“Other Power” in the Pure Land Tradition
Triptych of the Pure Land
Self Power/Other Power
Other Power in Mahayana Buddhism
Beginning with the Lotus Sutra (c. 200 CE), Mahayana developed various sutras that claimed to be able to generate “merit” through memorizing, reciting, copying or having others copy the sutra in question. This development is significant because it represents a reliance on “other power” that seems to stand in stark contrast to the “self power” techniques advocated by the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni.
Japanese copy of the Lotus Sutra written in gold ink
The Lotus Sutra
Good men, the ninth inconceivable benefit and power of this sutra is this: If there are good men or good women who, while the Buddha is in the world or after he has passed into extinction, are able to obtain this sutra, who leap with joy on having gained what they never had before, who accept, uphold, read, recite, copy, and offer alms to it and for the sake of the multitude, observing distinctions, expound and preach the message of this sutra far and wide, then in one instant they will be able to wipe out the lingering guilt and heavy obstacle of their deeds in former existences and to attain a state of purity. Thereafter they will acquire great eloquence, step by step adorn themselves with the paramitas, acquire various samadhis including the shuramgama samadhi, enter the great gate of the dharani teachings, gain the power of diligent effort, and quickly attain the highest levels. They will be skilled at dividing their bodies and producing emanations of themselves, dispatching them to the lands in the ten directions to rescue and save all living beings in the twenty-five realms of existence from their dire sufferings, enabling them all to gain emancipation. This is because the sutra possesses this power. (The Lotus Sutra: Ten Benefits)
Samantabadra riding his white elephant
At that time Bodhisattva Universal Worthy [Samantabhadra] said to the Buddha: “World-Honored One, in the evil and corrupt age of the last five-hundred-year period, if there is someone who accepts and upholds this sutra, I will guard and protect him, free him from decline and harm, see that he attains peace and tranquillity, and make certain that no one can spy out and take advantage of his shortcomings. No devil, devil’s son, devil’s daughter, devil’s minion, or one possessed by the devil, no yaksha, rakshasa, kumbhanda, pishacha, kritya, putana, vetada, or other being that torments humans will be able to take advantage of him. ... If they do no more than copy the sutra, when their lives come to an end they will be reborn in the heaven of the thirty-three gods. At that time eighty-four thousand heavenly women, performing all kinds of music, will come to greet them. Such persons will put on crowns made of seven treasures and amidst the ladies-in-waiting will amuse and enjoy themselves. How much more so, then, if they accept, uphold, read, and recite the sutra, memorize it correctly, understand its principles, and practice it as the sutra prescribes. If there are persons who accept, uphold, read, and recite the sutra and understand its principles, when the lives of these persons come to an end, they will be received into the hands of a thousand buddhas, who will free them from all fear and keep them from falling into the evil paths of existence. Immediately they will proceed to the Tushita heaven, to the place of Bodhisattva Maitreya. Bodhisattva Maitreya possesses the thirty-two features and is surrounded by a multitude of great bodhisattvas. He has hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of heavenly women attendants, and these persons will be reborn in their midst. Such will be the benefits and advantages they will enjoy. (Lotus Sutra: Encouragement of the Bodhisattva Universal Worthy)
Amitabha Buddha with Guanyin and Dashizhi
This notion of “other power” is further developed in the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha (Larger Pure Land Sutra), which was written during the 2nd century CE. In this sutra, Sakyamuni recounts the story of a king named Dharmakara who becomes a monk and then makes forty-eight “bodhisattva vows” that he promises to fulfill before becoming a Buddha. After an unfathomably long period of time, he does indeed become a Buddhaknown as “Amitayus” (Infinite Life) or “Amitabha” (Infinite Light)implying that his vows have been fulfilled. The overall thrust of his vows concern the creation of a Buddha-land that will provide a perfect environment for attaining enlightenment:
This world Sukhavati, Ananda, which is the world system of the Lord Amitabha, is rich and prosperous, comfortable, fertile, delightful and crowded with many Gods and men. And in this world system, Ananda, there are no hells, no animals, no ghosts, no Asuras and none of the inauspicious places of rebirth. ...
The Taima Mandala
And from each jewel lotus issue thirty-six hundred thousand kotis of rays. And at the end of each ray there issue thirty-six hundred thousand kotis of Buddhas, with golden-coloured bodies, who bear the thirty-two marks of the superman, and who, in all the ten directions, go into countless world systems, and there demonstrate Dharma. ...
People being reborn in lotus flowers in the Pure Land
And all the beings who have been born, who are born, who will be born in this Buddha field, they all are fixed on the right method of salvation, until they have won Nirvana. And why? Because there is here no place for and no conception of the two other groups, i.e. of those who are not fixed at all, and those who are fixed on wrong ways. For this reason also that world-system is called the “Happy Land.” (Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 123-4)
Amitabha’s 48 Vows
11. I shall not attain supreme enlightenment if any sentient being in my land would not certainly achieve supreme enlightenment and realize great nirvana.
18. When I realize supreme enlightenment, there will be sentient beings in other Buddha-lands who, after hearing my name, dedicate their good roots to birth in my land in thought after thought. Even if they have only ten such thoughts, they will be born in my land ...
19. When I become a Buddha, I shall appear with an assembly of monks at the deathbeds of sentient beings of other Buddha-lands who have brought forth bodhicitta, who think of my land with a pure mind, and who dedicate their good roots to birth in the Land of Utmost Bliss. I shall not attain supreme enlightenment if I would fail to do so.
20. When I become a Buddha, all the sentient beings in countless Buddha-lands, who, having heard my name and dedicated their good roots to birth in the Land of Utmost Bliss, will be born there. Otherwise, I shall not attain supreme enlightenment. (A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras, 342-3)
Self Power/Other Power Icon
Is this "self power" or "other power"?
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Portrait of Tan Luan
Chinese Pure Land Buddhism
anluan (476-542)
T’an-luan [the first patriarch of Pure Land Buddhism in China] was inspired by Amitabha’s eighteenth vow, which stated that “all beings” who think of the Amitabha Buddha for even one thought moment with sincerity and faith when they hear his name will be born into the Pure Land. T’an-luan interpreted “all beings” to mean that not just saintly bodhisattvas, but even common persons, including sinners, can be born into the Pure Land through the help of Amitabha Buddha. With this possibility in mind, T’an-luan distinguished between the “difficult” and “easy” paths to Awakening. Given that the human condition is affected by ignorance and defilements, practice based just on one’s own efforts is the difficult path. This is especially the case in the age of the Degenerate Dharma. On the other hand, practice becomes the easy path if it is based on one’s desire to be born into the Pure Land. This inspiration opened the doors to popular Pure Land devotionalism in China. ...
Self Power/Other Power
If one were asked to define the single most representative feature of Pure Land practice, nianfo would probably be one’s choice. As used colloquially among Chinese Buddhists today, nianfo can have two different meanings, depending on whether one takes it in its literal sense as “mindful recollection (nian) of the Buddha (fo)” or its implied sense of “intonation (nian) of the Buddha’s name (fo minghao).” This divergence is not a characteristic inherent to the term’s original usage but a product of its long and involved history in China. In its very ambiguity, we find a geologic record of the complex forces that shaped Chinese Pure Land in the past, as well as an emblem of the tensions that continue to animate it today. (Buddhism in Practice, 360)
The task for T’an-luan was to define what the “easy” practice should be that depends on the grace of Amitabha Buddha and results in birth in the Pure Land. Studying the Pure Land texts, T’an-luan concluded that all beings, even evil persons, can be released from their defilements by reciting the name Amitabha Buddha. Now, if this “recitation of the Buddhas name” (nien-fo) depends just on the efforts of the recitor, the results would be minimal. However, T’an-luan believed that the effectiveness of the recitation was dependent on Amitabha Buddha himself. Tao-luan [sic] claimed that the name of Amitabha Buddha itself embodies the Buddha reality for which it stands.
Guanyin holding the mani-gem ( wish-fulfilling jewel)
To invoke Amitabha’s name is to make present in one’s life the Buddha reality it represents. To explain how this name could have the power to purify one’s life, T’an-luan likened it to a “Mani gem.” Tradition teaches that if you throw such a gem into muddy water, the jewel cleanses the water of impurities. T’an-luan taught that since the name Amitabha means “infinite light,” and since the name embodies the reality it represents, then to recite this name brings its infinte light into one’s life. Its brilliance, like with a Mani gem, penetrates the mind of the recitor, bringing it immeasurable wisdom-light that purifies it of ignorance and defilements. ..
Emanations from the mantra "ohm" (the sound of creation)
T’an-luan drew a distinction between “self power” and “Other power,” which became fundamental for Pure Land thought. Self power refers to relying on one’s own efforts in taking up a discipline and engaging in religious practice. This self-power attitude, T’an-luan taught, manifests a certain pride and can actually reinforce the self-centeredness one is trying to overcome. On the other hand, by relying on Other power in one’s practice, that is, on the action of Amitabha Buddha, one is humbly allowing oneself to be transformed. (Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 226-8)
Self Power/Other Power
A Conversation with Abbot Sheng-lin
Cover of the book "Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits"Zen isn’t suitable anymore. To practice Zen you need deep roots. People with deep roots are rare. They didn’t used to be. In the past, anybody could practice Zen. But not now. This isn’t just my opinion. It was Yin-kuang’s opinion too. [Yin-kuang was a monk of the early twentieth century who reestablished Pure Land practice in China.] Nowadays, Pure Land practice is the only practice suitable for everyone. The difference is that Pure Land practice depends on the power of the Buddha. You don’t need deep roots. Zen practice depends completely on yourself. It’s much harder, especially now.
       In the past, there were many enlightened monks. But how many are enlightened now? None that I know of. Some monks might think they’re enlightened, but they’re not. They mistake delusion for enlightenment. That’s why Yin-kuang said it’s better to chant the name of the Buddha, to rely on the Buddha. Who’s more powerful, you or the Buddha? Pure Land practice is more certain to achieve results. If your roots aren’t deep, and you practice Zen, you can practice all your life and never get anywhere. Pure Land practice isn’t easy, though. You have to make up your mind to be reborn in the Pure Land; otherwise chanting the Buddha’s name won’t do any good, it’s just superstition. Pure Land practice is beyond reason, it’s a matter of faith. But faith is more powerful than reason. You can’t see the Pure Land. Only buddhas can see the Pure Land. Eyes are useless. You have to rely on the Buddha. (Road to Heaven, 112)
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Shandao's "Parable of the White Path"
And to all those who wish to be reborn in the Pure Land, I now tell a parable for the sake of those who would practice the True Way, as a protection for their faith and a defense against the danger of heretical views. What is it? It is like a man who desires to travel a hundred thousand ‘li’ to the West. Suddenly in the midst of his route he sees two rivers. One is a river of fire stretching South. The other is a river of water stretching North. Each of the two rivers is a hundred steps across and unfathomably deep. They stretch without end to the North and South. Right between the fire and water, however, is a white path barely four or five inches wide. Spanning the East and West banks, it is one hundred steps long. The waves of water surge and splash against the path on one side while the flames of fire scorch it on the other. Ceaselessly, the fire and water come and go.
The man is out in the middle of a wasteland and none of his kind are to be seen. A horde of vicious ruffians and wild beasts see him there alone, and vie with one another in rushing to kill him. Fearing death he runs straightway to the West, and then sees these great rivers. Praying, he says to himself: “To the North and South I see no end to these rivers. Between them I see a white path, which is extremely narrow. Although the two banks are not far apart, how am I to traverse from one to the other? Doubtless today I shall surely die. If I seek to turn back, the horde of vicious ruffians and wild beasts will come at me. If I run to the North or South, evil beasts and poisonous vermin will race toward me. If I seek to make my way to the West, I fear that I may fall into these rivers.”
       Thereupon he is seized with an inexpressible terror. He thinks to himself: “Turn back now and I die. Stay and I die. Go forward and I die. Since death must be faced in any case, I would rather follow this path before me and go ahead. With this path I can surely make it across.” Just as he thinks this, he hears someone from the east bank call out and encourage him: “Friend, just follow this path resolutely and there will be no danger of death. To stay here is to die.” And on the west bank. there is someone calling out, “Come straight ahead, single-mindedly and with fixed purpose. I can protect you. Never fear falling into the fire or water!”
At the urging of the one and the calling of the other, the man straightens himself up in body and mind and resolves without any lingering doubts or hesitations. Hardly has he gone a step or two when from the east bank the horde of vicious ruffians calls out to him: “Friend, come back! That way is perilous and you will never get across. Without a doubt you are bound to die. None of us means to harm you.” Though he hears them calling, the man still does not look back but single-mindedly and straightway proceeds on the path. In no time he is at the west bank, far from all troubles forever. He is greeted by his good friend and there is no end of joy. (The Parable of the White Path)
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Pure Land Service at the Lingquan Chan Temple
Self Power/Other Power Icon

Self Power/Other Power Icon
Pure Land Center and Buddhist Library