People these days say they like Buddhism because they think it’s more “lifestyle” or “philosophy,” than “religion.” After all, Buddhism offers insights that are logical, uses psychology and grounded in universal truths.
However Buddhism is a religion like other world religions in a way that may surprise you—it acknowledges a higher power greater than ourselves.
There’s a big distinction: this power is not personified as a god standing in judgment of mankind. It’s a power pervading the universe and part of you and me.
This power is what I believe elevates Buddhist teachings from concepts to dynamic spirituality. In Jodo Shinshu, it’s called “other power,” as opposed to our own “self-power.” Shinran Shonin wrote extensively about self-power and other power. Shinshu teacher Manshi Kiyozawa later called it “power beyond self.”
Self-power refers to our own efforts to live and control life. Most of the time, our lives are based on self-power. We believe our intelligence, how hard we work, the things we do, determine our success, failures and happiness. We build our lives on self-power. Thus we become obsessed with good schools, jobs, wealth, possessions, status and recognition.
Especially in America, we are a nation of achievers, stress hard work and believe in controlling life’s destiny. To the victor go the spoils. Why not? Certainly from this standpoint, life’s winners are the rich and privileged, who feel they deserve to be tops. In this equation, success equals happiness.
However, a closer look reveals major flaws—money doesn’t guarantee happiness, wealth doesn’t protect us from sickness, old age and death, many fail in pursuit of worldly success, inequality prevails and our desires seem endless. By contrast, some people possessing very little seem happiest.
Yet, we expend much of our lives chasing this elusive dream. Shinran called this conundrum living a life of self-power. For him, the fundamental problem is our belief in self-power.
This point I think confuses people because we are taught to believe in ourselves, to work hard and achieve success. Of course making a living requires tremendous effort and we must work at it. But we fret and worry constantly, trying to take control of life, facing setbacks and difficulties, struggling to arrive at a place that always seems beyond reach. According to Shinran, this situation is life’s great predicament.
Our belief in this sense of “self” is so hardened, it’s virtually impossible to break. This path we tread seems the best and only way until the point where it stops. That end-of-road place is a teetering spiritual cliff from where we might fall.
People stand at the cliff’s edge when facing a crisis—job loss, relationship breakup, sickness, a loved one’s death, aging, losing one’s physical abilities or confronting one’s mortality. This is a place where self-power no longer applies. The world where people thought they lived, where nice cars, money, status, and big houses mattered, suddenly shatters and disappears, a great shock causing confusion, paralysis, sadness and depression.
Jodo Shinshu teaches the problem’s root is our erroneous view of life, which is based on this sense of “self” as central and all-important. Consequently we wrongly judge our happiness based on how it affects this “self,” always taking a “selfish” view of life. Buddhism calls this view “ignorance.”
The true nature of life is a universe interconnected through innumerable causes, conditions and effects that ultimately represent great Oneness. It’s a universe in which we see our connection to trees, plants, animals, birds, rivers, forests, oceans, wind, rain, earth, sun, moon and stars. It’s a bond tying us together transcending time and space so we are never alone. Understanding this truth Buddhism calls “wisdom.”
Often we can’t truly see this great universe until our sense of self-power is broken by life’s travails. That’s why I think many people only after wrestling with sickness, after the devastating loss of a loved one, after growing old and frail, become more “religious.” With the Buddha’s guidance, their loss of control over life forces them to see just how the universe works.
Our lives ultimately are not the result of our own efforts. Life comes from a power, greater than ourselves. The Pure Land sutras call this power “Tathagatha,” described as “wondrous,” “mysterious” and “inconceivable.” With this understanding comes a great spiritual awakening in which people deeply appreciate the life they have been given. A great burdened lifts from their shoulders and they no longer struggle. Some describe this feeling as “letting go.”
Fear and worry dissipate. People feel grateful for their lives, whatever their circumstances, and they can live fully. Their joy is not based on material wealth, but arises from inner peace and a deep understanding of life.
After the deaths of his wife and son, suffering from illness himself, Rev. Kiyozawa described his awakening: “The power of Tathagata is limitless. The power of Tathagatha is unsurpassed…. It pervades everything and works freely, without hindrance. By committing myself to the wondrous power of Tathagatha, I have great peace and comfort… I have no fear.”