One of the main discussions around Pure Land Buddhism is that of Other Power versus Self Power. Indeed one of the major criticisms of Pure Land Buddhism is its emphasis on the power of Amitabha Buddha to lead us into salvation into the Pure Land. For many coming to Pure Land Buddhism for the first time it is perhaps a point which is not encouraging and sounding too much like other spiritual traditions. It is sometimes further suggested that Pure Land seems to be more of a devotional Buddhism and that devotion naturally inclines towards salvific notions.
Self-Power, on the other hand, is a term very often used in the Zen tradition indicating spiritual achievement attained solely by one’s own efforts.
Many Buddhists misunderstand these terms including many Pure Land practitioners. I propose that the misunderstanding comes from the different locus from which one views the issue. The two notions both imply an “I” – “You” relationship. We cannot avoid this. The terms “self’ and “other” pre-suppose one another. They only have meaning in relationship to each other. That in itself, I find quite fascinating. Further the argument on both sides is almost always taken from the “self” stance in the first place. This is natural because it is our ego that likes to argue and see things as separate and discriminate.
We cannot understand “other” power from the stance of “self” power. It is only when we understand other power from the perspective of “other-ness”, the complete breaking away from the ego controlled mind, then we are truly able to understand. Amidha Buddha (Other) takes us out of ourselves. The shift in consciousness is a movement away from the self-mind to the Bodhi Mind. Is this not the aspiration of Mahayana Buddhism? We stand in a very dangerous position if we believe that we have attained anything purely by ourselves as the ego is well within striking distance like a poisonous snake we have failed to see in the long grass of our illusion. Even if we take a look at the immediate world around us we quickly see that all which we “possess” is a result directly or indirectly of others. The very laptop upon which I type at this moment is a collection of components designed, manufactured and sold by others. Even if we were to look at our great achievements personal and career wise we would soon find than many others contributed. Nothing is absolutely through our own power.
The “Other” places our focus on a giving relationship. Do we think that the practice of Dhana is just reserved for those occasional moments of giving to the temple or the occasional good deed to another? Dhana, compassionate giving, must be our total stance. When in Buddha Name Remembrance and Buddha Name meditation we recite the Buddha’s name with deep and utmost sincerity and single-mindedness we give the gift of our entire being. We let go of our “self” and give. We give to Amidha Buddha in the Buddha’s complete nature of oneness with all being. When we give with a sincere heart we receive the grace from the gift. In this we become both Giver and Receiver and a new relationship is born; that is the relationship that surpasses all notion of self. This then is our salvation, the ultimate freedom found only in the gift, the Bodhi consciousness.
When we are able to truly live out Other Power in our own life we become one with Amidha Buddha. In other words the “I” – “You” relationship ceases to exist and it becomes “WE”. It is in this transformation that we are able to transcend pain and sorrow. Not that pain, sorrow and struggle cease to exist for this is the natural working of cause and effect. Rather as we identify with the law of cause and effect we become it; we are it. What distinguishes a spiritual person from an ordinary person is his absolute submission to the law of cause and effect. This enables the spiritual person to transcend the bondage to Cause and Effect and find freedom and peace of mind. As is stated in the Meditation Sutra that King Bimbasara“though he was within a seven walled cell his mind was free and undisturbed.”
We will always be prisoners of the law of causality from the stance of Self, that separates, divides and discriminates. When we immerse ourselves in the Pure Consciousness of Amidha Buddha there is no need to struggle with life. We can take the stance of passive activity.
Of course there will always be those who feel that Pure Land is simply a devotional form of Buddhism. Allow me to relate a story from a well-known Japanese Pure Land character, Shomatsu (1799-1871).
Shomatsu had been working in a rice-field. It had been a hot day and he was tired. He cam back home to rest. When he felt the cool breeze from the trees surrounding his home he immediately thought of his statue of Amidha Buddha in his home-shrine. He took it from the shrine and placed it beside himself as he sat down saying: “You too, will enjoy this breeze.” I quote from Kenryo Kanamatsu when in his book Naturalness writes: “ [What Shomatsu did] may seem abnormal, but in the world of pure feeling everything that needs one’s care has life, just as a child makes a living being out of a doll. In the world of pure feeling (a word used by Kanamatsu to mean Pure Consciousness) there is no consciousness of a process of personification. It is only the intellect that makes the distinction between animate and inanimate, sentient and non-sentient. From the spiritual point of view all is alive and is the object of affectionate regard. Nor is this the case of symbolism, but of taking actualities as they are.”Shomatsu was able to enter into the Thus-ness of All Being. This is Amidha Buddha.