Big questions occupy our religious musings: ‘what extent does hard work help us find salvation or enlightenment? Is that impossible, out of our hands, or do our efforts make a difference?’
In Japanese Zen, this debate is between Jiriki and Tariki, or Self-power and Other-power.
Jiriki Vs Tariki
Jiriki (自力, one’s own strength) is the attitude that we find enlightenment for ourselves. It’s the ability to achieve awakening based upon one’s efforts.
Jiriki, in practice, means the steps one takes towards liberation through meditations, reading the suttas, discourse with other practitioners, attending to rituals, speaking with a mentor etc.
Not all Buddhists agree, however. In Pure Land Buddhism, they place their trust in the Amitābha Buddha (Amida Buddha in Japan); you’re saved through him. It’s achieved through invoking the name Amitabha— through the recitation of the Nembutsu in Japanese and Nianfo in Chinese.
Nembutsu means ‘mindfulness of Amida Buddha’. It’s a chant that acts as a reminder of the Buddha and becoming more mindful. It’s recited out loud or internally, and they repeat it a lot.
Tariki (他力 meaning “other-power”, “outside help”) is the recognition that we are not very good at our practice; our minds are easily deluded. Indeed it can be seen as egotistical to think that we can use the tools of the ego, our mind, to overcome the ego.
If we are to recognise our limitations honestly, we have to place the path to enlightenment in another’s hands, ‘other power’. In Pure Land Buddhism, this is Amitābha Buddha.
Pure Land is different by letting go of our ability, our power, and just having the truth or faith in Amitābha Buddha.
It doesn’t take much to see the parallels with Christianity. Some denominations say it’s about doing good works, others like Calvinism say that’s impossible, and only God can save you.
The duality of self-power/other power can also be found outside of religion and in the activity of living.
I’m trying to be a successful artist; the same question and duality apply. To what extent do I create my success, and what’s outside of my hands?
Am I trying too hard, obsessed with the idea I can force achievement and success, or is success a matter of fortune, fate, luck?
Find a partner, getting a promotion, buying a lovely house? In all our endeavours, it’s the same question. Is the work I do enough to find what I want? Jiriki / Tariki goes way beyond salvation or enlightenment to be the big questions of our lives.
To what existent are we in control of our lives?
The power of both
As I see it, the answer is as ambiguous as so many answers in religion. It both Jiriki and Tariki.
It’s the space in between or where they meet that the answer lies. It’s a liminal place, a place that’s ‘neither here nor there’. These places are uncertain, nuanced, mysterious, yet its where change happens.
To find what we want is partly up to us and partly not. We have to put in some work, but that can only take us so far. There also has to be some moment of serendipity that makes up the rest.
In Mahayana, Buddhism Jiriki is the hard work to help us let go of the ego, the mind, intellect to achieve accord with the subconscious, the cosmos, the tao, our Buddha Nature.
For the artist, it’s putting in the work at the easel (Jiriki), then ‘trusting in the process, ourselves’ will grow where we need to go and find what we need to find. (Tariki).
‘When the student is ready, the teachers appears’
Without effort, it’s just blindly hoping it will all work out. Where do you see an artist that doesn’t produce art? A surfer has to turn up and be on the ocean to catch the waves.
Woodly Allen is quoted to have said: ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life.’
Keep working, and the answers will come in time. Maybe not the answers you want; it must be said, but the ones you need. It recognises the process is having the right habits.
Diligence, perseverance, and practice will produce results, but those results are not certain and not through your power alone. We are players, not just spectators in life, but were not in control.
I don’t see all this as a matter of faith as much as pragmatic reality because it’s the only way it has ever worked. We are not in control of the cosmos, but neither are we powerless. We tend to fall into two extremes; the learned helpless of dejection or the overzealous obsession for control.
One can also see a paradox; we can get more control by letting it go.
The right way is the middle way, what I call Meeting Serendipity, Half Way. We have to step up and do the work; the rest is out of our hands.
Take those moments of inspiration, the eureka moments; how do we get them? Or where do we get our ideas from? It’s a question often asked of creatives.
So what’s going on here? I see it’s as the work of our subconscious. We tend to forget this side of us, the other power side of automatic behaviour, trained reflex.
Too much Jiriki
A common pitfall we encounter is the extreme view; it’s all down to us. How do I find enlightenment, how do I find my artists voice, my niche, how do I find a suitable partner?
Such questions plague us and the worry that follows them like a ball and chain. The demand is we have to grasp, to understand.
Our insecure ego demands control; we have to know the answers to clarify before we can proceed. Anxiety becomes our habit; we’re transfixed by thought and study; we think that more thinking is the way to go, ‘I think therefore I can’. It’s a trap I fell into trying to solve my anxiety, think more?!
We’re caught up in our heads analysis paralysis, transfixed by the illusion that more thinking will help. Forgetting that action is where change takes place. The practice of art makes the artist. We need to realise that life is found in the doing, the living, the everyday. There is No Secret Ingredient, to life art, success.
‘Stop trying to grasp the wind’
It’s where I depart from much western philosophy because it’s far too much of a head transfixed by thought. We have to let go of our neediness for control, for clarity, confidence and accept the uncertainty, the ambiguity; it will never disappear, so act.
What of Tariki and the Pure Land, Buddhism?
Pure Land isn’t about Tiriki alone; looking closer, Pure Land Buddhism not as simple as it first appears. Alan Watts says Amida Buddha or Amithaba Buddha is a metaphor for the subconscious. It’s a complicated philosophical notion.
In Pure Land, the aim is to let go of the idea that discursive thought (intellect, language and reason, i.e. Jariki) can save us, so faith in Amithaba Buddha for enlightenment is the way.
The confusion comes in how we define our self. We have a habit of over-identifying ourselves as thinking beings with agency, will, and volition.
Amithaba Buddha and Pure Land Buddhism then is not about external salvation through worshiping the Buddha. But the Amithaba Buddha represents the intuitive part, that is already Buddha. Salvation or enlightenment comes through letting go of conscious control, the intellectual grasping for power, certainty and answers. Allowing our subconscious to do it’s thing.
To give you some idea of how much work it does, write your name down, then write your name with your other hand. Breathing, walking, speaking your native language are all handled by our subconscious; this is the ‘other power’, but it’s still a part of us.
It’s called Automaticity, the ability to do things without occupying the mind, allowing behaviour to become an automatic response pattern or habit.
There’s a bit ‘under the hood’, the subconscious that is working away without us noticing; we forget it and mistakenly think all that occurred is the product of intentional acts—ignoring the role of habit, instinct muscle memory, spontaneity.
Placing your faith in the ‘other’, the Amithaba Buddha, is to place trust in intuition. You’re trusting in the subconscious process, not the analytical mind that leads you astray.
Back to how we define ourselves. If we define our ‘self’ as the conscious part, the bit that plans and intends, what of our subconscious? Is that not part of ourselves as well?
Zen’s idea is about the self-power, and Pure Land is about other-power. I feel, it’s misleading. Each has elements of the opposite. In Pure Land, you are praying to that part of yourself that will one day see it,
In Zen, it’s the Wisdom beyond Discriminatory Thought from the Shobogenzo; It’s the subconscious. A ‘force of habit’, trusting in the other power by rigorous practice.
Enlightenment: You can’t find it by looking for it -You can’t find it by not looking for it.
My journey mirrors the above. To become happier, address my anxiety, depression, and insecurity, I had to do some work; I read many books, but I was getting exasperated after years, of suffering; desperate to find the solution.
At some point, I realised my suffering was due to my neediness for answers, a paradox. I studied to find answers to my suffering only to see my desperation for answers was the cause.
To trust the process or ‘other power’ is to accept that what you need to learn will find along the way, trust yourself, or perhaps another side to yourself to figure things out.
As an artists I learned its putting brush to canvas, pencil to paper. There is no other way.
The rest comes through serendipity. We’re subject to tide and wind on a sailboat, but we can still set a course. We can’t explain spontaneity, surprises, eureka moments, serendipity, but we can use them.
‘We think thinking is the way, but not thinking is also the way.’
Our lives a obsessed with a question, how to find success, happiness, enlightenment. we mistakenly think we can have it all figured out if we try hard enough.
That’s only partly true, intellectual understanding does matter; self-power has its place, a necessary presence. You can’t find purpose in a vacuum of isolation and detachment. But there is also other power. It’s the recognition that you’re not in control; you don’t have a lot of power.
This fault line of self-power vs other power runs through beliefs systems like Christianity, spiritual traditions like Buddhism, and in our days to day lives
Drop the pretence of control, be vulnerable and expose yourself to other powers through ideas, possibilities, mistakes, and fear. To meeting serendipity halfway.
Some choose to make this self-power/other power relationship between themselves and a deity. Additional power becomes personified as a god; the Greek and artist have their Muse. ‘My Muse is talking to me’ is a recognition of other power.
But I see the other power as the cosmos itself, including the subconscious that does a lot of the work—a more Zen, Taoist viewpoint. Fall back on the universe; it has its way of working; we can see it, learn it, use it. To swim with the current, not against it.
I see two skills here.
- The ability to grasp
- The ability to let go
Wisdom is to use each at the appropriate time.
Meeting the cosmos halfway. Meeting the other power with your self-power, just like a surfer on the ocean.
(Britannia reference. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Buddhism/Pure-Land#ref300401)