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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)