Recently, while studying Japanese yojijukugo on JPod101, I heard a very interesting and all-too-familiar phrase: tarikihongan (他力本願), which means to get by while relying on others. This has a somewhat negative context, but the Buddhist origins behind this phrase mean something different. This is another one of those interesting examples of Buddhist terms becoming common phrases in Japanese, but with an altered meaning.
The term tariki (他力) just means “other power”, or “other strength”, whatever. It’s very, very frequently used in Pure Land Buddhism (e.g. Jodo Shu, Jodo Shinshu, etc) to describe how one obtains rebirth in the Pure Land not through one’s own efforts, but through Amitabha Buddha’s power. This is seen as ensuring that even people who fall short do not fail to be reborn there as opposed to a mark of laziness. In other words, no Buddhist is left behind.
Meanwhile, the term hongan means “Original Vow” or “Original Promise” refers to the 48 vows made by Amitabha Buddha in the Immeasurable Life Sutra, particularly Vow number 18:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.
Here, the Buddha states how he offers rebirth into the Pure Land if they even do so little as to trust him, and recite his name 10 times. If this were not true, he would not attain Enlightenment and be a Buddha. But of course, Amitabha is a Buddha, so the Vow is sound, and this is called the Original Vow due to his its broad implications.
Now many Westerners who come to this find it either absurd, or a deviation from original Buddhist teachings. They may smiled and tolerate Pure Land Buddhism, or may outright criticize it as just being lazy (like the phrase in common vernacular). You might even refutations of Pure Land Buddhism in such Buddhist sutras as the Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16), which contains the famous line (taken out of context):1
“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.
While simultaneous overlooking another sutra in the same Pali Canon, the Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2):
As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”
“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.
Thus the Buddha is teaching that one cannot find a lasting refuge in this world, but one cannot go it alone either and tough it out. We depend on one another and so we must seek help at times. This rubs against our pride but it is true. Our clothes, food, transportation and so on are through efforts of others, so why should the Buddhist path be any different?
When one lets go of pride, of ego, and just accepts the teachings as a new student, they can be assured that will be grasped and not abandoned, even if they backslide. As the famous monk Honen stated in his One-Sheet Document:
Even if those who believe in the nembutsu study the teaching which Shakyamuni taught his whole life, they should not put on any airs and should sincerely practice the nembutsu, just as an illiterate fool, a nun or one who is ignorant of Buddhism.
So, there’s no shame in relying on the Buddha’s teachings, the Buddha’s magnetism or the Buddha’s power. I believe it is an act of piety, and in keeping with the Buddha’s intention that no one be left behind.
Namu Amida Butsu
1 For the curious, the rest of the passage is:
“And how, Ananda, is a bhikkhu an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge?
“When he dwells contemplating the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world; when he dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, the mind in the mind, and mental objects in mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; having the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge.
The key here I believe is accepting that there is no lasting refuge in this world.