Sunday, June 10, 2007

Framing the relative and absolute in spirituality

How do we describe our relative and absolute nature in spiritual/religious terms?

Ray of Dharmakara's Prayer was kind enough to share some teachings presented by David Brazier, the founder of Amida Shu, and it has inspired this writing. With regard to the opening question, I have written about this particular theme ad nauseum (really, just search this site for terms like "Other-power"), but not everyone reads the entire archive and sometimes when we say things 101 times it's the way we phrase it that 101st time that someone else may finally figure out "Oooooh, so that's what he's been trying to say." So either way, this may do some good in some way.

One of the things I've written about a number of times is the idea that there is a perception of faith versus works or Other-power versus self-power which runs through seemingly (literally??) every sacred tradition. The way this is approached depends on the needs of the individual. Some schools emphasize one or the other to some degree. In Pure Land Buddhism, for example, there is the notion of self-power, or efforts we make, and Other-power, that which encompasses all. The idea of the more "through faith" schools in various traditions is that we are too limited to do all that is needed to fully grasp THE TRUTH and then successfully engage it. We don't have the intellectual, emotional, or ethical capacity to reach such PERFECTION. So we rely on Grace. In Christianity this comes through Christ. In Pure Land Buddhism this comes through Amida.

I am not equating those two religions, just highlighting some common thematic structure. In any case, in order to get to THE TRUTH and PERFECTION we are to rely on faith in either Christ or Amida (or for some of you that which such figures represents, wink wink). But no way does self-power, or works, get you there. And what is there? Our absolute nature - the unborn/undying Source of which we all ARE, the I AM to go Old Testament for a moment. On the other hand other sects or schools within these and other religions seem to focus on works or self-power - what we are doing to purify our lives, to effect a transformation. Meditating, praying, practicing charity, compassion, and all around goodwill.

But are these paths as different as they seem?

I suppose for some they are. But not to me. That doesn't make me right, just not satisfied with the either/or nature of the proposition. It is, in fact, true that the limited being or self, and its reifying core, the ego, cannot enlarge itself enough in time and space to fully realize and actualize the totality of existence. None of us can be omnipotent, omnipresent, etc. We are limited in perception, reasoning, memory, lifespan - and that's just for starters. But let look at Zen as an example of a supposed self-power school. You meditate and meditate and increase your focus and awareness and then BAM, mystical insight and magical powers. That is how some may sum up Zen (even perhaps some practitioners if we pare down the chaff of their language and refine the ore of their expectations).

Yet what about that? Zen employs methods involving directly perceiving the emptiness which then gives rise to the Great Doubt, which in turn may lead to the start of an awakening involving the teaching known as "no self". This is the teaching that we have no separate, distinct, or permanent existence apart from everything else which is formed through dependent co-arising. So while it may appear to be (and even be practiced as) as "self-power" school of Buddhism, isn't it interesting that the intended result, if that term is appropriate, is negation of the self, which then implies a profound awareness of / union with Other, often phrased as Buddha-nature. Similarly many Christian groups which emphasize various intense spiritual practices also emphasize total submission and surrender to God and giving oneself over to their Christ-nature.

I think personally one factor influencing the rise of many of the "faith-only" schools is that the intent of the practice-intensive schools was often lost, and instead of going beyond the self to the ultimate self-fulfillment/actualization of recognizing completeness within Other, they became a means to indulge the ego. A competitive game of spiritual one-upsmanship and pious self-satisfaction. Holier than thou. Bodhier than thou. Another factor, which would go hand-in-hand with the first, is the loss of a living tradition mediated by ritual and received wisdom towards a legalistic tradition which idolized ritual and turned received wisdom into unchallengeable dogma.

And all of this produces the chicken-and-the-egg dilemma of theology and spiritual philosophy - do ritual and good works help you to recognize/invoke the Other or does recognizing the Other inspire you to perform rituals and do good works? The answer is, in my humble opinion, yes, both. They are complimentary, not oppositional. It is true that the ego on its own cannot become the Buddha, but we can recognize the Buddha-nature present in all things, even the ego. A supplicant cannot hope to become God but can recognize the Divine nature of all things, including herself. That is also why in Zen there is this sense that everything would be so clear if only we would just let it be so. The challenge isn't to better ourselves, but to free ourselves, to free ourselves from the habituated ways of thinking and acting that have reinforced the fundamental delusion of seeing phenomena as having intrinsic existence.

Hence even in the "faith-only" schools one is not simply to say "I have faith so there is no work to be done." Rather, there is no amount of work that could turn a foolish being into an enlightened one, a sinner into a saint. As the Apostle Paul asked at the beginning of Romans chapter six - "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?"

Heaven forbid!

Peace to you and your bridge between your relative and absolute nature, the object/figure of devotion which reminds you of the fundamental unity of both. From sand mandalas in the Himalyas to crucifixes to depiction of the Ceremony in the Air from the Lotus Sutra.


  1. I must admit that even though I find the teaching of Other-Power to be attractive, my intellect is still grappling with some of the ramifications of accepting Other Power. If there is nothing that we can do to effect salvation except to surrender to Other Power, doesn't that require some effort on our part i.e. the process of surrender? Even in some of his writings, Shinran seems to be advocating his followers to keep the faith, or the shinjin if you like.

  2. I must admit that even though I find the teaching of Other-Power to be attractive, my intellect is still grappling with some of the ramifications of accepting Other Power.

    For clarity's sake, there is a distinction that needs to be emphasized. Other-Power has a definite "Pure Land" ring to it, in particular Japanese Pure Land, and especially Shin Buddhism. That's why I went with a generic "Other" for most of the essay. There may be certain perceptions people have about the way a particular Shin teachings or group represent the concept of Other-Power, so while I reference it as an example of Other, all major religions have some kind of totality in which we are complete.

    If there is nothing that we can do to effect salvation except to surrender to Other Power, doesn't that require some effort on our part i.e. the process of surrender?

    That question is best addressed by a Shin priest or lay minister, but I will offer what I am able to offer.

    I can say though on a general level that people often have difficulty with the concept of "surrender", especially when in some sects and denominations of various religions this surrender means becoming a mindless sheep who slavishly obeys whatever their religious leaders tell them. I wouldn't consider this to be genuine surrender to Other, but rather surrender by proxy to those claiming to represent/speak for Other. True surrender should, in my humble opinion, be something of the heart that is directly between a person and Other.

    As for your specific question, I think of surrender in the sense of acknowledging or accepting something, of ceasing to struggle against/deny something. So, then, if I am running up a hill and I stop, stopping is from one point of view an action (as in a choice) and a cessation of action (as in movement). Surrender ideally takes no effort, but people must often struggle a bit first before they just let it be. This isn't just something in Shin, or even in Buddhism. In Zen Buddhism, for example, just letting be as they are without attachments or judgments is the objective, and yet it can be very challenging!

    Even in some of his writings, Shinran seems to be advocating his followers to keep the faith, or the shinjin if you like.

    I would again say this would best be addressed by a Shin minister or priest, but I will offer what I can.

    Imagine that I have trouble believing that air is all around me, so I am given an empty glass and told it has air in it. I have little faith so I imagine I must be careful to keep the glass full of air. I go to temple and do my rituals because I want to "refill" the glass. But the truth is that air is all around, whether I recognize it or not or appreciate it or not. I don't need to make an effort to "keep" or "renew" the air in my glass - instead I need to remember and realize I am always in the presence of air.

    The problem isn't with how things are, but with my perceptions. In the same way, from what I know of Shin Buddhism (of which I don't claim to be an expert), the light of Amida is all around us. Self-Power is fully completed and actualized within Other-Power, as Other-Power includes everything including Self-Power. Hence there is a Shin teaching that saying the nembutsu isn't a means of salvation (trying to catch and keep air in a glass), but is an act of gratitude. Shinjin, or true entrusting, is to rest in this realization and assurance.

    Thanks for the interesting questions. Be well.

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  4. Tinythinker:

    Thank you so much for your detailed response, which merits repeated reading.

    According to my understanding of Shinran's doctrine of Absolute Other-Power, there really is nothing that the individual can do to save himself. Your air-in-the-glass analogy seems to make sense, but are you suggesting that the person who has trouble accepting that air is all around us will have to somehow alter his perception to fit with reality, that would require some effort on his part, wouldn't it? And wouldn't that still be some form of self-power?

  5. Again, let me say I am just offering some thoughts. I am not a Shin Buddhist nor am I a Shin scholar, so this is just how I understand what Shin is...

    but are you suggesting that the person who has trouble accepting that air is all around us will have to somehow alter his perception to fit with reality

    There is a story of a man who heard of a Shin Buddhist who was reported to be very wise in the nature of Amida Buddha and shinjin even though this Shin Buddhist lacked a formal education. The man went to great lengths to find this wise person, and when he began asking all sorts of questions about faith and effort and the rest, the person he had sought simple told him to "take it up with Amida".

    Here is something to contemplate privately: Does one have to alter ones perception, or is ones perception altered by the deepening of ones true entrusting?

    that would require some effort on his part, wouldn't it?

    As with the analogy of running uphill, it could be seen more akin to ceasing a particular effort.

    If one only has a little faith, one will not accept that one doesn't "need" something else, so they will be restless. Take another example, if you will. Let us say someone is in trouble. He owes a lot of money and the police are looking for him for his association with a person who turned out to be a criminal. He is freaked out. Totally freaked out. Now I go up to this person and say "Hey, it's all taken care of - the money, the police - it's all good. Don't sweat it."

    And it's true. I have taken care of it. But does he have reason to trust me? If he doesn't, he will not believe me and continue to freak out. If he trusts me a little, he may alternate between being calm and freaking out. If he trusts me a lot, he may be mostly calm but occasionally worry or get nervous. If he totally and completely trusts that I have taken care of the whole mess, with no reservations or doubts, he will be at peace. He didn't need to do anything to "fix" the situation - all he had to do was truly trust me.

    To put this together to answer your specific question: The process of developing true entrusting from the Shin perspective is about Amida calling out to us - whatever effort we make to respond to that call (Self-Power) is fully enabled and empowered by Other-Power

    And wouldn't that still be some form of self-power?

    To follow up on the last point I made above, Self-Power is never dissolved, negated, or otherwise done away with in Shin so far as I am aware. It is simply completed within/made whole as an aspect of Other-Power. So from what little I know about Shin, I would suggest that as I mentioned originally, the error is in thinking that the self is a separate and intrinsic "thing" that is distinct from everything else.

    Such a "self", by definition, denies the connection the Greater Whole, the Other, and as such simply cannot encompass or "attain" the totality of wisdom and compassion described as Buddha-nature. But we also have the basic Buddhist teaching that such a view of a separate, limited self is a delusion. So what Buddhists (including Shin Buddhists) have faith in is the potential of our own awakening. For Shin Buddhists, this is framed as accepting and trusting in our potential as represented/offered though Amida Buddha.


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