Questions and Answers on Other Power vs Self Power
by Paul Roberts
This question is about Other Power vs Self Power. I fail to understand how a purely "Other Power" approach is possible. Surely there will always be traces of self-power. Even studying the teachings of Shinran is something my self does to try to attain Amida Buddha's salvation. Or asking these questions here. Or interpreting the Name and the Vow. I don't see how possibly we could ever achieve a state where all the traces of self-power are absent.
To understand what "self power" means in the Dharma of True Shin Buddhism, let's talk about how Buddhism "works" in all the other schools of Buddhism, whether of the Hinayana, the Mahayana or the Vajrayana.
First, we can acknowledge that in all those schools, the ultimate goal is the same (when rightly understood) - namely to finally get to the top of the mountain of enlightenment, aka Buddhahood.
Having said that, each and all of those schools teaches various sorts of practices and good acts that - when done properly and to completion - create karmic merit and reduce karmic debt. The practices and good acts vary widely from school to school, and often even within schools, in the various sects. They include (for example) the taking and keeping of precepts, the practice of various paramitas, various sorts of transformative mind training exercises such as meditation, chanting, memorization and repetition of texts (even if not understood), making offerings...and on and on.
The basic assumption (and promise) here is that you really can create your own karmic destiny by what you choose do to. Said another way, if you really are sincere and try hard enough, and never slack off, sooner or later you WILL become a Buddha. Over the course of many lives, you WILL generate a significant amount of karmic merit. Indeed, it becomes possible, as you advance up the mountain, to create karmic merit for the benefit of others, and not just yourself.
Master Shinran (and the other Pure Land Masters he cites) say that this was once possible, but it is not possible anymore. The basic Dharma message is: In this Age of Mappo, the Age of Dharma Decline, all those self-power approaches don't produce PERMANENT results - i.e. they don't lead practicers to the stage of non-retrogression, i.e. the 8th of the 10 major Bodhisattva stages.
Yes, many people still do make some progress by such practices and good acts. I certainly did. But the progress is small and temporary. Practicers remain entirely vulnerable to retrogression, not just in one individual life, but over the course of countless lives. The monkey mind remains strong, our blind passions remain strong, our cravings and aversions (attachments) remain strong, our delusions and obscurations remain strong, our ignorance remains vast.
Sooner or later, the spiritual power and karmic merit produces by self-power practices and good acts fails to be enough to sustain progress up the mountain. The person becomes a spiritual burnout - having the sort of existential crisis that young Shinran himself experienced - or he (or she) succumbs to spiritual darkness, committing karmic acts of fraud and abuse, as we have seen all too often in famous and revered teachers in our day. Or the person simply wanders off the path, suffering from a case of Buddhist attention deficit disorder.
For whatever reason, upward progress in this journey of many lifetimes stops, and the person eventually loses the ground he or she has gained.
Master Shinran talks about this in very specific terms in his writings. He says that ALL THE DHARMA DOORS ARE CLOSED IN OUR AGE.
It was not always thus.
In the first Age of the Dharma - called The Age of Right Dharma - many people, including those of average and even inferior capacity - were able to both understand the teachings, and practice them effectively, making great and powerful strides up the mountain of enlightenment. That lasted for about 500 years, beginning with Shakyamuni's manifestation in a Nirmanakaya body when Gotama was 35.
In the second Age of the Dharma - called The Age of Semblance of Dharma - many people were still able to understand the teachings, but very few were able to leverage their understanding into real progress up the mountain. That period also lasted another 500 years.
One of the people living during the Second Age was the great Mahasattva Nagarjuna. Many in the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools consider him the second great teacher, after Shakyamuni Himself, who is said to have foretold Najarjuna's birth. He is famous for his TREATISE ON THE MIDDLE WAY, in which he philosophically refutes those who cling to ideas of both being and non-being - and also for his TREATISE ON THE TEN BODHISATTVA STAGES.
In that second treatise, Master Nagarjuna actually says this, which is a foundational principle quoted many centuries later by Master Shinran: In seeking to become a Buddha, you can take a long and difficult journey over land, or you can climb aboard the Great Ship of the Primal Vow and be carried by favorable winds across the ocean. Why should do work so hard for so little benefit, when you can attain the supreme benefit (Buddhahood) by taking the Easy Path.
Now...he was living in that Second Age of the Dharma when BOTH options - the difficult Path of the Sages and the Easy Path of the Pure Land - were both still available. Now, in this Third Age, the Path of the Sages no longer works, even for those who are of superior capacity, and try their best.
Most self-power Buddhists don't even read Najarjuna's words here, so they have no idea that there is an Easy Path that he actually recommends. And even those self-power practicers who have read the Treatise on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages simply don't comprehend what they're reading. Master Shinran, and his teacher Master Honen, did comprehend, which is why Master Shinran designates Nagarjuna as the first of his Seven Pure Land Masters, who - over the course of centuries - unfolded the Easy Path as an entirely different way to attain the goal of full and final enlightenment - aka Buddhahood.
Now, let me get to the nub of your question, namely how does Other Power actually work, if we're not practicing self-power Buddhism any more.
First, let's talk about INTENTION. As I already said, in all the self-power schools (including self-power schools of Pure Land Buddhism), we are instructed to do various practices and good acts in order to increase karmic merit, decrease karmic debt, and make progress up the mountain of enlightenment. That's the essential paradigm.
For people following Master Shinran's paradigm, we've just given up on all that altogether.
I'm not doing anything - no practices an no good acts - with the intention of karmically improving myself. After listening to Master Shinran, and coming to believe his teaching is true, I saw that this karmic improvement program is just a waste of time, and will actually end up making me more unhappy than I am already. I've come to believe - again per Master Shinran - that I couldn't do this karmic improvement program even if I wanted to.
So...in TRUE Shin Buddhism, there are no practices, and there are no good acts. Period. In TRUE Shin Buddhism, we're not trying to collect any karmic brownie points at all...PERIOD.
Now...some people get confused by that statement. One person asked me recently: Does that mean you need to be frozen and afraid to do something so simple as contribute money to a cause you believe in and want to support, or even do such a simple thing as give money to someone you pass on the street who is homeless?
Of course not. In Shin Buddhism, we live a NATURAL life. So if I feel like giving, I just follow my feeling. I just give - whether it's time, money, energy or whatever. But it's not done as a Buddhist GOOD ACT (aka DANA) with the intention of pushing me a bit father up the mountain.
To use Master Shinran's words, there's no SELF-CALCULATION involved at all.
The same goes for, say, meditation. There's nothing wrong with meditating if you like it and it makes you feel better, just like there's nothing wrong with being a distance runner and kicking in those endorphins to create a safe and natural "high".
People have come to our Sangha and said. "Gee, do I have to stop meditating? I LIKE meditating. It makes me feel better".
Of course you don't have to stop meditating. But in TRUE Shin Buddhism we're not meditating, or doing ANYTHING, as a self-calculated act with the intention of improving ourselves and our standing as Buddhists. We've given up on the whole Buddhist Self-Improvement program. We're just plain people, living a NATURAL life, observing the mores of natural morality that any reasonable person - religious or not - would agree upon.
Having said all that, there is ONE practice in True Shin Buddhism. It is the practice of LISTENING DEEPLY to the Dharma.
We've talked about that a lot already - and I would recommend you go back and watch my video on that again - and perhaps a number of times.
In listening deeply, there is NO intention to create our own karmic merit. Again, we've let that idea go completely.
Our intention is simply to listen with the head (our intellect) so that we can UNDERSTAND the Dharma propositions of our Dharma masters. That listening can take the form of reading, or hearing a sermon, or being part of a study group, or asking questions of someone who can serve as a good teacher.
It's exactly the kind of thing Shakyamuni advised the Kalama people in the Kalama Sutra: In order to evaluate ANY teaching, the first thing you need to do is really understand its basic assertions and arguments. It has nothing to do with intention to generate karmic merit.
And then, once we've understood the teaching, our intention is to evaluate it honestly, without pre-existing bias, so we can decide whether it is TRUE.
We suspend our pre-existing beliefs, and we suspend our rational judgments, and we ask the Buddha to give us guidance. If we do that, with any teaching, with an open and honest heart, at some point we will hear an answer. It may be audible, and it may be just the sort of feeling you have described as your response to our ongoing Dharma dialogue. But either way, if you are humble and patient, you will come to know whether you should discard the teaching and move on, or accept it as a basis for your own journey.
Again, no intention here to collect karmic brownie points. No self-power calculations whatsoever.
And finally, if you listen deeply to THIS teaching, and do hear FOR YOURSELF that it is the RIGHT DHARMA for you, at some point you will do what Master Shinran has done, and what I have done, and what so many others have done through the centuries: You will entrust yourself and your karmic destiny ENTIRELY to Amida Buddha, leaving EVERYTHING in His hands.
You will put your faith ENTIRELY in Amida, and NOT AT ALL in yourself anymore.
You will depend ENTIRELY upon His promise to give you HIS entire store of karmic merit, rather than depending on what you can do to create your own.
You will depend ENTIRELY upon His promise to save you from endless rounds of birth and death here in Samsara, by bringing you to His own Pure Land, and causing you to become a Buddha as soon as you arrive there.
It's so simple that simple peasants understand it immediately and intuitively (just as Amida had intended from the beginnning) - while complicated, educated Buddhist people like us just have trouble grasping how simple it all really is.
Now...the fruition of putting your trust ENTIRELY in Amida - having answered all your questions and resolved all your doubts (whether intellectual or emotion-based) is this: Amida will give you His incomparable gift of SHINJIN - His own faith-mind consciousness which has no equal and no parallel in all the many schools of self-power Buddhism.
One thing, however, still disturbs me to a certain degree. You say "So...in TRUE Shin Buddhism, there are no practices, and there are no good acts. Period. In TRUE Shin Buddhism, we're not trying to collect any karmic brownie points at all...PERIOD".
What I wrote is absolutely correct and fully in accordance with what Master Shinran and Master Rennyo teach.
In fact, in the TANNISHO, Yuien-Bo remembers how Master Shinran taught him that not even saying the Nembutsu is a practice or a good act, for someone on the path of True Shin Buddhism.
Now...this is incredibly difficult for most people to understand. And it was (and remains) so scandalous for self-power Buddhists to hear - including traditional Pure Land Buddhists who DO teach that the Nembutsu is our practice - that many rejected Shin Buddhism as not really Buddhism at all.
But Master Shinran and Master Rennyo were clear as can be, on this critical subject.
First of all, they assert that all our self-power practices and good acts are (to use Master Shinran's own words) FALSE AND INVERTED.
What he recognized was that everything he ever said or did, in his 20 years as a serious minded self-power Buddhist, was tainted by the intractable egotism of his own monkey mind. His altruism (such as it was) was not pure - it was impure, and tainted.
And for that reason, the whole idea of doing Buddhist practices and good acts in order to advance along the path was simply a delusion.
Indeed, modern psychologists who have spent at lot of time study human altruism have come to the same conclusions. Altruistic people are not doing good selflessly. They're doing it in order to feel good about themselves, or to satisfy the demand of their internalized morality, or for other reasons that are all about EGOTISM rather true selflessness and goodness.
Master Shinran says that the truth is, we bring NOTHING to the party. We have NOTHING to contribute. And as long as we do think we have something to contribute, that delusional idea will prevent us from trusting ourselves and our karmic destiny ENTIRELY, COMPLETELY and UTTERLY to Amida and His Primal Vow.
Once again, I need to point out how easy this was for some illiterate peasant to grasp - not just intellectually, but VISCERALLY, deep in his gut.
Such peasants knew that they had nothing to offer by way of practices and good acts to create their own merit. So when Master Shinran or Master Rennyo told them that, they simply bore witness that this really is the case.
On the other hand, those who had been immersed in some sort of self-power Buddhist tradition, which insists that our Dharma practices and good acts are essential, just couldn't get what our Dharma masters were saying - just as you are having trouble getting it right now.
Really, I was just the same as you. I really thought I was bringing something to the table, in my quest for enlightenment - whether it was my contributions of time, energy, money to some cause (spiritual or otherwise), my life as a "good citizen", working hard as a single dad to raise my children (and getting all sorts of praise and admiration that women never get for doing the same thing), or my attempts to manifest both compassion and wisdom by helping others.
Deep inside, knowing I was doing such things actually BOLSTERED my egotism, and made me feel just a little bit superior to some other people.
Our intractable egotism is just that way...and it is only by Amida's grace that we really come to recognize the game it is playing here...a dark and demonic game, for sure...and one that will absolutely prevent us from receiving Amida's SHINJIN.
So now the game is being revealed to you as you participate in the Dharma dialogue and listen deeply to our Dharma masters, and to good teachers who can tell you what no one else can, or will.
Of course, the FIRST thing you must do is truly UNDERSTAND what we are all saying - and what we are not saying.
No one is saying that we shouldn't want to do any good in the world, or be helpful or compassionate or as wise as we are able to be.
By definition, Buddhism is about THE DESIRE TO BECOME A BUDDHA. The very first teaching, for Buddhists in any school, is what I call the 1st Pillar of True Shin Buddhism, which says AWAKEN YOUR ASPIRATION FOR BUDDHAHOOD.
So...if we do that, by definition, we have as our great existential goal the desire, not just to imitate a Buddha, but to actually BECOME a Buddha. We have as our existential goal the desire to be full of a Buddha's wisdom and compassion and, yes, POWER, all the time.
That doesn't cease, just because we become introspective and honest enough to realize that we really can't do this, because all our Buddhist practices and good acts are actually and essentially SELFISH - driven by our monkey mind as much as by our yearning for Buddhahood.
That's what Master Shinran is pointing to when he describes ALL self-power Buddhism as being polluted by what he calls SELF-CALCULATION.
Whether we admit it or not, we're trying to buy a ticket up the mountain of enlightenment, paying for karmic merit by the "various and sundry practices and good acts".
I can't help but think that Amida wants us to be good people to the best of our ability.
Of course, all of the Buddhas want that for EVERYONE...whether we are a Shin Buddhist, or some other sort of Buddhist, or some other sort of religious person, or an entirely secular, materialist person who doesn't even believe in any sort of transcendental realm of existence.
And of course, when we ourselves have children, or grandchildren, that's what we want for them as well.
But this has NOTHING to do, intrinsically, with trying to save ourselves from endless rounds of birth and death by doing various practices and good acts IN AN EFFORT TO GENERATE KARMIC MERIT.
And that's what self-power Buddhism has, as it's fundamental paradigm.
I realize that the sutras tell us that Amida will save us all, but why do we not want to be a good child to our parent? Shouldn't we aim be to make our parent proud of us instead of being wayward sons and daughters?
At some point, in some life, you will have the same epiphany that I have had, that countless other people of SHINJIN had, and that Master Shinran and his own teacher Master Honen had:
We can't really make the Buddhas "proud of us" in the way you describe, because everything we do, including our efforts to make the Buddhas proud, is poisoned by our egotism.
Master Shinran said of himself, "I am insincere. I am full of lust for fame and profit".
I remember when I first read those words, after my whole life had fallen apart, and I recognized that all my so called "spiritual progress" was both tainted and impermanent.
I was astounded by his words. I had never read anything like them, from any Buddhist teacher before. And as soon as I read them, I bore witness deep in my heart that these words were true, not just for Master Shinran, but for me as well.
Each and every person must find this out for himself or herself.
This is not a game of "Lowlier Than Thou". It's simply the human condition. That's why Master Shinran declares that not one person in a BILLION who depends on self-power will attain Buddhahood.
And then he also declares that for those people who realize they have no goodness to depend on, and hear this Dharma, and come to true SHINJIN by depending ENTIRELY upon the practice of Amida Buddha and the power of His Vows - 10 out of 10, 100 out of 100, 1000 out of 1000 will be saved and at the end of their lives will go to Amida's Pure Land to become Buddhas.
That's the practice that Master Shinran and Master Rennyo (and all authentic teachers of True Shin Buddhism) are talking about - not our practice, not even a little bit - but the Pure and Pristine Practice of Dharmakara/Amida, done over the course of vast ages, to create His Pure Land where we can easily become Buddhas, once we have received the gift of His own faith-mind consciousness, a.k.a. SHINJIN.
To you and all others, please feel free to ask more questions around this subject. In my work with folks over the past years, I have found this one of the most difficult Dharma ideas for sincere seekers to understand. And even though I've answered it 100 times before and Eiken Kobai Sensei has answered it in his wonderful books, and of course our Dharma masters have answered it - the Dharma truth needs to be stated and re-stated until finally it makes sense to us, and we can bear witness to the truth of it.