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Synergism And Monergism


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In Pure Land Buddhism there is much discussion (hopefully, often more than mere "discussion"!!) of the relationship between "self-power" and "Other Power", especially as it relates to the reception/realization/recognition of "grace" within the heart as the basis of "enlightenment/salvation".


The words "synergism" and "monergism" have been used............


This distinction between synergism and monergism may be described in this way: The mother cat when she carries her kittens from one place to another takes hold of the neck of each of her kittens. That is monergism because the kittens just let the mother carry them. In the case of monkeys, however, baby monkeys are carried on their mother's back; the baby monkey must cling to the mother's body by means of thier limbs or tails. So the mother is not doing the work alone; the baby monkeys too must do their part. The cat's way is monergism - the mother alone does the work; while the monkey's way is synergism - the two working together.


My own current "mentor" Thomas Merton has had this to say......


The innocence and purity of heart which belong to paradise are a complete emptiness of self in which all is the work of God, the free and unpredictable expression of His love, the work of grace. In the purity of original innocence, all is done in us but without us. But before we reach this level, we must also learn to work on the other level of "knowledge" where grace works in us but "not without us".


And also,


Really I do not feel myself in opposition with anyone or with any form of spirituality, because I no longer think in such terms at all: this spirituality is THE right kind, that is THE wrong kind, etc. Right sort and wrong sort: these are sources of delusion in the spiritual life and there precisely is where the Buddhists score, for they bypass all that. Neither this side of the stream nor on the other side: yet one must cross the stream and throw away the boat, before seeing that the stream wasn't there. I think that this is precisely where the Christian doctrine of grace gets you. If all is pure gift, then the idea of crossing a stream is of course a useful delusion. But there comes a time when one must see that one did nothing, one was and is a useless servant.......................


From my own perspective, it all seems a bit of a pseudo question, in as much for all intents and purposes we have to strive - or make the effort. I find it difficult to entertain the notion of sitting down for the duration and just "waiting" for grace with an empty mind! Yet our "attitude", our "outlook" towards this whole question seems to be important to me, how such pervades our total orientation towards our path. Just how useful is the eventual useless servant?


How do others here relate to these questions? What is our contribution to "grace", if any?


P.S. I have further quotes to give, yet perhaps enough for now! (Sighs of relief all round!!). Just one very short one from the pen of a Pure Land "saint" Saichi, a cobbler by trade......


"O! Saichi! Will you tell us of Other Power?

Yes, but there is neither Other Power nor self-power.

What is, is the graceful acceptance only."

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Great quotes - thanks! I especially love the last poem. :P That is very much where I am now - not much energy for discussion or picking apart theories.... it just is. God just is. I used to be more of a thinker - I guess I'm moving into an experiencial phase!!! It's much calmer. :rolleyes:

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Nicely drawn parallel, tariki. That frames Grace very well for me. And it does beg the question of wills and powers. My will or Thy will. By whose Grace do we live? Our own or God's? If we have free will, is it merely for the purpose of coming to God's will by our own freedom (no mere thing, actually) or does our free will have a greater purpose? A synergistic purpose perhaps...


Glad to live the questions with you, friend! Perhaps one day we'll even live an answer or two! Then again, perhaps not... (tee hee hee hee!)

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I have a vivid memory from 27 years ago when I picked up my older daughter and realized she was holding on to me for the first time. The prior 5 months it always had been completely up to me to carry her. The novelty of this new relationship was enough to make a permanent memory.


It's too bad that our role in letting God handle our life for us completely vs. our doing our part is not so tangible. What do we do that fights God? What do we do that helps Him? It seems that we can drive Him off completely, at least for a while, while He waits for us to hit bottom. Before I started Al-Anon when I was 40, I didn't think like that. I suppose I had heard the idea before this that addicts or others have to hit bottom before they can be helped. Surely that had nothing to do with me!


But maybe it is a general feature of our lives. It's very natural for us to go through life thinking we are in charge of everything, guilty of anything that goes wrong, author of anything that goes right. Our culture is very much like that even with religious subcultures that say otherwise, either from a Judeo-Christian perspective or an Asian one.


The main slogan of Al-Anon is "Let go and let God". Everyone talks about their difficulties in understanding exactly how to do that, but necessity is a good teacher. So I learned the steps and to pray for God's help. That was never absolute. I'd still try to tell someone who is counting on God to pay the rent that that is going too far. But within the limits of living in a physical world, one can just give up and let God take over my life. I had some faith before this, but this was the first time I ever learned to use my faith.


Then what? There are other images besides whatever one attaches to "Let go and let God". I've had occasion to remember the scene from the Odyssey when Menelaus holds the god Proteus by the throat as Proteus changes through a number of forms to try to escape. Menelaus knows not to let Him go, as he needs something from Proteus that Proteus isn't just handing out for nothing. So Menelaus gets what he needs through his knowledge and determination.


Now what is that analogous to? I can't imagine finding words that do that justice, but once one has been a helpless baby with God, one can find that there is a place for me to act as well. Spirituality is a cooperative effort. It's not about my being a plant. Nor am I the great hunter while God is merely prey. I don't think there's any way to be wise about that except by interacting with God.


I'm sure my daughter doesn't remember when she first hung on to me, to contribute to my carrying her. I can't plot a course saying that here 10% of my life was me and 90% was God or vice versa, while there it was 50:50. These are not things that can be quantified in reality. It is best simply to understand that spirituality is a cooperative effort. Expecting God to do everything forever is missing something. Yet to expect to do anything well without God at all is folly. I wish I could prove that, but this is not a tangible thing, not something to be measured or quantified. I didn't have to grab God by the throat to get Him to teach me this, but it seems that there were a few things where I did, certain places where I deviate from any tradition and just didn't like that at all. I didn't like not getting a straight story from God and told Him so. Somehow we worked that out. I don't remember it well. God tells me He doesn't either. That's one reason there isn't a straight story that explains everything. Who can tell it?

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Thank you, fatherman. I wish there were a version of the Footprints in the Sand story that allows for the possibility for occasions when humans carry God. I feel the most sure about that in terms of helping the needy. If you read Matthew 25: 31-46 and consider the possibilities for why it's true that to help the needy is to help Jesus, some possibilities would be that it's not merely as valuable to help the needy as to help God, but that Jesus is indeed in the needy in some sense, sharing their suffering, needing the help of others.


I first broke from the traditional view of God as a teenager, prefering science to Genesis, but with also some sense that an omnipotent, omniscient God doesn't make sense with the world around us. Later I came to realize that some of the oversimplifications of the traditional God mask the benefits that come from seeing Him as less than absolute in power, knowledge, love, and goodness. By being less than the traditional God in such attributes, the real God may be more than the traditional God in other ways. The traditional God needs no help from anyone. He chooses to let human beings act for whatever reason, but He doesn't need them to do anything.


What if that's not right? What if God needs something more from us than just our choice to have fellowship with Him or be obedient to Him or whatever choice humans need to make? Does He need us to help the needy? Does He need us to help Him as He exists within the needy? Does He need us to participate in our relationship with Him beyond a single choice? Tradition says no, that whatever is good about such things is just relative to bad things we might do instead. It doesn't mean that much.


Instead I get the impression that it matters a lot what I am willing to do for God. I see a world full of strife and poverty. I see a church full of hypocrisy and fantasy. If all of this is up to God, I don't get it. But I can see human failings, human nature as explaining all the evil in the world, with no need for supernatural evil. So if humans aren't trying the right way, then I can understand. Not that humans aren't trying a lot, it's that we mostly follow ourselves in what we do, even when we give lipservice to God or some higher principle.


People haven't been using the real God that much. That's my understanding of the problem of evil. And maybe part of the reason for that is we don't understand just how much of a cooperative effort spirituality is. Maybe here and there or maybe every moment of everyday, we need to carry God as He carries us. That doesn't make physical sense, but this isn't physics. It's more like what Paul wrote about the Spirit living in him, and he in the Spirit. Paul had to give of himself to provide the Spirit with a place to live in him, yet the Spirit gave to Paul in the process of Paul living in the Spirit. Even if one just sticks to the Bible, I think this is a problem for traditionalists who say that humans have nothing to add to God in anything. My experience is that it has mattered a great deal what I was willing to do, what I chose to do, what I insisted on doing with God, for God and for myself.


The greatest love isn't a distant, unconditional love, but an interdependency where the love of both parties feeds the other, also unconditional, but a very different picture from traditional theology.

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Great quotes - thanks! I especially love the last poem. :P That is very much where I am now - not much energy for discussion or picking apart theories.... it just is. God just is. I used to be more of a thinker - I guess I'm moving into an experiencial phase!!! It's much calmer. :rolleyes:




Not too sure exactly what "phase" I'm in (!!!) But I too love the verses of Saichi. Here is another you may like..........


Nothing is left to Saichi,

Except a joyful heart nothing is left to him.

Neither good nor bad has he, all is taken away from him;

Nothing is left to him!

To have nothing - how completely satisfying!



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Thanks for your posts. Its only as personal experience that anything takes shape and gives meaning to any set of questions. Personally I cannot "believe" in any form of Reality-as-is that would seek to have us conform to a particular "orthodoxy", and even if our own thoughts/ideas are wayward at times, when the touchstone is mercy and grace - rather than judgement and sacrifice - then perhaps we can be allowed just a little leeway!


I said in my opening post.....


Yet our "attitude", our "outlook" towards this whole question seems to be important to me, how such pervades our total orientation towards our path.


I think this itself relates to the purpose of religion, as understood within Pure Land Buddhism - and I believe, as understood within the Christian faith. That religion is, and becomes, the way to express gratitude for the compassion that supports all our life. When our effort is understood in such a light, it takes on a different colour to an effort directed at "gaining/earning" salvation, a means of self-justification - which ultimately can only issue in our own judgement of those who fall short of our own effort!!


I did promise (or was it a threat!?) further quotes. Here are some words of the Pure Land writer Taitetsu Unno on this question.....


While self-power is identified with the difficult path of Sages and Other-Power with the easy path of Pure Land, our concern is with the existence of self-power within Other-Power. That is, self-power is the natural inclination to assert the power of the ego-self to reach a goal, but it is necessary to realize that ultimately it is ineffectual and fruitless on the path of supreme enlightenment. Yet at the same time, it is a necessary stage on the path where self-power is also appreciated, in reflection, as the working of Other Power


And I think Thomas Merton captures the paradox of the journey/path "to" God.....


In one sense we are always travelling,

Travelling as if we did not know where we were going,

In another sense we have already arrived.

We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life:

That is why we are travelling and in darkness.

But we already possess God by grace.

Therefore, in that sense, we have arrived and

Are dwelling in the light.

But oh! How far have I to go to find You

In Whom I have already arrived!


Once again, it is the recognition that "True Compassion always embraces us, never to abandon us" (to use Pure Land imagery) which soaks into the "effort", into the journey, which gives it its true tone and orientation. At least, this is how I see it and understand it......may even experience it at times!




Faith does not arise

Within oneself.

The Entrusting Heart is itself

Given by the Other Power (Rennyo)

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Wonderful quotes Tariki! I do like that poem!


Thanks for the imagery David - I remember those interactive moments too - both with my babies and with God. Thanks for the reminder!


Yay - so happy this site is getting back on track!!! :P :P :P

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