By Rev. Jon Turner
You will often hear two phrases at a Jodo Shinshu Temple. The first is Self-Power and the second is Other-Power. These are the English translations for the Japanese terms JI-RIKI (自力) and TA-RIKI (他力). The character RIKI (力), shared by both, is a common kanji character that means “power.” I see it often tattooed on the shoulders of athletes. The other two kanji characters are also common. JI (自) means “self” and TA (他) means “other.” These are Chinese compounds that have very specific and nuanced meanings. But they have both been split in two and translated in pieces.
For example, a “bookend” is a compound of two words but it does not mean the “end of a book.” It would be very odd to put the last pages of Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby on your mantle. But I am afraid that is what we do with these two terms. Whenever I heard Self-Power I always thought of “making an effort” or “trying hard” and Other-Power sounded like “Higher Power”. In fact, these two actually refer to neither of those. Both describe a way of thinking rather than a way of doing.
Self-Power refers to a calculation concerning return on investment. It is a contrivance. For example, following rules in order to make oneself more worthy or pure would be a Self-Power practice. But that same activity would be an Other-Power practice if done effortlessly. Or as something that just becomes a habit for you – merely a natural expression of your Buddhist awareness that has developed over time as you have listened to the Dharma and your appreciation for the teachings have deepened.
In either case, effort is not the issue. It is the motivation behind your actions. However, often times Other-Power activities do feel like they are coming from outside yourself. But that should not be mistaken for an external source. For example, whenever I realize something new about Buddhism, it does feel like it came to me from the outside but that is because it is due to insight not calculation. I didn’t figure it out; it just came to me.
For example, yesterday I moved the Three Pure Land sutras off the altar so I could place the ashes of a dog named Bandit who had just died. It was his memorial service. In that moment I realized that Bandit was now in fact the teachings for his owner. We do this for all funerals and memorial services. I didn’t figure this out. You could say I realized this late. But realizing it late is much more authentic than figuring it out early.
I just read a wonderful example of how meaningful things just come to us. There is a new musical out based upon the musical catalog of Carole King called Beautiful. She began writing music professionally at 18. Her early compositions were recorded by others. But with the advent of the Beatles and the singer songwriter, Carole King began to write and record for herself. In doing so she produced one of the greatest albums of our time. In the early 1970’s, she released the solo album Tapestry. In fact, one of the songs on that album is the first song I ever danced to in public with a “real” girl. I was in the sixth grade, at my first dance and the song was I Feel the Earth Move.
While King was composing and recording this album, she heard the latest song by her dear friend James Taylor. It was Fire and Rain and the lyrics that touched her were:
I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
But I always thought that I'd see you again
In response to the line “I could not find a friend,” King wrote the anthem You’ve Got a Friend:
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I'll be there
You've got a friend
Later, King would say that
“the song was as close to pure inspiration as I've ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside myself, through me."
Of course, Carole King wrote the song but it felt as if it had come to her from outside herself. After decades of practice and forcing oneself to write songs and trying to find the recipe for the perfect song, King was able to create art by merely allowing it to gush out from her. It was both effortless and as if external. She had finally trusted the process. She now thought as a musician, merely expressing her feelings directly through melodies and lyrics. From the outside, it looks the same. She is just writing down notes on sheet music. But it is much different. As different as Self-Power is from Other-Power. Both require great effort but the activity is qualitatively different.
In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner