I have always had an issue with the term Other-Power. It is a trigger word for many newcomers and me to Buddhism. Other-Power sounds suspiciously close to Higher-Power. In America, Other-Power is often confused with the Christian concept of God. I still struggle to remember that Other-Power is not an external force or Being but rather a way of thinking. It is a new way of understanding and appreciating one’s life differently.
In America, this is very challenging to discuss because of two issues. First, we like the idea of autonomy and self-determination. Second, we don’t have the language to articulate this idea adequately. If we don’t have complete free will, then we conclude that our lives are in complete chaos or that everything is predestined. In other words, if the events in my life are not entirely under my control, they must be due to some external power.
We especially dislike thinking about random chance. This is reflected in the synonyms for “random” – arbitrary, haphazard, accidental, purposeless, and driftless. But I think the word “random” is getting a bad rap. Random merely means it is too hard to figure out the outcome beforehand. There are merely too many causes for us to be able to determine the outcome. In mathematical terms, there are too many variables and not enough equations. Or, in plain English, there are too many unknowns. But the result is still determined once the die has been cast; we just don’t know what it will be.
I want to give you a personal example. I grew up in Westchester, and we moved to Torrance when I was ten. Then I went to UCLA for college. Once I graduated, I started looking for a computer programmer job. I used a headhunter, and she sent me to a small company in Costa Mesa. I took the job and moved south. I found an apartment in Costa Mesa to be close to work. I also joined a gym but didn’t realize it was males-only on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday and females-only Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. So, I switched to a co-ed gym on Harbor and Adams.
While this was all going on, unbeknownst to me, there was a girl living near Youngstown, Ohio. She wanted to be a dental hygienist. After high school, she went to Youngstown State to do so. She also wanted to move to California. She wanted to live in the sun and experience the Southern California lifestyle. She, too, began looking for a job and found one in Costa Mesa. She got in her car and drove to her new apartment in Costa Mesa. She liked to exercise and do aerobics, so she joined the gym at Harbor and Adams.
One day I went to the gym and rode the lifecycle. I made sure I sat with an open seat on either side of me so I could perhaps meet someone new. I looked left and right, and each seat was open. Then I looked left again, and a blond woman sat beside me. Her name was Linda. She invited me to an aerobics class, and it almost killed me. I have never been so sore. I invited her to tennis and evened the score. On June 25, 2022, we just celebrated our 34th wedding anniversary.
She and I made several key decisions in this story, but they are dwarfed by happenstance. Maybe that is a good word? It was “happenstance” that brought us together. We were open to it and seeking it, but the odds of us meeting is astronomically small. It is quite amazing when we think about it in this way. I didn’t pick my wife so much; rather, she was randomly presented to me.
This is the Other-Power of it all. Thinking about it this way leads to a life of gratitude, appreciating all the causes and conditions working to create my destiny. This also puts a check on our ego whenever we try to take too much credit for our successes. We can also breathe easily when we realize that not everything is our responsibility.
We often think in this way. To preserve our imagined control of life, we blame ourselves or feel guilty whenever things don’t go as planned. If only we had done more or something different, then we could have avoided the potholes of our lives. Or if we knew then what we know now, then we could have made different choices. Yes, this is true. In 1984, if I knew that Apple stock would skyrocket, I would have bought stock as soon as the first MAC came out. But this is silly because no one knew that.
So, feel very lucky for all you have received. Shed the guilt and sorrow of what might have been. Moving forward, you may now turn off the mind that is always calculating. It doesn’t work for dice, and it certainly doesn’t work for your life.
In his new book, Tunneling for Sunshine, Gregg Krech illustrates Other-Power in this way,
Too often we approach life as if it were a chess game.
Our first mistake is assuming life is an opponent — something to be defeated or conquered.
Our second mistake occurs when it’s our move. We try to anticipate a whole string of moves. I’ll do this, and then life will do this, and then I’ll do that, and life will respond by doing that. We create a mental map which ends in our winning — winning being defined as we get the outcome we desire.
But then life doesn’t respond the way we expected. And that leaves us frustrated and disappointed. And exhausted, mentally and emotionally.
Now we need a new strategy. What if we give up on the chess game altogether and just danced with life?
Rev. Jon Turner