There is no reason to assume that we are inherently compassionate and wise. We clearly have a capacity for wisdom and compassion, but also for stupidity and cruelty. When we are stupid and cruel we generally deem ourselves justified and this enables us to maintain a self-view that is positive. When we are wise and compassionate we often consider ourselves to have not done enough. We thus face the paradox that people who would be judged by an impartial observer to be the most wise and compassionate may well consider themselves to be sinners while those who would be judged to be malcreants often consider themselves to be benefactors of humankind.
To some extent, this paradoxical equation works also the other way around. Those who become aware of their own faults and failings tend to become more tolerant of the errors of others and so easier to live with, whereas those who maintain the most flattering self-image tend to be reactive and critical, readily finding fault with all and sundry other than themselves.
From this simple observation we can see why contrition and confession have played a major part in great religions. Realising that one is, simply by being alive on this earth, necessarily caught up in innumerable cycles of killing, stealing and deception and that in the minutiae of one’s own life one is so often in error is deeply sobering. The ripples of our actions spread and we can never know the extent of the damage we have done to other sentient beings, but we can readily calculate that the amount of good we have done is unlikely to match the benefits that we have received unearned. Thus, for each of us, the karmic balance sheet of assets - good done and given - and liabilities - unearned benefits received and harm done - is almost certainly always going to show us to be bankrupt.
This is the logic of other power and dependence upon grace. While it may well be true that by the accumulation of a vast surplus of merit one is going to arrive at nirvana by one’s own effort, it is difficult, if one is realistic, to conceive how this could at all be possible, however much one devoted oneself to good practices and good works. And, let’s face it, how many of us do actually devote ourselves to good practices and good works 24/7?
As Honen said, the teachings on self-power are all wonderful and marvelous, wise and true, but we, like he, rarely if ever meet anybody who is anywhere near putting them fully into practice. Yet, at the same time, the other power practice of taking refuge, receiving grace, allowing the Buddha to enter one’s heart, innocently rejoicing at the presence of the Dharma in the world, praying, when so moved, “please stay until samsara ceases and turn the Wheel of Dharma for us”, accepting one’s limited nature and allowing oneself to be carried, is so simple and requires no effort at all.
When we turn around in this way we may begin to see that even the self-power practices are really designed to bring this same truth home to us. Take any of the precepts - take, for instance, “Do not be proud of yourself devaluing others", and see how many minutes you can keep it for. In this way, the precepts, which seem to be directions for self-accomplishment, actually turn us toward modesty and faith. Yet, paradoxically, the person who is full of faith and modesty, tends naturally to less often be proud of himself and devalue others. So here we see the complete cycle. Other power practice achieves self power objectives more effectively than self power practice does and what self power practice achieves, if undertaken with real sincerity, is a turning toward other power.
Thus the Buddha’s teaching turn out to be all of a piece. Self power and other power are ultimately not opposed, even though their reconciliation is not in the manner that the beginner might assume.
Life is so slippery. How intentions become tangled and reversed and end up somewhere else. Rather like writing practice.
Also, I am reading a series of novels whose main character is a rabbi in a small town outside of Boston and in the process receiving some Judaic philosophy. One of the points he makes is that for Jews, prayer is simply about expressing gratitude rather than asking for something, which is very much in line with Buddhist practice.