What was the ‘incorrect understanding’ about, that needed to be corrected?

Ronald K.

The incorrect understanding regarding emptiness was to understand it as nihilism or that nothing exists. Plus, Tathāgatagarbha proponents deemed that emptiness thought had the tendency to sap seekers from weakening aspiration or lead to, in their words, “withered mind” (linam cittam). Thus, they opted to provide a more positive teaching, that, “all beings possess the embryo of Tathāgata.” — Kenneth Tanaka

Are understandings of ‘nondual ~ dual’, or ‘absolute ~ relative’, helpful in conveying that the relations between Other Power and the Aspirant as beyond a kind of master/slave dialectic?


Yes, in Tathāgatagarbha thought and Pure Land thought, the Dharmakaya and Amitabha Buddha, respectively, are fully realized when the aspirant realizes enlightenment, which is non-dual in nature and NOT in master/slave dialectic. All Buddhist enlightenment is non-dual, even though at the beginning of the path (marga), the aspirant might find oneself in a dualistic relationship with the ultimate, be it Tathāgatagarbhaor Amitabha.Kenneth Tanaka

Could [Tathāgatagarbha thought] be construed as “deterministic”?  What is the consequence of the individual’s karmic actions?

Ronald K.

Tathāgatagarbha thought is not deterministic. It provides encouragement or motivation because of the message that there is ‘an embryo or potential to become Buddha.’ And the seeker’s work or practice begins from this point as one engages in the traditional practices, such as the Six Paramitas. — Kenneth Tanaka

How does the monism of Tathāgatagarbha mesh with sunyata and anatman?

Patrick N.

(See the above question) It is not in opposition to sunyata or anatman. Tathāgatagarbha thought emphasizes the awakened realm, which is realized when sunyata or anatman is attained. And that awakened realm is expressed as dharmata, dharmakaya, Tathāgata, etc. And from the perspective of this realm, all beings possess the embryo of Tathāgata or the potential to be awakened. — Kenneth Tanaka

What past scholarship is there on connections between Tathāgatagarbha thought and Pure Land thought? Have any past Shin scholars developed similar arguments?


A couple of past eminent scholars like Ui Hakuju and Hirakawa Akira have suggested possible historical connections between these two strands of Buddhism, but there have not been any detailed historical studies that I am aware of. In terms of comparative studies between the two, I am not aware of anything substantial. With regard to this particular text, Ratnagotravibhaga, in comparison to Pure Land thought, I am not aware of any other studies besides what I have done. I should qualify my comments by saying that I have not kept up with the most recent Japanese studies in this area as I would like. — Kenneth Tanaka

Question for Dr. Tanaka’s presentation: I would like to hear your view on why Shinran, who emphasizes Other Power of Amida, does not refer to the doctrine of buddha-nature or Tathāgatagarbha so much in his own words, while just quoting sutra passages instead. Would you think this implies some crucial differences/incompatibility between the teachings of Other Power and buddha-nature?

Ryoze W.

Shinran resisted any notion that suggests that the “aspirant possesses something pure within,” for in his view an aspirant is foolish and ignorant. The “Buddha-nature” (仏性)that is found in the passages that he QUOTES may not necessarily mean the “the potential to become Buddha within the aspirant” as usually understood. It appears, to me, that Shinran understood it more as “nature of Buddhahood or ultimate reality” on the level with dharmakaya, dharmata, etc. — Kenneth Tanaka

Can the “sustaining power” be related to the Primal/Original Vow (Hongwan)?

Ronald K.

The two are very much pointing to the same kind of spiritual working. — Kenneth Tanaka

Why translate pranidana as vow and not prayer?

Douglas D.

Thanks very much for this question. The simple answer is that the word “vow” seems to capture the distinctive logic of the bodhisattva’s promise that becomes actualized at the moment of Buddhahood. The logic of the vow is clear in the story of the “vows” of the bodhisattva Dharmākara and the establishment of Sukhāvatī in the Sukhāvatīvyūha, but it is present in other places as well. I discuss other examples in my book “To See the Buddha” (Princeton, 1994). It is true, however, that the Tibetan equivalent of the word praṇidhāna, smon lam, has a wider application in contemporary Tibet, where smon lam rgyag means simply to pray. It would be interesting to know how the term acquired that broader significance. — David Eckel

For Prof. Eckel: In the Aṣṭasāhasrikā it seems generally the śrāvakas and devas are speaking by the Buddha’s power (buddhānubhāvena), though this term seems to drop away (with some exceptions) after the first two parivarta. Could this perhaps imply that, at least in the phase of the development of the first two parivarta, these disciples are conceived of as incapable of talking on prajñāpāramitā except by the Buddha’s power?

Alexander O.

Thank you for this fascinating question about the use of anubhāva at the beginning of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. I would have to look more closely at the text to see who is being empowered and why. Your proposal that it śrāvakas and devas are being empowered to talk about the perfection of wisdom is certainly intriguing. But do I remember correctly that the term anubhāva is also used to explain how Ānanda can remember so much of the Buddha’s teaching? If you look into this question more deeply, I’d be fascinated to know what you find. — David Eckel

What are the easy and hard paths of practice?

Ned M.

It is a distinction made in Pure Land Buddhism (attributed to Nagarjuna) that practicing the Pure Land path is easy (because you are helped) while practicing other kinds of Buddhist paths is difficult (because you must rely on yourself). — David Eckel

How do we separate or unite the mind and body with this other power in simple practice?

Poranee S.

That depends on how you interpret Other Power, but all practice helps us to overcome the limited sense of “I” and points us to the truth that “I am connected to others.” This realization deepens one’s connection to Other Power that can represent “others” as well as that which embraces and lies at the foundation of “others.” This is one way, but not all, to look at what you are asking about. — Kenneth Tanaka

Does this information about the Korean situation suggest that  the development of the Other/Self Power dichotomy was a reflection of the sectarian distinctions in Japan?

Ronald K.

I would tend to think so, since it seems to be only in Japan where such a hard distinction was made. Blum’s presentation might help to answer this question. — Charles Muller

Dear Professor Muller, it seems that the “recollection of Buddha” and “recitation of Buddha’s name” seems to be translated to the same Chinese characters. I wonder how the distincton is made in the texts that are discussed in your talk? Thanks.

Tin L.T.

No distinction. Just two ways of saying the same thing. But “recollection” could happen internally without speaking. — Charles Muller

For Mark Blum or others, What is the Sanskrit term for “power” in the sūtra translations of “other-power”?

Stephen J.

Where it can be traced, which is not often, it is “bala“. — Mark Blum

Is 增上緣 here translated as “dominant condition”? Being “Dominant” can be understood as major factor. 增 has the meaning as “adding to”, so 增上緣 should be interpreted as “to improve” or “to supplement”, not the major one?

Ven Y.

Personally, I think this is a misinterpretation, Yogacara/Abhidharma understand it more as an “array of predominating conditions.”

It is true that 増上縁 has its origins in Abhidharma and Yogacara usage as “array of predominating conditions”, but its meaning is quite different in the Pure Land tradition, where the word was appropriated (“co-opted”?) for different exegetical purposes. Pure Land thinkers certainly felt no obligation to be true to Yogacara, which in fact they felt a marked hostility toward akin to the Saicho-Tokuitsu debate. Pure Land hermeneutics adheres strongly to the Nirvana Sutra’s universality, as did Saicho. To understand how 増上縁 works in Pure Land Buddhism you have to look at how it is used in Tanluan, Daochuo, and Shandao, who are aware of its Abhidarmic roots but redefine it for their own purposes as part of a paradigm known as the “three karmic links or conditions” (三縁) which are 親縁・近縁・増上縁, all of which represent in a broad sense the mechanism that we call “other power” today because these “conditions” or “conditioning” refer to different ways in which the Buddha responds to and enables the 念佛 practitioner to succeed in the path. — Mark Blum

Even though it’s not part of tonight’s discussion, I was wondering if “Essential” power could be used as an alternate term to “Other”, in the west?

Ronald K.

It could be, but “Other Power” is the literal translation of 他力, which is why this English term is used the most. — Kenneth Tanaka

I’m also interested in the English translation of pranidhana (誓願 in Chinese and Japanese – literally: vow-wish or vow-prayer) that [was] mentioned. What is the essential difference (in English or perhaps the understanding within English/Western culture) between the two English translations of this term pranidhana: vow and prayer? Also, how would the choice of either vow or prayer (as the translation of pranidhana) affect the understanding of Other Power?

Makoto I.

Actually this depends on how you understand both terms. If you understand prayer as “petitionary prayer” then most Pure Land thinkers today explicitly reject this as a proper representation of pranidhana and they are correct, as bodhisattvas make pranidhara as oaths rather than as requests. On the other hand, Soga Ryojin, a very influential 20th c. Shin thinker spent a lot of time arguing that Amitabha’s pranidhana reflect our own pranidhana and since this has not come to fruition yet, they should be regarded as prayers. — Mark Blum

What is the difference between pure land practice and mindful meditation practice?

Vung D.

If you take pure land practice as “nianfo/nenbutsu” then “nian/nen” part usually (but not always) translates smṛti and that is indeed mindfulness. — Mark Blum

Aside from the historical deployment of the expression “other power” couldn’t we say that the idea of accessing the salvific power of the Buddha and bodhisattvas has origins earlier than those we have discussed, even in abhidharma and nikāyas? For instance, the idea of a karmic mechanism noted by Mark seems related to Buddha as merit field.

Stephen J.

Yes! — Mark Blum

How would the panelists describe the evolution of Tathāgatagarbha concept from Tathāgatagarbha sutra and further – Srimala sutra, Nirvana Sutra, “Awakening of Faith”?

Igor M.

This cannot be answered with a brief response, but works by Prof. Takasaki Jikido and Prof. Ruegg discussed the full range of ideas in these texts that you mention. Takasaki saw all these text to be articulating what he saw as “Tathāgatagarbha thought.”Kenneth Tanaka

Dr. Blum, do you think that the further application of Other-power in Kamakura era (the turning to an adjuctive) is the actual threat that caused controversy itself or was it taking primacy and breaking the expected syncretic relationship between Buddhism and Shinto, wrecking the expected interaction within society for Japanese Buddhists?

Kaitlyn M.

Good question. The Buddhist-Shinto relationship was not terribly impacted by this because at that time Shinto does not really function as a separate religion. But there is a critical hermeneutic process going on with the use of other-power as an adjective that can have strong overtones of exclusivism, and it was often perceived that way. The actual attitude of the writers on this question is hard to know. — Mark Blum

Aspect of totality – really so total? Actually the kitten carried by the mother cat is also only carried a certain passage of time and duration. The kitten will have to grow into a cat by itself. The mother is only aiding it, e.g. like the monastic teacher is looking after his novices, cares for their well-being, their food, their instruction etc.

Philipp J.

Metaphor can only address a particular point. So while your points are true, in my view, it is deviating from the intent of the metaphor. — Kenneth Tanaka

What is the meaning of jinen in Shin thought? Is it a different look at the working of the Other Power — “as-it-is-ness”? Is it a new development, or it is a little different way to describe the same Other Power?

Igor M.

I look at Jinen as another dimension of Other Power, which emphasizes how the aspirant “experiences” the Other Power. And that experience is felt to stress the “as-it-is-ness” that you talk about. — Kenneth Tanaka

Honen, while stressing absolute reliance on Amida’s vow, nonetheless urges chanting tens of thousands of nenbutsu daily, while Shinran does not. Could you address this difference?

Jacqueline S.

Honen never himself urged people to chant nenbutsu that much, but that is how he is portrayed in the many biographies written about him. But Honen did indeed believe in the importance of dedicated and sustained practice. IMHO, their writing does not reflect different understandings so much as different purposes. Honen is like a buddha preaching a sermon, telling his audience what to do to enable them to have the experience of liberation, whereas Shinran is like the person in the audience of the sermon preached by Honen who actually has the enlightenment right then and there. Shinran wants to clarify what feels so amazing to him, and this includes contrasting this sense of elation with what he previously did wrong or thought wrong, and he tries to muster all the sources he can for this purpose. — Mark Blum

It seems that in Hisao Inagaki Sensei’s translation of the threefold sutra, he uses the [term] “recollecting the Buddha”. The same sutra translated by Jodo Shu seems to be “recitation of the Buddha’s name”. [Does] the different interpretation of the Chinese characters lead to different interpretation of various pure land sects? Does going back to Sanskrit [clarify] the meaning?

Tin L.T.

Jodo Shu does place great emphasis on “verbal recitation,” which is reflected in their translation. Translation needs to be placed in the context of the period in which the text was written. So, if you go back to earlier Sanskrit texts, they should be translated as “recollection” or “contemplation” rather than “recitation,” which began to be emphasized in Chinas, especially with Shandao (7th c.). — Kenneth Tanaka