1. How do we differentiate between self-care, self-help and self-power?
a. Isn't it important to do our best to look after our health to respect the gift of life and to prevent the burden of our care falling to others?
b. If learning self-help techniques can help us to function better in the world for the benefit of others as well as ourselves, isn’t this a helpful practice, albeit secondary to reciting the nembutsu?
c. How is self-power different and why is that discouraged?
LONG ANSWER: Self-power refers ultimately to believing that one is one's own god. Self-power locates the source and locus of spiritual salvation within oneself. Other Power designates the attitude to spirituality that relies upon a grace coming from outside of oneself to effect salvation. In everyday terms, such grace may take many forms - there are innumerable things to be grateful for - but especially the inspiration that we receive through being close to or associated with wise and compassionate teachers as well as to that which we receive through angelic means such as visions and dreams.
Other Power inspires us to live good and noble lives and gives us a confidence that "all is assured" which is to say that we do not have to generate the outcomes directly by our own power. We can trust that whatever good we do will, in the great scheme of the universe, yield good outcomes somewhere somehow. If we rely upon self-power we feel hesitant, wondering if we can guarantee the results we intend or desire, but if we rely upon Other Power we do not hesitate because it is all in hands much more powerful and competent than our own.
Nonetheless, in order to carry out any such inspiration, we need to keep ourselves in good shape. We need to eat when hungry, sleep when tires, take medicine when ill, exercise and so on. Self-care therefore comes naturally. Of course, nowadays, people develop quite exaggerated ideas about their "needs" to the point where self-care soon becomes self-indulgence until it is actually unhealthy and certainly takes up much more time, money and energy than it warrants. That is a distortion.
Self-help is a term deriving originally from a book written in Victorian times by a man called Samuel Smiles. It was a rather reactionary book, suggesting that if people are poor it is because they do not make enough effort. It fits closely with the "positive thinking" movement which claims that everybody can win the same race if they just want to sincerely enough. On the one hand, there is a grain of truth in the idea that determination can aid accomplishment, but the claim is excessive. The result is that many people feel, unnecessarily, that that they are defeated by their inability to accomplish unrealistic goals in life.
Sensible measures toward self-improvement are, well, sensible! There is nothing in the idea of Other Power to suggest that one should not stop smoking or that there is anything wrong with learning a new skill or adopting a healthy habit. Just as a parent is happy to see the child develop, but still loves the child even if he is slow, so the Buddhas are always happy to see us grow but accept us completely as we are. What this understanding does is to dissolve our sense of guilt and failure.
Self-power generally involves a kind of perfectionism. It is better to be an industrious imperfectionist, than a hesitant perfectionist. No matter how much self-help we undertake, there will always be some things that we simply have to accept. From a self-power point of view, that is failure. From an Other Power point of view it is realism and a basis for gratitude that even we, such as we are, are so blessed.
Permission not to be perfect has been a great liberation. Developing kindness to oneself, just as one is and where one is provides support and encouragement to live a noble life.