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Buddhadharma : Summer 2006
summer 2006| 48 |buddhadharma It is hard to disagree with the idea that the way of the Buddha is to help others. If we help others, we get beyond carving out a space in which we can comfortably nest. Helping others challenges our tendency to zone out on a comfort binge of food, clothing, shelter, companionship, meditation – you name it. What could be better for promoting liberation and enlightenment than extending ourselves to others? And yet there could be big problems. Being helpful can be very unhelpful. Much of what passes for help is really hindrance, as in, “Honey, I was just trying to help.” For one thing, we can comfortably delude ourselves into thinking we are a big help, and out of a desire to alleviate the pain we feel in the presence of someone else’s pain, give them exactly the Band-Aid they don’t need. Our predilection for creating situations in which we are the boss can also be very deeply ingrained. I, like so many parents, realize now there were countless times I thought I “helped” my children (and patted myself on the back for doing so) when in fact I was cleverly constructing ways to make myself feel better about being a father and mold my children into something that made me happy. I appeared, heroically, to leave my comfort zone, when really I was feathering my nest. This mode of “helping” can be fostered within the family and then exported way beyond the family unit. It’s called Big Nurse. Another obstacle to real helping can be a lack of skill. Doctors frequently advise people who don’t have first-aid knowledge to avoid doing too much to help someone who is injured. Unless you have the skill to handle someone with an injured spine, for example, you can worsen that person’s condition for life. Good intention does not automatically lead to genuine help. Should we just help others without any thought of the actual outcome, so long as it is well-meaning? Meditation is a means to be kind to ourselves, so that we can be kind to others. It also strips back the layers of self-delusion that sabotage so many of our efforts to reach out to others. The Buddha first sat under the bodhi tree, and then, as others’ needs came to his attention, he acted. But, as several threads of the discussion in this forum indicate, the notion that we have to attain wisdom before we can help can be another big trap – a trap that many people feel our Western Buddhist communities have fallen into. Being committed to helping ourselves first, so that we may be capable of helping others, could lead us to hesitate when we should leap, to be caught in a web of casuistry – endlessly wringing our hands over when it is appropri- ate and not appropriate to help. That is why Thich Nhat Hanh first waved the banner of Engaged Buddhism, to rouse Buddhist practitioners off of a complacent seat on a cushion. Our panelists are all longtime practitioners who have found many ways to offer help to the world at large, and they have also learned that the path does not necessarily have to begin with meditation. It could begin with helping – which may become augmented by meditation or even become a form of meditation. The panelists offer a broad vision for our Buddhist com- munities and lots of practical advice about how to be genuinely helpful and work with the interplay between formal practice and engagement. They have also seen how the act of helping can generate profound, intense insight, as we are forced to deal with the fuzzy boundary between self and other – what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” Bodhisattvas vow to help others achieve enlightenment before they achieve enlightenment themselves, making them amateurs by profession, bumbling and stumbling along, making mistakes. Inevitably, for the would-be bodhisattva, there are many sidetracks on the path of helping, but unless we commit ourselves to that path in the first place, real practice never begins. — Barry Boyce Robina CouRtin is a nun in the Gelukpa tRadition of tibetan buddhism. she is the diReCtoR of the libeRation pRison pRojeCt foR buddhist pRaCtitioneRs. Ryushin paul halleR is the abbot of the san fRanCisCo Zen CenteR. he teaChes buddhist ChaplainCy at the sati CenteR foR buddhist studies and is the ChaiR of the Zen hospiCe pRojeCt of san fRanCisCo. Roshi beRnie Glassman ReCently founded the maeZumi institute, a CenteR foR Zen studies and buddhist- inspiRed pRoGRams on peaCemakinG, the aRts, and soCial enteRpRise. he is also the Co-foundeR of Zen peaCemakeRs and the GReyston mandala. Forum: How Should I Help? The Relationship Between Social Engagement and Buddhist Practice Photos:(left)dennissmith;(right)Petercunninghamrajahornstein