QUESTION: Dear Dharmavidya, I just read your essay on the first of the 12 Steps in Running Tide number 33. In it you say, "In Pure Land Buddhism we admit that we do not have the power to enlighten ourselves.In this there is a kind of despair and a kind of faith."I certainly know the despair; but, how does that engender faith?
SHORT ANSWER: There is only room for faith in Other Power when we give up (despair of) faith in self-power.
LONG ANSWER: Self-power, jiriki, is the belief that one can achieve one's own salvation (however one conceives that) by one's own effort. All schools of Buddhism seek to demolish this kind of arrogance, but they go about the task in different ways. In some schools, such as Zen, the strategy is often that of having you try as hard as you possibly can until eventually you give up. That giving up is called kensho or satori if it is genuine. It is genuine when you know in your blood and bones that what you have been doing up to that point is futile. This is in imitation of Shakyamuni Buddha who, on awakening, realised that what he had been doing up to that point had been "vain ignoble and useless." In other schools, such as some branches of Theravada, the method is to deconstruct the idea of self, partly analytically and partly by such experiential exercises as the charnal ground meditations. In other schools, notably the Pureland ones, the emphasis is more upon making a choice and turning to the Buddhas from a position of acknowledging one's inherent incapacity. This is very similar to the 12 step method. Obviously, different approaches tend to suit different personalities, which is to say, different initial koans. However all of these and other methods derive directly from the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha who, in his great compassion, provided something for everybody. To some people practising Pureland the fact of personal incapacity - bombu nature - is pretty obvious whereas to others it takes some arriving at. The latter often practice some other form of Buddhism first. Many of the great Pureland masters in history did so. They came to Pureland in the end after years of trying to enlighten themselves by strenuous meditation of rigorous vinaya discipline or profound textual study in some other branch of Buddhism. A relatively modern example of somebody who did the same thing within the Pureland tradition is Kiyozawa Manshi who drove himself to the limit trying to find out if it was really true that he could not do it himself. We should remember the example of Shakyamuni Buddha. He had his self-power period, which was his period of asceticism. It was at the point when he despaired and took the rice milk offered by Sujata that faith awakened, dependent origination was understood and flowers fell from the sky.