When Siddhartha Gotama became enlightened and so became Shakyamuni Buddha what he realised was dependent origination, pratitya samutpada. Consequently, the precise meaning of dependent origination has been a subject of debate throughout Buddhist history.
Dependent Origination Became Other Power
At some point in the transmission of Buddhism in China, the term other power was coined as a more graphic way of explaining dependent origination. It was probably Tan Luan who made this shift of terminology. Some people say that by doing so he was creating a new revisionist form of doctrine and that, therefore, the Pureland Schools that derive therefrom are later philosophies, related to but distinct from the teaching of Shakyamuni. Others say that Tan Luan had rightly discerned the true meaning of Buddha’s enlightenment and restored the original Buddhism. For those who take the latter view, Pureland is by no means a later development, but is the most original form of Buddhism deriving directly from the primary realisation of Shakyamuni at the source of his ministry. I am in the latter camp and here I would like to say a few things in support and explication of this perspective.
Shakyamuni Was a Spoilt Kid
Let us first look at the life of Siddhartha Gotama. The story begins with his pampered youth followed by his first going forth and his extreme asceticism. When that period of ascetic exertion ended in failure he experienced enlightenment. What does this mean?
He was pampered, at least in part, because his mother had died giving birth to him and his father and step-mother compensated for the loss. This circumstance must generate a psychological problem. To know that one’s birth has occasioned the death of one’s mother is not easy. To then be treated to every kind of luxury to boot only exacerbates the existential guilt. It is no wonder that he felt an urge to punish and torture himself. However, he will not have rationalised this to himself in this way. He saw it as a quest to end his own suffering and find a solution to the problem of disease, decay and death. This rationalisation is, of course, only a small remove from the psychological diagnosis I have just offered, but it does couch the whole thing in a religious frame.
He Tried Self-power and It Failed
The religion of the time included the notion that one could purify oneself of past karma by voluntarily undergoing penance. In the process one also gained mastery over the body and it was apparent that it was the fact of having a body that caused one to go through disease, decay and death. Therefore, the body was, in a sense, the guilty party, so it was not inappropriate that it be punished. This logic became particularly powerful in the Jain religion, in some forms of yoga, later in medieval Christianity and in some other historical religions.
We can see this ascetic approach as an attempt at mastery, of the body, of mind over matter, of oneself over one’s fate. It is svabhava - self-generation, self-power.
It did not work. Shakyamuni did not become enlightened by his self-power practice. He did not become enlightened by torturing his body, by sitting still for almost unendurable periods, by starving himself, nor by any comparable discipline. By these disciplines he did gain a certain worldly reputation as a great ascetic and this brought him respect among other ascetics, but he did not become enlightened. Nor did he become enlightened by ethical restraint. He did not become enlightened by following the Eightfold Path, for instance. None of these things served to enlighten him. Each had some intrinsic results, some of which were beneficial in a relative sense. It is like learning to run a four minute mile. Doing so may make you fit which might be a good thing and might damage your joints which might be a bad things, but it will not make you enlightened, unless it happens to make you realise what a fool you are
Shakyamuni became enlightened when he gave up, when he realised that what he had been doing did not work. The self-power project failed. Of course, one can say that, in a certain sense, he did realise the futility of self-power so profoundly because of the dedication with which he had pursued it, but that is a bit like saying that you will appreciate good food more if you have nearly died of self-poisoning several times. It is no recommendation for poisoning oneself.
So He Woke Up to Other Power and Called it Dependent Origination
In any case, when we see Shakyamuni’s enlightenment in this way it makes perfect sense to say that what he discovered was the opposite of self-power.
So, if we take this to be the case and say that Tan Luan was right, then when the Buddha said “Until I understood dependent arising I was not enlightened. It was only when I did fully understand dependent arising that I considered myself enlightened” he is saying “Until I understood Other Power I was not enlightened, it was only when I did fully understand Other Power that I was enlightened.” Now, if we assert this, then there are some points we still have to clarify.
Let us have a closer look at the term Shakyamuni used. Pratitya means "having depended". Samutpada means that something steps up. Samutpada is very close in meaning to the second Truth for Noble Ones - samudaya. There are a number of translations currently used in English versions of Buddhist texts - dependent arising, co-dependent arising, inter-dependent co-arising and so on. Each of these implies a slightly different bias on the part of the particular translator. It is, however, possible to see Siddhartha's choice of words as descriptive of what had happened to him. He had depended (upon a notion of self-efficacy) until something new stepped up. His awakening was spontaneous, but it happened in a circumstance. The circumstance was his own error coupled with a trigger that nudged him into a different perspective. It took something outside of his self, something outside of his old perspective, to do the trick. So two things are necessary, error and trigger - foolishness and other power.
Other Power has Many Appearances
When we talk about other power in Pureland we generally mean the power of Amitabha Buddha, however, the term other power as it stands is not so limited. It simply implies any power that is not self. Amitabha Buddha can take on any form necessary. What Shakyamuni abandoned was self-power, svabhava. The opposite of svabhava in the philosophy of Nagarjuna is shunyata, emptiness. Shunyata means emptiness of self, ego, svabhava, conceit. It also means that things are not limited to one inherent identity. The relevance of this last point is that anything can serve as the trigger. Amitabha is not attached to being Amitabha.
One of the difficulties of interpreting Buddhism is that many of the key teachings are expressed in the negative. Dependent origination is generally expounded as a means of showing how one bad state arises from another. Shakyamuni’s life, however, became a matter of one good state arising from another. Where the term dependent origination is commonly expounded to show bad arising from bad, other power is expounded as good arising from good. Other power, then, is the positive form of dependent origination and dependent origination, as we commonly encounter it in Buddhist texts, is the negative of other power. Similarly, other power is a positive way of saying shunyata.
When one is empty of self one is full of grace. It does not make much difference which Buddha the grace emanates from or what disguise they are wearing at the time. As Dogen says, in the end it is just Buddhas together with Buddhas and the universe is one bright pearl - forgetting the self one is enlightened by everything and, as in the Pratyutpanna Samadhi wherever one looks one sees Buddhas.
The positive form of dependent origination, therefore is that everything becomes a suitable circumstance for awakening when one is no longer self-obsessed. This is the core message of Shakyamuni and of all Buddhas. This is the meaning of “sarva dharma anatma” - all that is fundamentally true is empty of self.
Everybody Errs but Nobody Does So Intentionally
The subtlety of Buddhist philosophy lies in its distinguishing the relation between self and other as not being deterministic yet not being wholly a matter of independence either. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, one is "made of non-self elements," yet one is not simply a product of deterministic cause-effect processes. One is not enlightened wholly “from within”, yet one is not enlightened in a deterministic way either. There is, in fact, no technique, method or circumstance that can guarantee or determine spiritual awakening, yet, equally, none that could not be a sufficient trigger if the situation were ripe enough. It has something in common with an accident, yet nor is it purely random. It often occurs, as it did for Shakyamuni and for Nagarjuna when, for some reason or other, one realises that one had got matters entirely wrong and when one looks back on it one can see that the error was some form of svabhava, conceit, but one was incapable of seeing it when one was in the midst of it. Nobody errs intentionally.
Faith is Encounter
The circumstance that triggers such a realisation is commonly an inter-personal encounter of some kind, which is to say meeting an other. All the time we are in the midst of others, but do we really meet them? Much of the time our supposed encounter with others is mostly a matter of us massaging our own projections and conceits and trying to use the other as a prop (lakshana) for our self-justification project.. However, occasionally, real encounters occur and something new really steps up. This takes faith and magnifies it. In really encountering what is other one has to let go, to fall without parachute, as it were.
In the case of Nagarjuna it was his encounter with Kapimala. Many people will say that Shakyamuni became enlightened without such an encounter, but in The Feeling Buddha I suggest that the critical encounter for Siddhartha Gotama was that with Sujata who showed him unselfconscious kindness. What these two personages have in common is that neither Sujata nor Kapimala were caught up in the conceit of self. This conceit of self - svabhava - was to become the main target of Shakyamuni’s critique.
All the Teachings Express One Truth
So, I think Tan Luan was right. Dependent origination and other power are equivalent terms and the shift from the former to the latter assists us in seeing the Dharma in positive rather than negative terms. This approach unifies all the major teachings and roots Other Power Buddhism in the original enlightenment of all the Buddhas. That one choose to turn toward one particular Buddha makes practical sense, but to worship one is to worship them all - there is no quarrel between Buddhas.
Beginning with Self-Power is Inevitable
It is natural enough that people take it when reading that Buddhism is all about eliminating the conceit of self that this means that they are to achieve some such elimination by some effort and method and looking for such methods they seize upon particular practices or formulas such as particular meditations, disciples or the Eightfold Path or whatever. It is natural enough but it misses the core. It gets hold of the wrong end of the snake. It introduces personal ambition into spirituality and generates spiritual materialism. Perhaps it is inevitable. However, it only bears fruit when it fails and fails in a sufficiently strong way and such a reversal is always, in some fashion, an encounter with other power.
Short of this, what can one do but have faith, have gratitude for the presence of the Dharma, the example of the great sages who have gone before us and shone a light. That light is our other power. One day, just as it did to Siddhartha Gotama and to Nagarjuna, it will knock us off our pedestal.