Akiko Rogers is student at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and an ordained Jodo Shin minister. Gesshin Greenwood is an ordained Zen priest and the chaplaincy program coordinator at IBS. They sat down together to discuss “other power,” American culture, and similarities and differences between Jodo Shinshu and Soto Zen.
Gesshin: I wanted to do this interview with you because of a conversation I had with Yamaoka Sensei [a professor at the Institute of Buddhist Studies] in which I made a comment about how there’s no “other power” in Zen. He said “Of course there is! What do you think you’re doing when you sit zazen? If you think you’re sitting zazen through yourself, you’re missing something.” I realized that he is right, because all of the writing on zazen by Dogen describes zazen as something that is ultimately impersonal. So, what is your understanding of “other power,” and is it exclusive to Jodo Shin?
Aki: From my studies, I would say that no, other power is not exclusive to Jodo Shinshu, even though we do predominantly use this term. I say this in part because in taking Daijaku Sensei’s Soto Zen class, I ended up writing on a lot of the misconceptions between Zen and Jodo shin—that we actually speak a lot along the same lines, just using different terminology, so we end up talking past each other.
For me, especially when non Jodo Shin people ask me about other power, it’s usually coming from a Zen perspective. One thing I’ve found helpful in explaining this is to Zen practitioners is to ask, “When you’re sitting zazen, who is doing the sitting?” That’s one of the questions you tend to struggle with, right? Is it I myself, my ego self that’s doing the sitting? Or is it Buddha within me, buddha-nature, whatever term you want to use, who is doing the sitting? That’s a way into understanding other power for us.
On the surface level, other power is defined in opposition to “self power,” that is I, me, myself, my ego-centered self, thinks I am doing something, I am working towards a goal. In the broader scheme of Buddhism, that would lead to thinking, “I myself am getting enlightened, I am attaining enlightenment.” When you think that way, about gaining something, getting something like that, you have to wonder, is that what Buddhism is really about? For Jodo Shinshu, self-power is contrasted with “other power,” where I myself am not doing the work, the working is coming from the personification of Amida Buddha (although even that has some issues because we being humans tend to want to have some anthropomorphized symbol to help us process, because intellectually, we’re way down here, I’m not where an enlightened being would be, so I need concrete examples). Amida Buddha as the personification of ultimate wisdom and compassion is working through us, not that I am being compassionate or wise or doing metta and all these other practices. What I myself alone can do is very miniscule compared with all the good deeds an enlightened being can accomplish.
For Jodo Shinshu, working with other power comes within the context of understanding the different dharma ages. Shinran Shonin our founder, was living in the early stages of mappo, the end of the dharma. He was thinking about what is real and true. Do humans have the capacity in mappo to truly engage in true Buddhist practices? He was seeing a lot of hypocrisy between what the teachings said, and what he saw both in how other monks practiced and what he saw in himself. He wondered, “How is it possible to become a Buddha in this life, if the more I practice, the more I realize how self-centered, self-calculating I am and unable to rid myself of any klesa, my blind passions. Was that truly the intention of the Buddha’s teaching?”
Through his understanding of Amida Buddha and the teachings that came out of scholars like Genshin and Honin, Shonin started to see that there was another path. He himself had practiced for 20 years and couldn’t divorce himself from all his attachments. He thought, if I can’t do this, what about all the people who don’t have the opportunity to practice in a monastic setting? There were a lot of conflicts for him between what he saw practiced by others versus the idealized form he saw in the texts. Eventually through the different teachers he encountered he realized that there is this ultimate truth as represented through Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha works through the bodhisattva ideal of saving all beings and created these vows for those of us who are stuck, who have no hope otherwise of becoming liberated on our own. Through that comes this idea of, “no matter how much I try to adhere to precepts, there’s always something in me that’s either breaking them, or following them with a self-centered attitude, a judgement of being better than others.”
Gesshin: This reminds me of living in the convent, with people who were spending all of their time practicing to transcend their ego, still the motivation would morph into, “I’m going to be the best nun. I’m going to be the best Buddhist, the most disciplined.”
Aki: Right, so seeing that those are aspects of human nature. No matter how hard we practice we still can’t get rid of that self-centeredness. That’s where for Shin Buddhists the reliance on other power becomes strong. We realize, “I am flawed, because of my human nature.” It’s not a good thing or bad thing, it’s just human nature, it just is. And because there are bodhisattvas who have been liberated, through their selfless giving, they want to help the rest of us end suffering. When we understand it that way, we understand, I’m not doing this because I understand this to be good. I’m doing this because teachers have helped me understand that this is good. Whether it’s giving a donation or using right speech, I didn’t arrive there on my own. The delusion of self wants us to believe we do it on our own. Especially in our American context of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, we tend to have a very strong sense of self who does these things, and it’s that self that needs all the credit.
Gesshin: I’m curious how you see this as different from a Judeo-Christian concept of God.
Aki: I have basically zero Christian background because I grew up Buddhist, aside from the Christianity with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but the main thing I would say whether we’re thinking about other power or the more concrete symbol of Amida Buddha themselves, there’s not the same sense of omnipotence. There is omnipresence in a way, if you think of Amida Buddha representing ultimate reality, true reality, ultimate wisdom and compassion that is always around us, but it’s not a God that can intervene on my behalf. One of the big things with Jodo Shinshu is we don’t have petitional prayer. We don’t ask Amida Buddha, “Please cure me from this sickness.” We wouldn’t go to temple, offer dana and say, “Please protect me from coronavirus.” We don’t have that kind of relationship with other power. Whereas from my limited understanding of Christianity, people might do that, whether it’s praying to God or the Virgin Mary. You ask God to protect you and help you.
Gesshin: So there’s not a sense of an external being with agency who has omnipotent power.
Aki: Right. We don’t see Amida Buddha in that way.
Gesshin: How would you practically work with this? Within your community, are there particular practices that have been helpful to you?
Aki: In Jodo Shinshu we don’t have a lot of directive practices. We don’t have zazen like in Soto Zen. We don’t have koans, although I would argue we do, we just don’t call them that. But one of the big things for Jodo Shinshu is a practice of self-reflection. Whatever format that takes—whether it’s a moment of quiet reflecting, whether it’s more casually coming up throughout the day, reflecting on “Why did I react this way? Why did I think that way” For me the teachings really help me to focus on self-reflection. Other power allows me that space to step back and remember it’s not allows about me, and I don’t always have to be the center of what’s going on, and my perspective is not the only one. It is the working of other power, a brief moment where the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha, the Dharma, breaks through my ego-centered perspective and my own blind passions, for perhaps a glimpse of something closer to ultimate truth, but it is not my own doing. And that awareness helps me reframe my perspective. Out of that comes a sense of deep gratitude. Say I’m frustrated at someone, and I think “Why are they like that?” But when I consider the interaction through the lens of other power, I can’t help but remember that there’s causes and conditions that make them react in a certain way.
Gesshin: Giving you the flexibility to move beyond your conception of yourself.
Aki: Yes. And then, from that shift in perspective, it helps me in terms of everyday living. I have more gratitude when I understand there are causes and conditions that are going on outside of myself.
Gesshin: This reminds me of an image one of my teachers would use to describe dharma practice. If a boat that’s crossing a river has a hole in it, the boat will sink. You have to take a bucket and bale the water out of the boat for it to continue to sail. In this metaphor, the water inside the boat is selfish desire, and the river water is desire that is direct outwards, towards helping other people. Actually they are the same water. Desire isn’t inherently good or bad. If you bale out your own selfish desire, it will become the river around you that takes you forward. Although this metaphor is about desire, I wonder if we could apply it to other power as well. When I was reading about other power for this interview, a lot of the images that are used in dharma talks are of boats and of the wind. It makes me think that the main question is, “What is allowing us to move, and have momentum in our life?”
A: In Jodo-Shinshu we would probably phrase it a little differently—that the ocean, especially our waves, is our self-churning, like our anger. But there are also a lot of metaphors with boats! The boat itself is other power, and its what’s helping us cross the ocean, because of we tried to cross the river ourselves, we would drown. It’s too exhausting alone. But Amida Buddha provides us this boat, which is the teachings, that allow us to sail through. Not that it’s always calm seas, but it’s a lot easier when we have this boat to help buoy us up.
Gesshin: I have a Kuan Yin devotional practice that I’ve developed in the last year, working in mental health (and I actually got this idea from an IBS alum, Jamie). When I come home at the end of the day, I write down the names of the people I counsel, and put them on my alter. Then I sort of turn it over into Kuan Yin’s hands, because it’s too much for me to fix. This is the only way that I can fully transition from work to home. Would you say this is other power?
Aki: I would, because I don’t think other power is limited to Amida Buddha exclusively. Other power is the working of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. They’re always trying to teach us in different ways. And even for Shinran Shonin, he reminds us that it’s not just Amida Buddha. Yes, he is the center, but there are all the other bodhisattvas. Shinran writes about how when we attain shinjin, or recognize deep entrusting in Amida Buddha and the teachings, it’s not just Amida who supports us, but all the Buddhas in the ten directions. It’s a reminder that there’s an infinite number of beings, all helping to work on us and support us. So whether it’s leaving your burdens to Kuan Yin to help carry, or leaving it to Amida Buddha or other Buddhas, at least my understanding of the Mahayana tradition is that all of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas are engaging in this. So for me as the human recipient of that, I’m always receiving other power from them. It’s just whether or not my ego sees that, whether the selfish part of me still thinks “I was able to do this.”
Gesshin: In Bendowa, Dogen said that when one person sits upright in meditation, “Displaying the buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind,” then “everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment.” He also spoke about preaching the dharma to stones, and listening to stones preach the dharma. So hearing you talk, I’m having a lot of moments of thinking, “Yes! This makes sense!” We are actualized by enlightenment, we are worked on by Buddha, not the other way around. My experience in Japan was that the two traditions of Soto Zen and Jodo Shinshu were very blended. There is a huge overlap in terms of art, iconography, ritual, and chants. But in the West there seems to be more of a schism between the traditions. Why do you think this is?
Aki: I think it comes from both sides. Having grown up Jodo Shinshu, I grew up with the message that “Zen is that ‘self-powered’ stuff.” I grew up hearing this in the 80s and 90s, the generation after the Beat generation. In the 60s and 70s, especially up in the Bay Area, Zen was popular among white Americans who had the mindset of “I’m gonna do that Zen thing and in 2-3 years I’m going to have this mastered and be a Buddha.” That’s kind of the image I grew up with in my head of a Western Zen practitioner.
Gesshin: Solitary, going to get enlightened…
Aki: Very stereotypical white male who is going to overpower this because he’s an American, and he’s going to do it on his own because he’s read the books, has a sitting practice, and has the mindset of conquering the challenge of attaining enlightenment. I’m like “Wait, is that what enlightenment is about? Conquering?” That really sets in the idea of self-power, this ego self that’s going to do all this stuff, contrasted with how we do it in Jodo Shinshu, which is the awareness that no matter how hard we practice, we’re only going to do so much. And not to be fatalistic, but we don’t have to do all this work. There are so many other buddhas and bodhisattvas who have done the work over eons and eons, and out of their benevolence they share it with the rest of us so that even those of us in the worst of conditions has the possibility of attaining Buddhahood, not just a select few talented or privileged people. So I grew up with that contrast [between Zen and Jodo Shin]. I appreciated Daijaku Sensei’s class on Zen, so I could learn the Zen perspective from an actual Zen practitioner.
But still, in the United States we have so much cultural baggage that lends itself to the independent, “I did it myself” attitude as the most idealized characteristics of a person. There’s the message that what makes you a good person is being self-sufficient, being independent. Then Buddhism’s on the other end of the spectrum saying “Nope, you can’t be an individual.”
Gesshin: Right. You are not a discreet, isolated individual.
Aki: You are who you are because of infinite causes of conditions.