The meaning of Other Power

Let there not be the slightest distortion of the teaching of Other Power with words of an understanding based only on personal views.

Here, then, I set down in small part the words spoken by the late Shinran Shonin that remain deep in my mind, solely to disperse the doubts of fellow practicers. (CWS, p. 661)

Photo: Mark Healsmith

Before we move on to the first chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences (Tannisho) these remaining paragraphs of the Preface provide an opportunity to consider the declared purpose of the book, which is to correct misrepresentations of the teaching of Other Power. According to Shinran Shonin, there are 84,000 self-power Dharma gates, and only one gate of Other Power.

A short digression: It was not until the eighteenth century that it came to be generally agreed that the most likely author of the Tanni Sho was a man by the name of Yuien, who belonged to a group of Shinran’s disciples that lived in the Kanto district (eastern Honshu). Although there is no indication of the writer’s name in the title, Yuien is mentioned in chapter thirteen. When I refer to the author, I will use this name.

Yuien clearly sets out the purpose of his book in the Preface, when he says that the problem being faced by the Jodo Shinshu community is the distortion of the ‘teaching of Other Power’. It appears to have become common for nembutsu people to interpret the teaching of Shinran in idiosyncratic ways, distorting the plain meaning of the term ‘Other Power’ (tariki).

In his own writing, Shinran gives two quite clear definitions of Other Power. One is about the working of the Other Power itself, and the other defines our approach to it. All of the contentious views that are expressed in the Tanni Sho tend to undermine either of these two definitions – or to call them into question.

Shinran’s precise definition of Other Power can be found in the second section (True Practice) of his great anthology of notated quotations from Buddhist texts, The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation.

Other Power is none other than the Power of the Tathagata’s Primal Vow (CWS, p 57)

The first of the three Chinese Dharma Masters, T’an-luan (476-542), especially emphasised the working of Other Power in the Pure Land way. Sometimes commentators define Other Power differently but the meaning that Shinran gives here is T’an-luan’s teaching.

Sometimes one encounters the term ‘Other Power’ defined as ‘the power of others’. This seems to imply a life that deliberately relies on other people. What people usually mean by this is that when we abandon efforts in the realm of religious practice and discover the joy and relief of the working Other Power, it is natural to feel gratitude for the beings and events that sustain our lives and lead us to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

Shinran describes a way of seeing Other Power from our perspective, too. An example of this is

In Other Power, no working is true working. (CWS, p. 530)

We do not contribute to the activity of Other Power — the power of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow — except by accepting it into our hearts as Namo Amida Butsu and leaving everything else to its spontaneous working, completely abandoning our own ‘self-power’. Shinran describes such abandonment of self-power in this way:

‘To abandon the mind of self-power’ admonishes the various and diverse kinds of people — masters of Hinayana or Mahayana, ignorant beings good or evil — to abandon the conviction that on is good, to cease relying on the self; to stop reflecting knowingly on one’s evil heart, and further to abandon the judging of people as good and bad. (CWS, p. 459)