There are generally two modes of salvation in the major world religions: the way of works, salvation through one’s own efforts; or by grace, salvation given by a god or divine reality. Differences lie in the conception of divine reality affecting the way of works or grace.
In the Buddhist Pure Land tradition, this is the distinction of self-power and other-power. In Hinduism the distinction is known as the cat and monkey ways of salvation. The baby monkey clinging to the back of its mother depicts the way of self-striving, while the mother cat carrying the kitten by the nape of the neck portrays other-power salvation. According to this distinction, salvation is either earned or given.
In the American or Western tradition, however, we often hear people say that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, an expression of the extreme individualism in our culture. There is emphasis on independence, self-reliance, competition and continual striving. Success has been transformed into salvation.
But none of us lives in isolation. We are born into community, given our language and way of thinking. Even in the worst conditions, someone has to nurture the infant or it cannot survive. If we succeed in some effort, it is probably because we have had support and encouragement from family, friends or teachers. Our civilization requires a high degree of cooperation to maintain our standard of living, however hard we work. But hard work bears fruit only when it is integrated within a community.
Our current problems in society sprout from a spiritual crisis more than an economic or political crisis. They could be resolved more effectively if there was a greater sense of our interdependence. There can be no healthy community when there are deep social divisions. Commitment to the welfare of the whole community must take priority in the clash of differences in any area.
Our concerns must transcend the narrow limits of one nation, religion or culture. The individualistic images we promote during periods of prosperity cannot sustain us in crisis and disaster. We have reached the point in human history when we must recognize that the community is better served by depending not on ourselves, but on other-power and grace. We are truly kittens in the larger scheme of reality. Or should I say pussycats?
Alfred Bloom is a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Hawaii.