QUESTION: As I read the sutras from the Nikayas much of what the Buddha teaches seems to be very self-power - try hard to concentrate, do this, don't do that - I'm having trouble squaring this with the Pureland teachings and wondered if you think they were just a later development in the Mayahana canon or if it's due to mistranslation of the original sutras, or something else?
SHORT ANSWER: It is a matter of how you interpret it.
LONG ANSWER: The Buddha catered to a range of different people. He taught ethics and mind training, but he was always at pains to say that there is something more beyond that. This is usually called prajna. People often take it that the ethical and mind training parts are the main substance, but in fact it is the prajna that takes one beyond. Prajna is seeing beyond all the relative things. Ethical behaviour is intrinsically good and it is what the outside observer sees, but it is always relative. Mind training goes deeper, but again it is relative. Buddha says that a person can master all the dhyanas and still be deluded. You can go on training your mind forever. Prajna is different. It is complete faith. Emptiness. All acceptance. It is not relative. You have it or you don't. However, the people who came to see the Buddha were not always ready for that so he employed skilful means tailored to the case. Take the case of the young Brahmins who come and ask how to get to Brahma. Buddha teaches them to meditate spreading love, compassion, joy and equanimity. These qualities are all expressions of faith. While one is fearful or cynical one cannot do it. Take the encounter with Angulimala. Buddha essentially says, just trust that it will be OK and you can change your ways. If we have deep faith we will do the best we can in life because there will be no reason not to. Faith takes away all one's excuses.
Of course, as you know, I do have issues with some of the translations and renderings of texts into English. To take a very topical item, I take 'mindfulness' to refer to having one's heart and mind full of Dharma. This is faith. The common contemporary way if taking it is as a skill to be practised by suitable effort and attention. In other words, it is presented as a self power practice or training, when, in fact, in my view, it is a matter of turning oneself toward other power. Buddha believed that right faith yielded good behaviour, good thoughts, good intentions and so on. He did not think that good behaviour etc on their own would do the trick. When we put ourselves into any kind of strait jacket - even a good one - we rebel. The path to true goodness lies through having a deeper faith.