Q&A

What determines the level of grade of rebirth in the Pure Land according to Master Shinran? Does Shinjin have levels to it, and is it this level of Shinjin/faith that determines the level of grade of rebirth?

Revanth C.

Shinran recognizes no levels. People of Shinjin are equal and attains birth immediately upon this life ends. It was in earlier forms of Pure Land Buddhism that recognized levels of birth, which depended on the kind and level of practices one did in this life. — Kenneth Tanaka

If Shinjin is directed by Other Power and is not a practice to achieve, then karma is no longer an issue. If this is not the case, how does karma fit into Other Power of calling?

Hector R.

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] Many Mahāyāna sutras, not only Pure Land sutras, promise the erasure of your bad karma record if you can follow this particular teaching, which Pure Land sutras promise the same thing. The ultimate goal of reaching the Pure Land, because it’s available to everyone, transcends karmic limitations But then that begs the question well if that’s the case, then I don’t have to worry about stealing my neighbor’s car because it’s a better car than I have, And then you say, oh no you can’t do that, and so that raises another question that comes up a lot in the kind of polemic discourse I was talking about where people will say, “If you think that you’re going to succeed in Buddhism by living a moral life you don’t understand what tariki (Other Power) is all about, and you don’t have Shinjin.” So this is kind of a paradox. It goes back and forth and back and forth, and to me this is kind of a pragmatic problem as well: how do you encourage people to live a good life without believing that living a good life is actually going to affect their spiritual or religious future right? You don’t do good actions because you will be rewarded, you do good actions because they are good and that’s enough of a payoff. I wanted to also add that this problem of karma is actually not limited to Pure Land, this is a Buddhist problem. In a way, Nagarjuna is the first person to confront this because Nagarjuna kind of deconstructs the notion of causality. If at the same time he has to affirm it, he also has to say we’re not quite sure that this cause and this condition leads to this result. They are separate though they’re linked to each other, but we can’t say that A causes B, and so in some sense the entire history of Buddhism has struggled with karma because if you take the non-Buddhist view of karma that many Hindus have believed in or Brahmins believed in, then you’re limited in this lifetime based on your past lifetime in terms of what you can achieve. And the Buddha insisted that was not the case, that anybody coming from any karmic background could still achieve nirvana. So, the Buddhists have to believe that karma is not a hindrance, at the same time, exactly as Ken says, you want to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, so I think it’s a constant problem and the fact that the Mahāyāna sutras promise the elimination of karma shows, in fact, this was a concern that many, many people had. After all, the striking thing about people like Shinran is that he reaches out to people whose professions involve killing: if you’re a farmer you’re killing the worms in the ground, if you’re a fisher you’re going fishing. Every day this is producing a lot of bad karma and those people essentially were really excluded previous to the Kamakura period in a major way from institutional Buddhism by the very nature of what they do, every day. They are producing so much bad karma, how could they get out of that mess and so Shinran and Dōgen are a lot of powerful voices at that time, but in fact you can move beyond that. — Mark Blum

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] Liberation (or Buddhahood) for Shinran does not ultimately depend on ethics or precepts but on Shinjin. However, this does not mean that Shinran permitted unethical actions, for the severely criticized his followers who misunderstood his teachings (“even an evil person can be liberated”) and on to purposely commit unethical deeds. What is required for realizing Shinjin, on the practical level, for the seeker is a strong aspiration to attain Buddhahood. Shinran did not provide a specific means, a curriculum, for realizing Shinjin, but he did recite the Nembutsu and studied the sutras with the greatest of effort and earnestness. So, even if he did not talk about karma very much, his actions and attitude are in keeping with the basic Buddhist notion of karmic causes and effects. The realization of Shijin constitutes a fruition of one’s karmic efforts he had made for twenty long years. And, of course, at work in all of this is the working of Other Power. So, we are not talking about an elimination of the principle of karma, which assumes that wholesome cause (Other Power) leads to wholesome result (Shinjin and ultimately Buddhahood in the Pure Land). That does not mean that as aspirants we do nothing, for we do recite the Nembutsu, study the teachings (through books, listening to Dharma talks, etc.), participate in rituals, engage in ethical and social actions, etc. We do them not because these will be the efficient karmic causes that lead to our realization of Shinjin. Instead, we do them out of a deep sense of gratitude for the truth that Shinjin is already endowed to us through the Other Power. The efficient cause lies in the Other Power, not in us. And we do what we do, not because we are obligated but simply because we want to do so, without “any strings attached.” We also realize that all the efforts we make (Nembutsu recitation, listening to the teachings, social action, etc.) are rooted in, supported by, and embraced within the Other Power. So these are self-effort and not self-power. Shinran rejected self-power but did not reject self-effort. Self-power is antithetical to Other Power, for they are like oil and water. Kenneth Tanaka

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] In the Pure Land and other Buddhist traditions, it’s said that it’s reared it’s head, as we know in English, as the licensed evil controversy, which in many ways is just another instance of our calculative intentionality making decision that “Oh I’ve heard the story about that the person of Shinjin is saved through Other Power and, therefore, there are no consequences to one’s actions.” So, I think that that sort of decision being made is the difficulty that we have, but it’s not to say that the person who is evil and is basking in evil karma is not brought about to birth. There’s that sort of conundrum that’s been existing within Pure Land Buddhism for centuries, but I think that’s why there’s a subtle difference in take, but it also is a reflection of the pervasiveness of our calculation. — David Matsumoto

I wonder why the word “myth” is preferable for an occurrence such as the sacred story of Dharmakara’s Vow, that did not occur in historical time. I have read interpretations of Amida’s “making”emerge the story (and person) of Dharmakara out of the Dharmakaya as certainly occurring in a timeless time but having the “form” of temporality for the sake of ignorant beings, but seeing as the historical is not any more real than the atemporal in Buddhist metaphysics, and that everything with a form (whether historical or not) is of only provisional reality in comparison to the absolute suchness of the Dharmakaya, the story is no less real than our own historical reality. The word, “myth”, however seems to place the emphasis on something being fabulous/fictitious with regards to the “more real reality” of the historical.

Hector R.

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] I would take issue with considering “myth” to be fictitious, I think that’s a mistake. “Myth” is not fiction, “myth” is a kind of narrative form of reality—of communicating reality—and the fact that it takes a narrative form and that that narrative form may not be based in documented experience is what we talk about “myth”. Myth also is a kind of a higher expression of reality because it resonates over time in different contexts, and it is suggestive of all sorts of meaning in a very powerful way. So “myth,” to me, when you talk about the myth of Dharmākara (法蔵比丘), I’m using it as a form of praise, rather than as a denigration. But with “myth” it’s true that in normal popular American English usage, when you say something is “myth” that means it’s fiction, but that’s not how I see it. — Mark Blum

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] I think Hector is right that one of the problems with the term “myth” is that one of the nuances it has is that of “fiction” or “fairy tale.” I think it’s clear that for some modern and contemporary Shinshū thinkers, indeed, when they talked about that sacred narrative as “myth,” that’s what they meant. They themselves thought, from within the tradition, that this [narrative] is actually a fairy tale that we should drop. For me, as a scholar of religion, I think one of the affordances of the term “myth,” and again I’m looking at Hector’s question and thinking about the complexities of it—part of what he’s pointing to here is that one of the important things we might try to hang on to in the narrative is that it’s relating to time in a very complex way. Within religious studies, “myth” can mean a narrative that appears to talk about something that happened in the past, but which, as narrative, reaches into the present and kind of interrupts the present—it breaks into the present moment, which makes it different from and better than historical narrative, because it can actually work in the present. If we could all agree, well that’s what we mean by “myth,” I think we wouldn’t have the same kind of reluctance to use the term. But it would be hard to arrive at that agreement probably! — Melissa Curley

Is there an English translation of T’an-Luan’s “Commentary on the Discourse on the Pure Land” available? Or any of his works for that matter.

Alex K.

See below as Professor Main gives some bibliographical sources. — Kenneth Tanaka

If Shinran argues that Other-power isn’t simply the binary opposite of Self-power, but in fact is the all-encompassing “absolute,” is Other-power effectively, in Shinran’s tradition of thought, non-dualistic prajna/realization of emptiness/dissolution of all conceptuality “through” connection with Amida?
Raymond L.

I believe that we can certainly describe Shinran’s understanding of Other Power in that way. Afterall, Other Power manifests out of Dharmadhatu or Tathata, the ultimate reality.Kenneth Tanaka

Can anyone share their understanding/view of Shinran’s purpose for writing as much as he did?   Who was he writing for or to?  For whose sake? As Professor Matsumoto mentioned, isn’t the controversy of the reference to “Other Power” a reflection of Japanese Buddhist sectarian politics, both between and within groups.  How should we relate to this historical situation today?
Ronald K.

He wrote especially the Kyogyoshinsho for the Buddhist community of scholar monks. It is a classic apologetical work. Professor Blum has already explained how Other Power and Self Power had become fodder for sectarian politics, especially among Honen’s disciples. For us today, we should just transcend that to look at its implications strictly from a religious standpoint. Kenneth Tanaka

Doesn’t “power” presume authority, correctness, truth?

Ronald K.

It ultimately derives from one’s spiritual experience that reveals the “power” to transform someone in a significant way. — Kenneth Tanaka

Doesn’t this distinction between other / self power seem like the Mahāyāna (Path of Pure Land)  / Hinayana (Path of Sages) situation?

Ronald K.

Not necessarily, for the Shinran distinguished his position with those of some Zen schools (the Buddha mind school) and other Mahayana schools. — Kenneth Tanaka

When we talk about Other Power in Buddhism in general, and in Shinran specifically, isn’t it important that we situate it in the context of process and effort of attaining ultimate awakening and/or birth in Amida’s Pure Land? One’s interpretation/conceptualization/understanding of “Other Power”, to me, is dependent on how one interprets/conceptualizes/understands what “ultimate awakening” or “birth” is/means…

Amy U.

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] I think, without question, the way in which Other Power has arisen, we have to understand that at least from the standpoint of its treatment—getting back to T’an-luan as that’s what I was talking about and then Shinran—it arises within very specific contexts of this notion of enlightenment, but within the framework of a Birth in the Pure Land and a Buddha land. So that sense of the Buddha land, Buddha of Saṃbhogakāya, enlightenment taking forms through vows and practices is something that I think we can’t remove from that narrative of Other Power. Because of that, I think there was always this tendency on the part of many, whether they’re Pure Land devotees or persons viewing it from the outside, there’s always this tendency to become very literal Interpreting or trying to understand that concept, so “other” becomes an idea that there is some “other,” that there is an ontological “other” other than the self that exists in the universe, and as told through the Pure Land narrative as as the Buddha have immeasurable light and life–that power takes on another very literal form. I think we have to sort of realize that this idea of Other Power, again, just speaking of it in terms of T’an-luan and Shinran, is situated within that perspective of awakening vis-a-vis birth of the Pure Land, then be willing to to consider whether or not that same narrative is still taking hold, as Shinran begins grappling with it like I said from a standpoint of real lives of people and how they find themselves unable to either conceptualize or to to practice or to be successful within that scheme. So, I think in that point for Shinran, it takes on another form, and I think the Mahāyāna aspect that he learned from T’an-luan and others then begins to take root. — David Matsumoto

Professor Shigaraki wrote about the “power of others”. Is that going too far on a tangent, or has a deep meaning and relevant to the tonight’s discussion? Thank you, the presentations were excellent.
Igor M.

Basically, that is how Other Power is often presented in Dharma talks or sermons to those in the Shinshū community. “Mother” has been the epitome of Amitābha’s love or compassion, so it’s a way of conveying to people the essential nature of Other Power on a mundane level. I myself appreciate Other Power by citing such tangible examples as the food that we partake in, the air that we breathe, the love of our family and friends, and the social institutions such as schools and hospitals that provide valuable resources on physical and mental levels. They are the “power of others” that we can feel and appreciate. By becoming more aware and appreciative of these examples, we can come to better appreciate the existence of “Amida’s Other Power” or “Amida that is Other Power,” which is not accessible to our six senses but can be appreciated and have trust in, for we have derived a sense of connection and appreciation through these tangible examples of “power of others” or “power through others.” Kenneth Tanaka

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] I think you’re probably talking to the Shigaraki using that perhaps tariki had some etymological basis in the Sanskrit concept of Paratantra. I think that’s probably where you draw it from, and he then works with that as speculation and says that perhaps tariki also is a reference not necessarily to the sort of super mundane or cosmological relationship to enlightenment, but it also has a sense, on a more mundane and everyday level that we our lives are dependent on others—they are derived from others or that we’re not separate in any way from others. I think that that has a certain amount of resonance. I refer to that in my presentation as Shinjin becoming The Other, that’s one aspect. Getting more off topic, I recall some years ago when we symposium at IBS on basically Other Power practice in various traditions, and Taigen Dan Leighton who was at that time on our faculty as an adjunct, he talked about Dōgen and his perspective on tariki. He said Dōgen had a very robust discourse on tariki and one of the aspects was just that in the mundane world, we are not separate from others in any way, and so our definition of “self” is inherently related to others. A sense of interdependence. — David Matsumoto

For Melissa: How do you think “arugamama” in Morita therapy relates to jinen and hakarai? I suspect there is a psychological resonance (if not correspondence) between the acceptance implicit in arugamama and Shinjin, but I am not sure exactly what it is. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Clark C.

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] If people are interested in Pure Land and psychotherapy they should certainly be reading Clark Chilson’s work on Naikan, which represents a robust engagement with Pure Land tradition. For Morita, arugamama means something like, “It’s just like this; things are like this; this is the way it is”; he describes a state of health as being one in which you accept everything as it is. For him, that has a dimension of passive acceptance: you can be disappointed, but arugamama—it’s not going well but that’s the way it is, and you just accept that. It also has a dimension of delight and enjoyment—experiencing things just as they are is a feeling of great happiness. Thinking about Clark’s question, one thing it could have in common with Shinran’s shinjin is that Shinran’s shinjin, of course, also has this kind of dual emotional aspect of dancing with joy and also very miserably knowing that you’re the worst, so that kind of complexity of the emotion there seems something like shinjin. A key difference might be that shinjin is given to us. I’ll have to think some more about whether Morita is saying in fact that life endows us with arugamama, or whether he thinks that it is a psychological attitude happening in the mind of the individual. I will also say that one of the things I’m trying to figure out is at what point did Morita start using what seems like a very Pure Land vocabulary—was it before, during and or after he started writing about his patient Kurata Hyakuzō’s writing about Morita therapy? Kurata certainly is very thoroughly drawing from Pure Land thought in describing his experience of going through the therapy. And Kurata says two things, first of all, he says arugamama is nenbutsu is faith: there’s no distinction between arugamama as taught by Morita and faith. And then he also says—maybe he’s making this up—but he says, “I was talking to a Shinshū person about my problems and the Shinshū person said: ‘All you need to do is drop calculation and arugamama, let things be’.” So Kurata associates arugamama with a kind of Shin vocabulary and I’m not quite sure where that’s coming from. Melissa Curley

Mark, I was struck by your finding that we do not see the term Other Power much after T’an-luan, not in Shandao, Eikan and Genshin.  How do you explain the absence of the term “Other power” before Hōnen’s followers Shoku, Ryukan and then Shinran?  Is this just because they are using other terms like Butsuriki and Honganriki?  Is this because T’an-luan’s work was not as well known, or is this because of something happening within Hōnen’s community that brings the Other Power/Self Power distinction to the fore?

Chris C.

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] My view is that all these people before the generation that starts to talk about Other Power a lot, they knew about T’an-luan, T’an-luan is cited and referenced and, in fact, whenever the the word Other Power occurs it’s usually quoting from T’an-luan, but they don’t feel the need to use that language to make their point, so something changes. The truth is you could talk about Pure Land Buddhism without talking about Other Power today as well. There’s something very attractive about that language and the easy answer is that it’s attractive because of the enormous social and political discourse that was happening at the time when Hōnen’s group, his disciples, were exiled, Hongan-ji is burned down a number of times, Hōnen’s students are executed at the court, and all sorts of problems happen. We should all have this question of why this language works. My guess is that Other Power is attractive to people who are in a position where they don’t have a lot of control over their situation. Power means control and they don’t have a lot of control or their control is limited in a way that seems unfair or abnormal or unnatural or something like this. You could talk about Jinen], for example, as being a natural outgrowth of truth but but in fact if Jinen were a sufficient form of expression, you wouldn’t need Other Power. I think that somehow “Other Power nembutsu” or Other Power practice, Other Power Hongan, Other Power practitioner, Other Power [shū-she] is a very common term also, the sectarian identity “divine as Other Power” this becomes a very effective label to define Other Power which stands for a certain way of thinking, a certain religious perspective that the people inside that group feel they understand. And maybe there really was no other word to do that, and maybe the fact we don’t see Other Power used prior to the Kamakura period, as we don’t have any independent schools of Pure Land Buddhism prior to the Kamakura period, in other words, there is no sectarian Pure Land Buddhism, in China, there is no sectarian Pure Land Buddhism in Korea or anywhere else and or in Japan. People talk about Nembutsu-shū but there is no sect, there is no institution, it’s only after Hōnen that we begin to have institutions so unfortunately my guess is rather depressing, but I think that’s part of what’s happening, though that’s not the only answer. Mark Blum

[ AUDIO TRANSCIPTION ] I think that Prof. Blum makes an important point that the term “Other Power” becomes a term of identity for the emerging school. With Hōnen you have the rise of an independent Pure Land lineage or school, and that stimulates the usage of Other Power with all the meaning and value attached to it to serve as a “rallying cry” to reinforce their pride and identity as a unique and independent force. Kenneth Tanaka

Isn’t it also important that we recognize that Shinran laid out which schools and practices he considered self/power?

Amy U.

Yes, he does refer to the following schools as Path of the Sages: Busshin (Buddha mind) school, Shingon school, Hokke (Tendai) school, Kegon, etc. “Busshin (Buddha mind) school” is generally regarded as Zen, but there were various Zen lineages, such as Darumashu and Rinzai. However, we should not include Dogen Zen, since he was much younger than Shinran, and I doubt that Shinran knew much about Dogen. Plus, as I mentioned elsewhere here  that Dogen’s Zen contains a strong element of Other Power. — Kenneth Tanaka

At Higashi Betsuin, we (I) tried a betsuji nenbutsu segment with a mindfulness retreat at Mark’s encouragement. It was led by a Jodo Shu minister. I’d say it was impossible to distinguish what part was jiriki and what part was tariki. As Mark said, “Just enjoy it.” Maybe as David said, jiriki is embraced within tariki.

Peter H.

It’s jiriki (self power) if one thinks that one’s actions are the efficient cause of one’s awakening. That is how Shinran defines “self power” in the Notes on Once-Calling and Many-Callings:

“Self-power” characterizes those who have full confidence in themselves, trusting in their own hearts and mind, striving with their own powers, and relying on their own various roots of good.” (CWS, 484)

On the other hand “Other Power” refers to working of the ultimate reality, which Shinran calls by various names, including dharmakaya, dharma-nature, and, oneness. So, any action that is in accord with Other Power can be considered “other power practice” as long as one does not develop any “self-power” thinking noted in the above quote. So, practically speaking, any action done out of a sense of true gratitude can be considered in accord with Other Power. — Kenneth Tanaka

Doesn’t Shinran write of “non-practice”, “non-good” (karma)?

Ronald K.

So, are you implying that Shinran may have rejected the principle of karma? He did deny that we seekers are able to generate karma (action) adequate enough to achieve good result (fruit or phala) for enlightenment. However, he did not negate the truth of karma, for the Other Power provided the right causal karma for one’s enlightenment. So, Shinran retained the principle of karma. — Kenneth Tanaka

[ AUDIO TRANSCRIPTION ] I think this is one of the places in Shinran’s thought where it is really worth probing the nuances of the term Jinen. When he tells us that “no working is true working” is that an assertion that there is no agentive activity at all, and I am saved automatically? Or is it an assertion that there is no agentive activity on my part, and instead Amida’s Vow is the agent doing the work? Other readers have seen Shinran as asserting the former, and so arrived at the view that Shinran endorses a naturalistic view, which, in the Buddhist context, is heretical. I take Shinran’s characterization of the Vow as causing things to be, the means by which things are caused to be, and possessing virtue that causes things to be, to indicate rather that the Vow is an agent, causing things to happen on my behalf. — Melissa Curley

What are some texts in which Vasubandhu discusses Other Power? Are there english translations available?

Alex K.

David Matsumoto has translated a text attributed to Vasubandhu in the Pure Land tradition: Vasubandhu (J. Seshin 世親), Jōdoron 淨土論 (T. 1524) – https://web.mit.edu/stclair/www/Vasubandhu.htmlJessica Main

Is a translation into English of T’an-luan’s great work available?

Diane A.

Jessica Main