A. and Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies at Tokyo University in 1968.

For the next forty years, he taught in the field of Buddhist studies, first at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then for the next thirty-seven years at Smith College, where he served as Department Chair, and was Jill Ker Conway Professor of World Religions. He was also a Visiting Professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellow in Kyoto, Japan. He was the author, translator, and editor of numerous academic volumes and articles, but he is perhaps best known for his two works introducing Shin Buddhism to English-language audiences, River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism (1998), and Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turned into Gold (2002), as well as his translation, Tannisho: A Shin Buddhist Classic (1996).

He was the recipient of the Ernest Pon Award of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, for his efforts to increase and retain Asian American faculty among the Five Colleges (1998), the Cultural Award for the Promotion of Buddhism, of the Society for the Promotion of Buddhism (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai)(2006), and the inaugural President’s Award of the Institute for Buddhist Studies (2014). In addition, he was also a fourth-degree black belt in Aikido, and was the translator and author of the “Foreword” for The Spirit of Aikido by Kisshomaru Ueshiba (1984).

Although prolific as a scholar, his passion was always in teaching and working with his students, many whose lives he helped to transform. Although passionate as a college professor, his calling was as a Buddhist minister, ordained in the tradition of Shin Buddhism at Nishi Honganji, as the thirteenth-generation Shin priest in his family. He devoted his career to working with Shin temples, Buddhist centers, and Buddhist groups in North America and elsewhere, as much as he did to make contributions in academia. After retiring from Smith College, he and his wife Alice founded the Northampton Shin Buddhist Sangha in Northampton, Massachusetts, which they led until 2007.

For the last seven years of his life, he, his wife, and their beloved dog Metta, a Lhasa Apso, spent their lives with their son Mark and his wife Megumi in Eugene, Oregon, where they continued the work of the BuddhaDharma as a family, leading events in Hawaii, California, and Eugene. His last public appearance was at the Pacific Seminar, held at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple and the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley, California, in July 2014.

With a twinkle in his eye, sharp sense of humor, gentle spirit, and compassionate presence, he left an indelible impression on those who came to know him through his work in all arenas. He is survived by his wife Alice, a retired schoolteacher and Buddhist teacher in her own right; son Mark, the fourteenth-generation Shin minister in his family and also a scholar of Buddhism; daughter-in-law Megumi, a teacher of the Japanese Way of Tea in the Urasenke School; and of course, dog Metta, who truly embodies her Buddhist name, “Loving Kindness.”

12 thoughts on “In memoriam: Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno”

  1. Gregory George Gibbs says:

    I am so sorry to hear this. Of course, Taitetsu Sensei has been in less than sterling health for years. Still, … he is one of the great Shinshu teachers of the 20th and 21st centuries, and he will be deeply missed. Like his son, Mark Sensei,and his brother, Rev. Tetsu Unno he always combined intellect and feeling in his presentations and was a wonderful exemplar of the way. His loss both as a teacher and as a person is severe. He is irreplaceable. I do not think we will see his like again in my lifetime.

  2. José M. Tirado says:

    It is with the deepest sadness that I write these words. To Mark, Mrs. Alice Unno and their friends and family I extend my best wishes in this sad time. Prof. Unno first introduced me to Amida when Mark and I roomed together at one of the earliest Seminar on the Sutras (1982) where Prof. Unno gave the talks on Shin. It didn´t “take” with me then (I was a student of Sasaki Roshi) but it made a deep impression, he lent me a draft of his still working on Tannisho translation and the teachings on Amida erupted in 1999 when I worked in SF as a Chaplain. I wrote Prof. Unno about his book, River of Fire River of Water asking if I could use an excerpt for my patients and, then suddenly my father died and the correspondence took on a deeper significance. He and Prof, Al Bloom then became my guides as I sought ordination and in 2003 I re-met Prof. Unno in England where I returned his Tannisho draft and he advised me on my journey to ordination. He was always willing to hear me out, to guide me, to advise and to offer support as an independent seeker after ordination as I was unconnected to any temple. His life – and my journey from Zen to Vajrayana and finally, to being a priest of Hongwanji – is proof of the deep and subtle influence a genuine kalyanamitra has, and the Mysterious way Dharma works. I bow my head in sadness and the deepest gratitude. Goodbye Prof. Unno, thank you so much…

  3. gregory miyata says:

    We are saddened for the loss of such a great and generous person.

  4. Andy says:

    Really sad though not unexpected news. My deep condolences and gratitude to Alice, Mark and all Unno-sensei’s family and friends.

    I was first introduced to Shin Buddhism by one of Unno-sensei’s students, and was greatly supported by his writings during the time when I had yet to find a sangha. Having encountered my own teacher I then had the good fortune to meet Unno-sensei and Alice when they visited our temple in the UK. Both left a lasting legacy, in particular our lively children’s meetings which were inspired by their kind advice and encouragement.

    During my brief encounter with Unno-sensei I was struck by his robust and challenging teaching style, so different to the gentle tone of his books but still permeated through and through with warmth and humour. I am sure that he would disavow such a suggestion but it seems to me that his role in bringing Shin Buddhism to people outside of Japan has been as epoch-making as D.T. Suzuki’s endeavours were for Zen.


  5. Bryna Keenan Subherwal says:

    I first met Dr. Unno in 1994 during my first semester at Smith College, when I took a course with him called Religion as a Human Experience. I had lost touch with him in recent years after he and his wife Alice moved to Oregon, but I very often found myself referring back from lessons learned from him both in and out of the classroom. His wisdom, love and true bodhisattva spirit quite simply changed the course of my life. I am so grateful to have know him and benefitted from his care and teaching. Gassho, Unno-san.

  6. G Sakamoto says:

    Thank you Alice for sharing Ty with us. You have been there in equal measure supporting, guiding all of us who entered your lives. I have held close the memories of you and Ty along with Kanmo and Jane Imamura, Yoshifumi Uyeda and Al Bloom.
    Thank you
    Namo Amidabutsu

  7. Nell Riviere-Platt says:

    As one of Taitetsu Unno’s many appreciative students at Smith College, I give thanks for having known him, and send deep condolences to Mrs. Unno and the family. Tai Unno’s constant encouragement of his students, his wonderful wit, his remarkable legacy as a child survivor of the WWII Japanese-American internment camps, and most of all his manifest compassion for all of creation, touched so many of us in the Smith College (and Five Colleges) Department of Religious Studies. Gassho, Unno-San.

  8. Pat Deer and Jake Bassett says:

    My husband and I met Alice and Ty at the New York Buddhist temple in 1994 and joined the Northamption Shin Sangha shortly thereafter. Alice and Ty changed my life and shin buddhism is a daily constant in my life now because of them and my husband. My gratitude is beyond words.

    Namo Amida Butsu

  9. Angela Andrade says:

    I had the privilege to meet Ty Sensei and Alice in Kyoto and it was a great journey on Buddhist teaching on Arashiyama that is my heart. His Dharma talks and his works are very precious to every understanding of the essence of Shinshu. My warmest feelings and gratitude to Alice, Mark and Tetsu Unno Sensei, wonderful family that I came to know through Ty Unno Sensei.

  10. Kenneth Kenshin Tanaka (Professor, Musashino University, Tokyo and President, International Association of Shin Studies) says:

    For me, Dr. Unno along with Dr. Bloom have been my models, who combined the academics and the religious in sharing the Nembutsu with the English speaking world. His writings have inspired me and given me new insights for my own appreciation of the teachings, but it was also being in his presence that left a huge impression. So, I always looked forward to seeing Unno Sensei at the biennial IASBS (Int. Assoc. of Shin Buddhist Studies) conferences which Sensei invariably attended. His two books are rare among Shin writings in English, for they were published by a MAJOR publisher, allowing for Shin Buddhism to reach a much wider audience. My personal condolences to Mrs. Alice Unno, Prof. and Mrs. Mark Unno, and the entire Unno family. I feel fortunate to be in the U.S. to be able to attend the memorial service on January 3rd and to represent the Dept. of Indian Philosophy of Tokyo University, as one of Unno Sensei’s junior alums (kouhai).

  11. I was privileged to know Tai and Alice through mutual friends and interests in Northampton, Ma. When our family spent six months in Kyoto, Tai kindly acted as tour guide during one of his visits there–an extraordinary learning experience! When I suffered a catastrophic back injury the next year, I called him to ask him about karma. He immediately invited me to dinner with Alice at which time he gave me a copy of his book, “River of Fire/River of Water.” He explained to me that life sometimes presents us with difficulties so that we may learn an important lesson. That when things are going along smoothly, our tendency is to be lazy mentally and not investigate life closely. It was a gentle and kind teaching–somewhat at odds with other interpretations I’d heard, which were closer to ‘you get what you deserve.’ When I read the introduction to his book in which he recounted the tragic story of Teruo, I understood why he had taken my question so seriously.
    It was a lovely act of generosity and caring, which is who Tai was. I will always remember him with deep gratitude and affection.

  12. Bernadette Giblin says:

    I am so grateful for all the rememberances previously shared. I feel the great loss eloquently expressed, also. My son calls his favorite guitar teacher his musical father. Tai felt like my Buddhist father. My own father died when I was one and I had the pleasure of meeting him and his sweet, loving wife Alice, an equally gifted teacher, not long after the sudden death of my late husband. I was 33 and raising 3 young children, running my late husband’s lawn care and snow plowing company and attending Smith as an Ada. Tai and Alice generously opened their home and their hearts freely sharing the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma & Sangha with my family and I at monthly Sangha and Family Dharma gatherings. There we learned the practice of deep hearing. Together we listened deeply to hear you are never alone, never forgotten, always in the boundless compassionate embrace of the infinite light and life of Amida Buddha. This gift of timeless wisdom was so healing to my children and I. We are eternally grateful to have received this message that we all carry with us on our whole journey through life. I hear and know deeply that Tai has crossed over into the Pure Land and the warm loving embrace of Amida surrounds him. I know that same boundless light of compassion surrounds his beautiful family and all who mourns his loss. I wished i could have gotten out to Oregon to see him one last time. Instead, I go to the Teahouse at Smith College and perform quiet sitting like I once did at their home on Marion St.. I feel moved to restore the beauty of that sacred structure and garden this great man, teacher was so instrumental in designing. I would like to do so to honor this man who ministered to me and so many on the path of his incredible, unrepeatable spiritual journey through life in human form. In Gassho _/_

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