Making Shin Buddhism Relevant for Today (Pt. 3)

By Rev. Marvin Harada

This month I would like to continue the topic of making Shin Buddhism relevant for today by discussing some additional key words and terms that might be a source of confusion for many, especially those who are new to Shin Buddhism.

Self Power vs. Other Power (Jiriki vs. Tariki)

I think one of the most misunderstood terms in Shin Buddhism are the terms self power (jiriki 自力), and other power (tariki 他力). We are traditionally taught that Shin Buddhism teaches other power, and that other schools of Buddhism teach self power. Just by the term itself, we might be given the impression that other power means something like a divine power, like a bolt of lightning that zaps us. However, other power is not that kind of thing.

At the same time, in stating that Shin Buddhism is an “other power” school of Buddhism, we may be given the impression that we don’t have to do anything, that we don’t have to put forth any effort in trying to learn or understand Shin Buddhism. This too is false.

Self power and other power were first generation translations of very subtle terms. The Chinese characters for these terms themselves are not difficult, and anyone with a Chinese character dictionary would be able to literally translate jiriki as “self power,” and tariki as “other power.”

However, in more recent years, teachers like Dr. Nobuo Haneda has translated tariki as “the power beyond the self,” which I personally prefer.

I think other translations for jiriki might even be considered, like, “self-deluded power,” or “self-centered power,” or “self-contrived power.”

So, what do we mean by jiriki or “self power,” and tariki or “other power?”

When we begin the practice of Buddhism, we are not much different than someone learning a martial art, like karate. We might have aspirations of someday earning our black belt in karate. We think, “If I practice real hard, two hours a day, how long will it take me to get my black belt?” We might find that we are practicing more with the attitude of earning a black belt, than we are practicing to learn a martial art. This could be considered “self-contrived power.” A martial arts teacher might scold us for having such an attitude. The goal is not the black belt, but the goal is to be accomplished in karate.

Remember the movie, “Karate Kid?” Young Daniel wants to learn karate to be able to fight those bullies at school. Mr. Miyagi has him wax his cars, sand his floor, paint his fence. He doesn’t realize that he is learning karate until he reaches a point of frustration and threatens to quit.

The religious path has the built-in contradiction of both putting forth effort to learn and to practice, and the futility of such effort.

Our practice and effort on the Buddhist path cannot be tinged with, “If I do this much or that much, how much will I get back in return? If I study real hard, how long will it take for me to get enlightened?”

Shinran Shonin practiced Buddhism in the most arduous manner, but it did not lead to any kind of enlightenment. He reached a brick wall so to speak, but heard of a popular teacher by the name of Honen. When he went to meet Honen, he was at his last wits. He was at the rock bottom. Honen showed him that the path to enlightenment is not one that we can conjure up ourselves. Enlightenment is something that we receive, rather than something that we create. Honen showed Shinran the source of enlightenment as a “power beyond the self,” rather than a “self-deluded power,” or a “self-contrived power.” Honen was like Mr. Miyagi who was showing Shinran the meaning of what he had been doing all those years on Mt. Hiei was not to “attain” something, but it was to “receive” something.

As Shinran Shonin began to open his heart and mind to receiving, the light of the Dharma entered and filled his heart and mind. This heart and mind that he came to receive, he refers to as shinjin, or the true heart and mind of the Buddha. It was not something that he “attained” but was something that he “received.” In other words, he couldn’t take any credit for his realization. There was no tinge of his own ego involved in his receiving. He gave all the credit to truth itself, to the Dharma itself.

I think that there is tariki or “other power” in other fields as well. A music composer creates a beautiful song, but that song is “inspired,” it comes from a source beyond your own ego self. I understand that Carole King composed “You’ve Got a Friend,” in a matter of minutes, the words and music just flowing to her heart and mind. Master sculptors see the image or statue that they want to create in the piece of rock from the beginning, and then just remove the rest of the rock to reveal that image. Artists, writers, musicians, are all expressing something beyond their ego self. Their inspiration comes from a “power beyond the self.” But in order to create that “inspired” song or work of art, tremendous effort and work was necessary.

That is the contradiction of the Buddhist path. We put forth effort, but that effort cannot be self-contrived, self-centered, or self-deluded. We just listen, study, learn, discuss, and open our hearts and minds to truth, to receiving the heart and mind of the Buddha.

Namuamidabutsu,

Rev. Marvin Harada