Who around here couldn’t use some support? So I wanted to say a bit more about the different levels on which we can help others, following on from this article about the swamp of samsara.
The way I see it is that we need to do stuff everyday, anyway, and — whatever it is we do — why not make it really count by doing it motivated by renunciation for the suffering yet unreal nature of samsara? (Our motivations determine the outcome of our actions, or karma.)
With renunciation like this, we won’t get heavy-hearted or anxious. Why? Because we have given up on our attachment to things working out in this swamp of samsara, and therefore each day we have nothing to lose. We just need to try, not worry. This swamp may have a shallow end, where people can stand, and a deep end, where people are drowning; but it is all basically swampish. Luckily, this swamp is also just mere imputation or label of mind, which means that when we transform our minds through wisdom, it will disappear, Poof!, like last night’s dream.
So, with renunciation on others’ behalf (aka compassion), we can help in whatever way we think of, on different levels. Nothing is too small or too trivial – any more than helping someone to tread an inch to the right, avoid the snapping teeth, or find a stepping stone is trivial if they are scared or drowning. It is not the final answer to this person’s problems, but it is still important to them and therefore to us. In the same way, we can give people the necessities of food, shelter, medicine, & protection, work toward a fairer and more humane society, and so on.
The six perfections
The Bodhisattva is the Mahayana Buddhist role model, and a better role model would be hard to find.
He or she trains in the so-called “six perfections” – giving, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration/meditation, and wisdom.
These six practices are called “perfections” because they are motivated by the mind of enlightenment, aka bodhichitta, which is the wish to realize our potential for enlightenment so that we can lead all living beings without exception to that state of lasting happiness.
In other words, we want to wake ourselves up from the hallucinations of samsara, become an “Awakened One” aka “Buddha”, so that we can go about waking everyone else up too.
The Bodhisattva’s aim is therefore two-fold: (1) to help others as much as possible both practically and spiritually right now, and (2) to get daily closer to the inner light of omniscience, with its power to bless each and every being every day, so we can free them all for good.
The first three perfections, largely applicable to our daily actions, lend themselves to helping people navigate their way to safety, to the shallow end as it were; albeit still submerged for now in the swamp of samsara. All the while we can be motivated by the wish to get them onto the dry land of liberation, where they are forever safe from suffering.
Giving (or, really, giving back) includes giving material things AND giving Dharma teachings or advice. We can help people at work — and with our work — in any way that seems suitable, sometimes with material help to improve individual or societal well being, and sometimes with non-judgmental skillful advice that people can use to transform their thoughts.
Buddha’s teachings are divided into wisdom teachings, which are basically his teachings on emptiness, and method teachings, which are basically everything else. We can start using both to help others.
For example, with Buddha’s advice on interdependence, we can show how we could all better navigate this swamp by mending our fractured society of small, selfish, isolated Me’s by joining up in caring, cooperative, connected teams of We instead.
Or we could explain how not to mistake other people for their delusions, but see them as victims of their confusion and anger etc., just as we are, and so stay loving and patient.
We could also encourage people to witness and take refuge in their own and others’ good hearts and pure, peaceful minds. Knowing that we all have immense spiritual depth and potential, we can help others identify with that rather than their false, limited, suffering sense of self.
We can demonstrate with our own example how changing direction to go inwards for peace is not a selfish escape, but paradoxically connecting us more more and more deeply with everyone else “out there”.
It seems to me as though the method teachings are the way to get people to the shallow end of samsara’s vast swamp, where they at least have their heads above water. But the only way to lift them out of the swamp altogether is with Buddha’s wisdom teachings. As Buddha Maitreya puts it:
Because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure.
All the time we are practicing giving and the other perfections, we know in our heart that we are trying to get people to a place where they can realize it is all just the impure dream of an impure mind. This way, they can wake up and create a world of their own choosing out of the bliss and emptiness of their own purified mind. And then they can pull everyone out onto dry land as well.
By the way, we don’t have to sit on a throne to give good advice. We don’t have to be a Dharma millionaire yet, either, as Geshe Kelsang once put it – we just need a few spare dollars in our pocket. Any Dharma we have, we can give, and we will never run out. We don’t have to use Dharma terminology, of course. We can use the language that works for whoever we are talking to. We can use the language of the heart.
We can also give fearlessness, time, attention, and love. Even — or sometimes especially — our practice of meditation is giving others fearlessness and love, holding the space for them. There is a beautiful video that seems to demonstrate this … check out the brief footage of our Kadampa nun in Mexico 😊
And I think we can do all this giving without judgment, as explained for example in this article about giving unconditionally to homeless people, though that might be a subject for another day.
We are really learning to give of ourselves, to let go of keeping ourselves to ourselves, staying small and poky. Giving is a big beautiful shining open-hearted practice that brings real joy to our own and others’ lives.
More on the other perfections and related practical advice in the next article …