T’an-luan, the Chinese monk acknowledged as the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, was not the first to use the terms t’o-li (J. tariki) and tzu-li (J. jiriki), but I believe he was the first to suggest that “other-power” was superior to “self-power.”
The origins of Pure Land (Sukhavati) are obscure. The Pure Land sutras were transmitted to China from India in the 2nd century, so it had existed in Indian Buddhism for some time prior to that. One theory that I have always leaned toward is that Pure Land has its roots in Persian Sun-God worship.
T’an-luan was active during the 5th to 6th centuries, a time when the notion of the “degenerate age” or Mappo, the Latter Day of the Law, was gaining prominence. Essentially the theory behind this is that people have become so defiled it is impossible for them to save themselves through their own efforts, hence, they must rely on faith in outside or “other-power.” The object of this faith is found in the imaginary Buddha, Amitabha. Believers entrust themselves to the saving power of Amitabha and are taught that if they meditate upon him or chant his name, after they die they can be reborn in the Western Paradise that lies beyond the setting sun.
Pure Land is also called the “Easy Path,” and Nagarjuna is cited as the source of this designation. In the Shastra on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages, he says
In the Easy Path . . . one calls the names of the Buddhas, practicing a denial of attachment to self through reliance upon the compassion of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and through desire for birth in a realm of purity, where all defiled karma of attachment is transformed into corresponding good through the operation of Emptiness. Included in this path are the Name and the Vow of Amida Buddha.
The authenticity of this work is questionable, although most scholars agree it is “Nagarjunian.” Regardless, it has traditionally provided a major endorsement for what Roger Corless in “The Enduring Significance of T’an-luan” describes as a practice based on the “power of pure mind, manifested in Amita Buddha, [that] is so great that we can trust it to work in us, we do not have to struggle and claw our way up the mountain of the Bodhisattva levels, as the Mahayana normally instructs.”
However, the historical Buddha did not offer teachings that even slightly resemble other-power. Indeed, he was rather critical of spiritual practices that depended upon faith in supernatural beings. He did not direct his followers attention to any higher, holier beings or forces, instead, he called upon them to look within themselves, to be “a lamp unto yourself” and in this respect, the Buddha’s teachings fall under the category of “self-power”. [I really prefer to use “inner-power”.]
Corless notes further: “T’an-luan offers a comprehensive program of practice, involving the whole person in body, speech, and mind. Later Pure Land Buddhism, especially in Japan, not only concentrated on a single practice, that of invoking the name of Amita Buddha (nembutsu), it restricted itself to it.”
Here then is one of the chief reasons for Pure Land’s enduring popularity. Worldwide, more people practice this form of Buddhism than any other. It’s simple, and easy, but perhaps not in the way that Nagarjuna meant. Anyone can chant “Namo Omito-Fo” (Chinese) or “Namu Amita-Butsu” (Japanese). Imagine how this must have appealed to peasants of the feudal era who worked from sun-up to sundown seven days a week and who did not have time to sit in meditation for long periods and lacked the literacy required to be able to read the sutras and commentaries. It is said that chanting the name of Amitabha even a single time with sincerity is enough to cause rebirth in the Pure Land.
While, in general, I am respectful of Pure Land, and I even admire the find tradition of scholarship found in the Japanese schools, at the same I must admit that I prejudiced against this approach. I’m sure it has something to do with my long involvement in the Nichiren tradition. In fact, one of the first things I read by Nichiren was a writing entitled “On Attaining Buddhahood,” in which he states,
You must never seek any of Shakyamuni’s teachings or the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the universe outside yourself. Your mastery of the Buddhist teachings will not relieve you of mortal sufferings in the least unless you perceive the nature of your own life. If you seek enlightenment outside yourself, any discipline or good deed will be meaningless. For example, a poor man cannot earn a penny just by counting his neighbor’s wealth, even if he does so night and day . . .
. . . if the minds of the people are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds.
The only problem is that Nichiren didn’t write it. The work was composed by followers some centuries later, in an attempt to put Nichiren doctrine in line with original enlightenment (hongaku) thought. Nonetheless, it’s a good take. For his part, Nichiren hated Pure Land Buddhism for a variety of reasons, but his own dharma, minus the spin put on it by later disciples, is virtually the same thing, other-power, only in place of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, there is Shakyamuni, the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra.
In Japan, Pure Land evolved from the Tendai school. Leading figures in this movement such as Honen and Shinran fashioned convoluted theories around the notion of other-power. Shinran taught that living beings can be released from suffering only through the saving power of an outside force, which he called shinjin or “faith in mind,” as opposed to kanjin, “observing the mind,” one of the guiding principles of Tendai’s mother school, Chinese T’ien-t’ai.
Because the Buddha did not teach tariki or other power, it is difficult to reconcile this concept with his core teachings. Certainly, today we practice many things that were not included in the Buddha’s direct teachings, yet the barometer, for me, is how close they conform to the spirit of Buddha-dharma, and other-power has always seemed out of shape.
Some will say that there is no tariki or jiriki, or that they are one in the same. This position is possible in some tantric situations, but here we are dealing with something else. In my experience most Pure Land practitioners, whether they be Chinese or Japanese or any other nationality, literally do believe in Amitabha, that he is real, and that their faith in his power will save them.
In Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell gave a very good, and perhaps definitive, explanation of the differences between “other-power” and “own-power”:
In India two amusing figures are used to characterize the two principal types of religious attitude. One is “the way of the kitten”; the other, “the way of the monkey.” When a kitten cries “Miaow,” its mother, coming, takes it by the scruff and carries it to safety; but as anyone who has ever traveled in India will have observed, when a band of monkeys come scampering down from a tree and across the road, the babies riding on their mothers’ backs are hanging on by themselves. Accordingly, with reference to the two attitudes: the first is that of the person who prays, “O Lord, O Lord, come save me!” and the second of one who, without such prayers or cries, goes to work on himself. In Japan the same two are known as tariki, “outside strength,” or “power from without,” and jiriki, “own strength,” “effort or power from within.” And in the Buddhism of that country these radically contrasting approaches to the achievement of enlightenment are represented accordingly in two apparently contrary types of religious life and thought.
The first and more popular of these two is that of the Jodo and Shinshu sects, where a transcendental, completely mythical Buddha known in Sanskrit as Amitabha, “Illimitable Radiance” — also, Amitayus, “Unending Life” — and in Japanese as Amida, is called upon to bestow release from rebirth — as is Christ, in Christian worship, to bestow redemption. Jiriki, on the other hand, [is] the way of self-help, own-doing, inner energy, which neither begs nor expects aid from any deity or Buddha, but works on its own to achieve what is to be achieved . . .