Self-Power and Other-Power

Buddhist Stupa in Kesariya, Bihar, India

Buddhism generally advocates ‘self-power’ as the path to liberation, advocating that we are responsible for purifying our own minds to bring about our own liberation. This is particularly evident in the earliest (Theravada) teachings. Later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana) display more ‘other-power’ tendencies, identifying something or someone beyond our control which / who has the the power to purify our minds for us if we accept / submit.

An example of a Buddhist school in which ‘other-power’ is strongly emphasised is the Pure Land tradition of Japan. The main practice of this school is nembutsu, reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha (Amida in Japanese) in order to recollect and call on him for protection. One of the founders of the Pure Land school was Shinran who “felt incapable of attaining enlightenment by his own efforts, so his last resort was faith in Amida” (1). Shinran developed an extreme ‘other-power’ view, believing that “salvation comes from gratefully accepting Amida’s saving grace, not by any good works”.

However, I believe that Sufi Islam is the culmination of ‘Other-power’ because it has Tawhid at its heart. Pure Land Buddhism can be very effective because Amitābha, meaning Infinite Light, is one of the names of God. However, because Buddhists represent Amitābha visually they imply his separation from other Names and miss Tawhid. By insisting on Allah’s Oneness, Islam correctly identifies the Other on whom to rely / submit, providing the basis for the straight path to liberation. It is through complete submission / reliance on the Divine Other that we annihilate our self, then only Self remains.

Brief history of self-power and other-power in Buddhism

The earliest (Theravada) Buddhist teachings are from the Pali Suttas, the only teachings directly attributed to the historical Buddha by conventional historians. These teachings date from about 500BC and primarily emphasise self-power, though they hint at the possibility of the other-power of the mind (chitta), in the form of underlying radiance. In the ‘Finger-Snap Sutta’, the Buddha says: “This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is defiled by defilements which arrive. But this is not understood as it really is by those who are spiritually uneducated, so they do not develop the chitta. This mind, monks, is brightly shining, but it is freed from defilements which arrive. This is understood as it really is by those noble disciples who are spiritually educated, so they do develop the chitta“.

Already we can see the possibility of abiding in the pure nature of mind, the other-powered path of letting go, so that defilements naturally subside and the pure radiance of the mind shines through. Early Buddhism starts to objectify the radiance of the mind around 400BC with the building of stupas, physical representations of the enlightened mind of the Buddha. With the origin of Mahayana Buddhism around 200CE, non-historical celestial buddhas such as Amitabha start to be envisaged, who embody various aspects of the enlightened mind. Devotional practices of reliance on the liberating other-power of such buddhas and bodhisattvas start to be developed.

One of the classic formulations of other-power in Mahayana Buddhism is the dakini, who appears to the Abbot Naropa (956–1041CE) in an ugly form and, in a manner familiar to Sufis, makes him realise that his years of formal practice and scholarship (self-power) have failed to purify his mind. “All that he had neglected and failed to develop was symbolically revealed to him as the vision of an old and ugly woman”(1). “The dakini is the “other”. As an outside awakened reality that interrupts the workings of conventional mind, she is often perceived as dangerous because she threatens the ego structure and its conventions and serves as a constant reminder from the lineages of realized teachers. She acts outside the conventional, conceptual mind, and has therefore the haunting quality of a marginal, liminal figure.”(2)

Tibetan Buddhism revolves around such manifestations of other-power. My former Buddhist tradition emphasises the name Dorje Shugden, meaning ‘Possessing Indestructible Power’, whose manifestation as other-power is the source of so many of the fears and hopes of the Tibetan people.

(1) ‘The Life and Teachings of Naropa’, Herbert Guenther, Oxford University Press (1963)
(2) ‘Dakini’s Warm Breath’, Judith Simmer-Brown, Shambala Publications (2001)


Posted on March 27, 2011, in Buddhism, Sufism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. abrar maqbool shah

    dear i am confused how to achieve the realization of the soul. although i had identified one way out that is to control each and every desire. That is possible only when one turns out to be a complete recluse leaving the socity and family to meditate in loneliness. Is there any other way?


  2. Matthew Bain

    As I understand it, Sufism provides methods to control our desires (the nafs) while remaining with our families and in society.

  3. I’d say ‘control’ may be the wrong word here. Is it not that the saint controls desire, while the Sufi or Buddhist ‘rises’ above it? ‘Control’ suggests an ongoing battle rather than a transcendence. Just a thought.

    • Thank you for your interesting comment. In his book “The Transpersonal” psychotherapist John Rowan writes “the key idea here is surrender. As we have seen so many times in our pursuit of the transpersonal [i.e. the spirit], surrender and opening are much more important than control and order. We really have to give up the kind of control which the ego demands . . . if we are to do justice to the transpersonal realm”.

      • Yes, that’s just what I was getting at. It’s a small point but I think it’s important. Control suggests the need for a strong ego, thus strong battle against. Surrender suggests that the ego is getting out of the way and unwanted desires with it. Sufism would be the death of the ego, thus the death of its desires. No need to control something that isn’t there. So control would be the way of saints (stereotypically), who fight against their nature with mortification, deprivation, asceticism and anguish, while Sufism, the way of the sage, would say chill out, just get rid of the ego and let Al-lah do the work. Taking control of the ego is a battle that cannot be won, since who would take control it if is not the ego? The lack of any need for control would be the more useful and achievable goal. I must look into transpersonal psychology. I didn’t realise this was its approach.

        Abrar Shah above indicates what happens if we focus on control. We end up forced into seclusion away from temptation. In the long term this is no good though. We need to remain untempted while living in the midst of things. For this the surrender of our ego would be required, then our desires are the desires of God or of our true nature.

        Or something like that.

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