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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)

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Self Power and Divine Power

November 2008

On the spiritual path both self power and Divine power are required to achieve liberation / salvation / illumination. Self power means relying on our own power, control, effort etc. Divine power means letting go, and relying on the blessings, grace and transformational properties of the Divine.

Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhist teachers tend to be exponents of Divine-power, emphasizing the role of the Divine (conceived as Buddha / Buddhas) in the development of virtue. A typical statement is “without the blessings of the Buddhas, it is impossible for a virtuous mind to arise.” (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding The Mind).

Like the other great religious traditions, Buddhism is interesting because within it we can find a wide variety of practices and interpretations. There are exponents of Buddhism who strongly emphasize self power, and there are others such as Japanese Pure Land practitioners who rely completely on Divine power. The  main practice of the Pure Land school is nien-fo (Jap. nembutsu), repeatly reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha (Jap. Amida) in order to recollect and call on him for protection. There is a striking similarity here with the Sufi practice of dhikr.

One of the founders of the Pure Land school was Shinran who, according to Paul Williams in Mahayana Buddhism, “felt incapable of attaining enlightenment by his own efforts, so his last resort was faith in Amida” . Shinran developed an extreme Divine power view, believing that “salvation comes from gratefully accepting Amida’s saving grace, not by any good works.” After a single recitation of the nembutsu with faith all other recitations are superfluous, and according to Shinran even faith comes from grace. Shinran closely analysed the nature of self power and Divine power, and came to believe that relying on Divine power is the truly difficult path, because it is too easy to slip into believing that we have the power to rescue ourselves and that our own actions might be sufficient for salvation.

Although it has many good qualities, Pure Land is an extreme interpretation of Buddhism, similar to Calvinism in Christianity. It certainly seems a long way from the Buddhism described in the early scriptures (Pali Canon), although the practice of ‘letting go’ is found there. I think the following paragraph from Lama Yeshe reveals the fine balance between self power and ‘letting go’ in healthy Buddhist meditation:

“Now, you might think that Buddhism emphasizes control too much and feel that the lamas are saying, “Your deluded mind is so full of negativities that you must restrict it tightly.” But this is not what we mean . . . In Tibet we say that directing the mind is “like bridling a fine horse to make him rideable.” A horse is a tremendously powerful animal and if you do not have the means to control him properly he may gallop off wildly, possibly destroying himself and others as well. If you can harness all that energy, however, the horse’s great strength can be used for accomplishing many difficult tasks. The same applies to yourself . . . So the control we are talking about is similar to that of a pilot who does not restrict but rather directs the power [my italics] of his aeroplane.” Wisdom Energy, p125-6

In this analogy, the conscious mind that is capable of control is self power, and the horse is the unconscious power of the mind and the inner energy winds (Skt. prana). Correct practice means finding the balance between self power and letting go, so that the horse is under control, but is still able to express its unbounded energy. Another analogy is sailing, where the wind is outside of our control, and the elements of the boat such as the sail are self power. By correctly orienting those elements which are under control to the wind, the sailor is able to use (or be used) by the other power to good effect.

As well as balanced teachings like these, within Tibetan Buddhism it is easy to find teachings which tend strongly to Divine power. The Dakini can be considered an archetypal manifestation of Divine power. She appears to Naropa as a hag in order to shock him into a new, more honest phase of spiritual practice:

“All that he had neglected and failed to develop was symbolically revealed to him as the vision of an old and ugly woman . . . she is a deity because all that is not incorporated in the conscious mental make-up of the individual and appears other-than and more-than himself is, traditionally, spoken of as the divine.” Herbert Guenther, The Life and Teachings of Naropa.

Also, Judith Simmer-Brown writes:

“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.” (from Dakini’s Warm Breath).

As well as the Dakini, the major source of other-power in Vajrayana Buddhism is the Lama (spiritual guide). In The Single Decisive Path, Gampopa says: “mahamudra [great enlightenment] has no cause; faith and devotion are the cause of mahamudra. Mahamudra has no condition; The holy Lama is the condition for mahamudra.”

Although the great monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam emphasize the centrality of faith in God, most denominations assert the importance of self power too: “God helps the man who helps himself” neatly sums up this attitude, or “first tie your camel, then trust God”.

Politics and mind are the same nature

Acceptance of the way things are
Although there can be strength in wanting things to be different there can also be weakness. The strength may be compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering – we should all wish that conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness can be because, from our own point of view, there may be much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn. If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Maybe not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working.

Natural Mind
The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged.

Natural Politics
Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations in its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. On the contrary, it means that it *is* working. If the leaders of the country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works. It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, the natural political system is working.

Mind and politics are the same nature

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of peoples’ minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they can be in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any longer so he used all his creative powers to become the Buddha, to release himself and others. When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault as he may have never learnt any other way of responding. His mind is working; can we say in this situation that ‘his natural political system’ is working?

Cybernetics / Systems Theory
The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system, the laws governing systems (cybernetics) apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. The exact output will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10 cents into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way! Either way the system is working, insofar as it is obeying cybernetic law. Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because, quite reasonably, we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work. But we can learn more from how things actually *do* work than from how we think they should work. The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from somewhere else.

Natural Political Flatness
We normally have the idea that political power is a man-made construction, which tends to configure itself like a pyramid with those at the top having most power and those at the bottom least. However, it is possible to consider political power to be a natural phenomenon. According to this view everyone is naturally imbued with an equal amount of political power, because political power is part of the mind. Far from being a pyramid, this power structure is completely flat because everyone is fundamentally equal. From this point of view the man-made, pyramidal political system is a secondary phenomenon superimposing itself upon the natural flatness.

The man-made political system develops when people create it and invest it with their own natural political power. It is, in some sense, an illusion because no matter how much power appears to reside in it, it is nothing other than people’s natural political power in a contrived form. The awe we feel when we meet powerful people within the man-made system is in proportion to the credence we invest in the illusion. We should feel no more awe meeting one person than another, because all of us are naturally powerful and important.

compiled in September 2008 from articles on a previous ‘Politics of Soul’ website.