Self-Power and the Power of the Enlightened Ones

Self Power, Other Power II – from Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice,

by Thich Thien-An – excerpts and commentary

The methods of self-power and other-power were both originally taught by Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. According to the teaching of the Buddha, every living being has a Buddha nature. Therefore, it is within the potential of every man (every living being) to realize that Buddha nature and to become enlightened. But to reach that state is a tremendously difficult task, calling for dauntless courage and unflinching will power. Thus, very few people are capable of reaching enlightenment by themselves; very few have the required spiritual qualification. For the majority of people it is necessary to rely upon the help of others, and here we find the germ of the “other-power” schools.

It is as if a boat were wrecked while floating down a river. Those who are good swimmers would be able to save themselves, but what are they to do who cannot swim as well! They must call for help and rely upon a better swimmer to bring them to the safety of the riverbank. In other words, they must rely upon someone else to save them. Similarly, while we all have the potential to become Buddhas, very few can accomplish Buddhahood through their own unaided striving. Most must rely upon the help of others to reach the safe shore of enlightenment.

Without the constant prodding of the Master, how many people would reach satori! True, the Zen master cannot give enlightenment, but still he stands as a hand reaching to the disciple from the “other shore,” ever ready to extend to him whatever help he requires. Now if the Zen master is able to assist in the struggle to reach enlightenment, then how much more help can we expect from the Master who has reached Perfect Enlightenment, the Buddha!

The Zen master can help because he has realized a certain amount of wisdom and compassion. And so the Buddha can provide us with inexhaustible help because he has reached the state of perfect wisdom and infinite compassion. Even the very existence of the path of self-power is in a sense due to the “other-power” of the Buddha. For it was the Buddha who in his compassion taught the path to enlightenment and thereby made that path accessible to mankind. The Buddha is the person who helps us by showing us the Way, and we are the persons who work and practice it by ourselves.

That is a union of self-power and other-power. If the self-power and otherpower work together to assist each other, then we can go anywhere, reach anywhere we wish. By fusing these two powers in our daily practice, we can enter the gates of enlightenment and abide in the city of Nirvana.

… The Western paradise is not, however, the final goal for the Pure Land Buddhist, not even for those who seek rebirth there. Rather, it is an intermediary abode where the most favorable conditions for self-cultivation have been set up and secured. While there are some men who by practicing can reach enlightenment in this world, many find difficult obstacles confronting them along the path. The necessity for work, the attractions of the senses, the threat of illness and infirmity and the gross entanglements of materiality all stand as barriers across our path. In the Western Paradise none of these barriers are present. Everything there is radiant, peaceful and beautiful. No defilements can be found, for all shines with purity. Therefore, the country of Amita Buddha is called the Pure Land. Those who are reborn into the Pure Land dwell in the midst of lotus flowers. They are always in the presence of Amita Buddha and the assemblies of Bodhisattvas presided over by the Bodhisattva Kwan-Yin, the embodiment of universal compassion. In the midst of these pure conditions it is easy to develop concentration and wisdom and attain Perfect Enlightenment.

The way to attain rebirth in the Western Paradise is by devotion to Amita Buddha. This devotion is expressed by reciting the sutras that teach about Amita, by chanting His Name, by meditating upon His Image and by calling to mind His Wisdom, Virtue and Compassion. Those who are capable of placing single-minded faith in the Great Vow of Amita will enter the Pure Land where they will meet all favorable conditions for practice and never again fall into this world of suffering. This way is called the “easy path” (Jap. igyo) in contrast to the “difficult path” (nangyo) of self-power. The practice of the “easy path” is very popular in China, Vietnam, Korea and Mongolia, and also in the Pure Land schools of Japan, the Jodoshu and the Jodoshinshu. Belief in the “otherpower” of the Buddha also helps us to develop our selfpower. Therefore, in the Far East a form of practice was developed by Mahayana Buddhists which combines formal meditation with the chanting of the Buddha’s name.

In this method the practitioners sit before an image of the Buddha and chant the Buddha’s name, quietly and calmly, while at the same time meditating upon the Buddha image or an internalized visualization of the Buddha. As the mind deepens in meditation, a point is reached where subject and object become one. No longer is the Buddha the object and the meditator the subject, but the meditator becomes one with the Buddha. When this happens, this is the state of “One Mind Samadhi,” and here there is no longer any distinction between Zen and Pure Land, self-power or other-power, wisdom or compassion, for all has become merged into the brightness of the Infinite Light.

…In Zen we do not learn only from a book or teacher, but from everything, and we do not learn only in a temple or a meditation center, but everywhere. For Zen is experience itself, the truth of life as it is ever flowing by and encompassing us on all sides. So if we approach life with an open mind, everything can be our teacher. The way of Zen is not a withdrawal from life, but the realization of truth in all the activities of everyday life. We can learn from our fellow men, from the arts. This is why Zen developed the cultivation of such arts as gardening, poetry, painting, tea ceremony and flower arrangement — as expressions of and keys to the attainment of enlightenment.

…The Buddha is the embodiment of perfect wisdom and infinite compassion. Either one or both of these virtues together may be taken as the subject of practice. If we choose the compassion of the Buddha, we reflect that the Buddha’s compassion makes no distinction between subject and object or between enemies and friends, but pours down upon all equally.

This compassion is different from ordinary love. Ordinary love works according to various discriminations: we love ourselves, but not others; our relatives, but not strangers; our friends, but not enemies. However, the compassion of the Buddha extends equally to everyone. Like the Buddha, we should extend our love and compassion outward to all alike, to everyone everywhere, without making any distinctions. Again, if we choose to meditate on the Buddha’s wisdom, we imagine the light of wisdom radiating from the figure of the Buddha and growing larger and larger and brighter and brighter until it merges with our own inner light. At this point we and the Buddha become one. When this stage is reached, then this world will become transformed into the Pure Land, this Samsara become Nirvana, and all the bliss and purity of the Western paradise become realized in the here and now of everyday life. Here the Zen and Pure Land schools meet in that common center from which they both emanate, the One Mind of Buddha, which is our own true and permanent Essence of Mind.”

From An Anthology of Buddhist Prayers

Thoughts on this passage:

One of my teachers, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, told a wonderful story that comes to mind after reading this passage. A man was drowning in the river, so the bodhisattva held out his hand, and said, `Give me your hand.` The drowning man said, `No! I`m not going to give you my hand.` So the bodhisattva said, `Ok then, take my hand!` It is ok to accept help!

Also, this life is fleeting. Death is absolutely certain, and the time of death is absolutely uncertain. We might live to a hundred, or we might die in our sleep tonight – or slip in the shower in the morning, and we`re gone. We might not want to live as if we will live forever. That is delusional after all. And if we are definitely going to die, and definitely do not know how soon, we might want to think a bit as to what might come after this life – and think about it now.

Consciousness, like energy, can neither be created nor destroyed – it can only change its form. Consciousness is birthless and deathless, primordial, infinite,  boundless and indestructible. The vessels of consciousness however, which are the bodies that consciousness manifests (out of the void of space-time itself, woven by thought with the energy which is inseparable from the void and from consciousness), are born, get sick, age and die. Until we realize our true nature, which is the infinite and universal non-dual Wisdom Mind, or Buddha nature, we are subject to the ever-changing appearances of life which confuse us and repeatedly cause us to suffer.

We are wave and ocean both. The waves are ever-changing, the ocean ever dancing, ever one, yet we suffer for thinking that we are wave only, and not also the infinite and fathomless ocean, in all its delightful play. Our confusion causes our suffering, and not life itself: but the point is that until we become enlightened and realize the true nature of our being and of reality, we should not be glib or flippant about our future – either in this life or after it. We should meditate, contemplate and practice now, while we can.

Contemplation, study, meditation and prayer are powerful tools for our healing, happiness, empowerment and awakening. It would be wise to avail ourselves of them – and again, now, and not at some future time which we may or may not live to see.

My own practice is pretty pathetic at present, to be very honest. But there is some jana yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga and raja yoga: the practices of study and contemplation, prayer and devotion, compassionate service to others and also meditation. And there is movement – or rather, a revealing of what is. The clouds are less dense, less thick and heavy than they were. The light filters through, and occassionally the coulds break, revealing the vastness of the clear and luminous sky.

One day the clouds will be dispearsed completely, and the illumination of all that is will be more than fleeting, but instead, uninterrupted and unbroken. Until then, compassion, confidence, vigor and patience are essential. And on that day, these qualities will be revealed in their fullness.

God is great: and I am a speck of dust in the infiinte cosmos – and I am empty. Realizing voidness is the path to wholeness. Voidness is the gateway to the full richness of life, to the divine, and to illumination. When you realize the wave and ocean are one, then there is seeing: then you begin to wake up from this fitful, dream-filled sleep of illusion, and see the real world for the first time.

(Most people who are receptive to spirituality are theistic, so I speak in thesistic terminology sometimes, as well as in non-theistic terms. The truth is always beyond words and concepts in any event, so don`t be too hung up or distracted by the mere wording of things. That would be to mistake the finger for the moon, and to fail to see anything at all. See the Lankavatara Sutra for further elaboration. All scriptures are like the finger pointing to the moon: they are helpful pointers, but they are not that which is being pointed out. See what is being pointed out: don’t have a death-grip on the pointer. As in golf, hold on, but keep your grip loose.)


The ground of being is the divinity. You can call it God or Tao or Buddha Mind or Wisdom Mind, or Fred or Barney or Wilma – or whatever you like. It is beyond names and concepts and images, but we can use names and images if that is helpful to us. As Spinoza, `the prince of philosophers` said, there is only one substance in existence: you can call it God or you can call it nature. Or if you like the Buddhist terms, you can call it Wisdom Mind, or Buddha nature. Within that infinite and indivisible, seamless ocean of Wisdom Mind, there are distinct waves or currents. These we call beings. Most of them are unenlightened. A tiny minority are enlightened, or `awake` – what are called in buddhism, buddhas, which means simply, awakened beings. They can and will help us, if we simply ask.

Do remember however that we are overcoming a lifetime of conditioning and confused habits of mind: it takes time, generally speaking, to transform the state of our minds, from clouded and unsettled, to clear and peaceful. We will need a little patience, and to practice with enthusiasm. Dawn is coming. For now, enjoy the moonlight on the water, continue to study and practice with enthusiasm and joy, and fear not.

August 7, 2011

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