Monday 18 March 2024

Self Power & Other Power

"Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!"

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

In thirteenth century Japan, the influential Buddhist teacher Shinran pointed to the distinction between 'self power' and 'other power'.

While some versions of Buddhism emphasise the necessity of constant self-discipline, Shinran's 'True Pure Land' school taught that the way to enlightenment is not by our own efforts, but through faith in Amitabha Buddha. For Shinran, the power of the Buddha is infinitely beyond human capacities, but it is not distant from us - the Buddha nature is present within every person.

Modern Quaker culture places a strong emphasis on what Shinran would have called 'self power' - political activism, the effort to embody ethical values in our daily lives, and the conscientious performance of social responsibilities. The Quaker Way is often presented as if it consists purely of a set of commitments to ethical ideals.

Perhaps surprisingly, the original Quaker inspiration was strongly focussed on 'other power'. It was faith in the Inward Guide, rather than their own efforts, that early Friends relied on to guide their lives and to endure suffering and persecution. This Inward Guide, Teacher, Light or Christ was understood as something apart from our own resources: it was the presence and activity of God within each person.

The practice of early Quakers was to pay attention to this source of light and life within themselves; to 'stand still in the Light', and to allow themselves to be guided by it. The Quaker Way was not a set of values to try to live up to. It was a commitment to being guided by a divine presence, within their own experience but beyond their power to fully understand or to control.

'Self power' plays a crucial role in daily life. There are many things that we can and should make an effort to do, to support our well-being and that of others. Healthy disciplines and choices that are consistent with our considered values are essential to create and maintain a sound container for our lives. We need to develop enough resilience to negotiate a path through the world and to follow through on our commitments and leadings. But sooner or later we all reach the limits of our own resources. When suffering overwhelms us, 'self power' will not save us. In grief, sickness and fear we become aware of the primal longing for help in our need and distress. This is the condition described in memorable terms by William James:

"To suggest personal will and effort to one all sicklied o'er with the sense of irremediable impotence is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all such helpless failures in the end."

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Then the challenge is to avoid the temptation to despair or to put ourselves in the hands of external authority. We need to 'stand still in the Light', with the faith that this Inward Light can show us the way out of our darkness and bring us to new life.

This Inward Guide is the source of the 'other power' that has always been available to everyone, from 13th Century Japan to 17th Century England and just as much today. When we are at the end of our own strength, we are not alone. 

How have you experienced the guidance or support of the Inward Light when you most needed it?

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"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)