QUESTION: Can you tell something more on the verse “Bring help and happiness to all other beings, and secretly take upon myself, all their harm and suffering” (The eight verses off Geshe Langri Thangpa in the Nien Fo book off Amida order): People say to me: I don’t want to take the harm and suffering off others on me, I can not bear this, it is not healthy to do this.

SHORT ANSWER: Buddhism is not about personal health.

LONG ANSWER: Of course, most people do not want to take on the suffering of others: most people are not bodhisattvas. Amida Buddha would happily take on our suffering if it would relieve us of it. When one loves somebody deeply and that beloved person is suffering, one naturally feels, "I wish I could take it upon myself and relieve them of it." To some extent we do all do this - we suffer with somebody and thereby give them some relief rather than leaving them to suffer alone. We do things that cost us time, money, health, energy and so on in order to help those we love. If a friend is in desperate straits, perhaps we give them some money - now they have what they need and we are worse off so we have taken some of their suffering onto ourselves. We might even arrange for them to get the money without them knowing where it came from. When one listens to another person talking about their distress, one takes some of it upon oneself and thus eases their burden. One could, of course, have just said "I don't want to hear about your problems - it is not good for me," but we don't. In the long run it is best for everybody that one is compassionate.

There is a story about a Buddhist hermit who was well regarded by everybody. One day a young woman in the village became pregnant. She did not want to say who the real father was, so she told people that it was the hermit who had seduced her. People went to see the hermit and told him what the woman had said. All the the hermit said was "Is that so?" The hermit's reputation was ruined. When the baby was born the parents of the girl brought the baby to the hermit and said, "This is your baby." The hermit said, "Is that so?" They left the baby with the hermit and the hermit looked after it. Eventually the girl could keep up the pretense no more and confessed the truth of the matter. The parents came to the hermit and apologised and said that he was not the father of the child. The hermit just said, "Is that so?" They took the baby away and the hermit got on with his life and practice. The story is probably apocryphal, but it illustrates an important principle. Sometimes good things befall us and sometimes bad ones. Sometimes we are understood and sometimes misunderstood. Sometimes other people dump their troubles upon us. Sometimes they take them away again. The bodhisattva does not defend himself at the expense of others. By taking on their suffering he brings peace into the world. This may not be apparent in the short run and he may be misunderstood, but he is not in it for himself. By doing so secretly, he does not take credit to himself.

The Eight Verses are not a text from the Pureland tradition. They are an important text in Tibetan Buddhism. There is a related practice called tonglen. Traditionally this is a practice of great compassion for others. As with almost every aspect of Buddhism, in the modern world many teachers have introduced a distortion into the practice by making compassion for oneself primary, but this was not the original form. The modern world is a culture of self-care and self-concern, but traditionally the bodhisattva ideal is one in which one abandons or renounces self and lives in the service of others. This is a challenging ideal. The most thorough text on this is the Guide To The Bodhisattva's Way of Life by Shantideva. It is a prayer to be able to be whatever it is that others really need. It is the ultimate in unselfishness.

In Pureland, we acknowledge these ideals, yet at the same time also acknowledge that as ordinary beings we often lack the courage, will power, compassion or understanding to fulfil them. We might like to be bodhisattvas, but we find that all too often we are primarily concerned with ourselves. We do not want to undertake anything that might be disadvantageous to ourselves or unhealthy for ourselves. Materialist and consumerist ideas have made selfishness into a virtue to such an extent that many people nowadays are completely blind to any other option and find teachings like these a shock. To the modern person it seems self evident not only that people do put themselves first but that they should do so. From the Buddhist perspective, however, this is a major mistake.

One of the big problems in the world at the moment, for instance, is the fact that people from rich countries do not want to help people from poor countries and do not want them to come into the rich countries because if they do the people in the rich country will have to take on some of the suffering of the poor immigrants. This is understandable, but it is not Buddhism.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thank you for those words. These teachings give me so much to think about the way I live and my relationship with my own faith.
Namo Amida Bu

Thanks Dharmavidya. I think there's a fine line between self care and self neglect and that they can both be as damaging as each other. With self care there is a risk of becoming over indulgent and narcissistic, but with self neglect there is a danger of becoming dependent on outside sources, such as people or institutions, to provide what we need but can't supply for ourselves. For me, self care is one of the safety buffers between myself and life threatening addiction and allows me to fulfill a need which supports psychological health and enables me to help others from a place of groundedness and sanity.  At the same time I can see that the main source of sustenance comes from Other Power, which enables me to see and engage in the middle way between these two potentially harmful behaviours. Namo Amida Bu(  :P.S. Hope all is well and your leg is better!(   :

Thank you Dharmavidya.  

I hope you are well and recovering from the recent leg injury.

Interesting story.  I find it hard to see myself in the role of the Buddhist hermit even though part of me admire him for the way he acted.  He seems to accept what was happening without much emotion, the good and bad, he took nothing personal. I would not have been able to act so dispassionately.  I can imagine having feelings of injustice (why has this happened, why do I need to look after this baby) and maybe after a period when one would grow close to the baby and give it up (difficult emotions about letting go of something you have come to love).  What is the role of emotions in the story as the hermit seem to have very little which makes it easier for him to accept his situation and later move on?  Maybe he is not attached to his emotions or take little notice of them?  Should we do the same?  This could be very close to suppressing or denying our emotions but with this approach sooner or later emotions will return.  I feel something missing from the story is how the hermit dealt with his thoughts and feelings arising from the situation which is something most human beings would experience.  As Pureland Buddhist my understanding is we are encouraged to be with our emotions in a tender and mindful way even when at times they feel overwhelming, we can let emotions be, not defend ourselves, know there is no need to justify our position and trust the whole experience has it's place and Amida's support will carry us?

I would appreciate your thoughts.


Yes, it is true that in the story we lack the internal process of the hermit. Did he think, now I shall look after this baby forever, or did he think, they will soon come to their senses and realise that this is ridiculous? My guess is that he judged that the girl would not be happy being unable to look after her baby herself and, knowing that he was not really the father, would not want him to be looking after it either. So there would actually be a high likelihood that it would work out as it did. If this is correct then what the hermit demonstrates is not so much a lack of emotion as keeping one's nerve in a tricky situation and making one's judgement on the basis of the long term rather than the immediate. When people are known to be virtuous, there is a temptation to other people to take advantage of them. The girl presumably thought she could take advantage of the hermit but did not expect that he would simply say, OK if it is my baby I'll look after it. In a way, he was calling her bluff, wasn't he? I think the story does tell us something about spiritual teaching. The teacher rarely gives instructions but acts in a way that makes other people face the reality of their lives. This is not particularly by being super clever, but is rather a natural result of not being in a defensive attitude to life. The hermit is not concerned about injustice to himself and so it is difficult to manipulate him.

He is a bit like the person who has nothing to lose. What you do or say to or about them no longer matters.

Yes. Nothing to lose, nothing to hanker after.

Thank you for this. Much easier to see that - e.g. - that our wealthy nation should be opening its doors to the growing number of those in desperate need at its door, than it is to behave in ways that really impact on my present freedoms, privileges. Motes and beams, as ever.

Andrew's point about self-neglect made me wonder if 'self responsibility' is a useful notion, in lieu of self care? Seems counter intuitive, but the heart's first intimations of Other Power, howsoever faltering, seem to throw me back precisely on my own responsibility to live this precious human life in an appropriate manner. 

Conversely, self neglect, for me, equates with an all-too-familiar species of self indulgence, and a loss of faith... a kind of 'What's the point?', falling back on habitual gloom.

Who was it said 'We tend to prefer the security of known misery, rather than risk the unknown misery of insecurity?'

Yes indeed. Levinas calls compassion 'The nexus of human subjectivity.' Meaning that in compassion the other becomes a subectivity totally in his own right but my nexus, somebody I cannot deny. And 'The supreme ethical principle.' He sees substitution: Taking the place of the Other in suffering as the traumatic election to an excessive responsability. In this he expresses that compassion is not easy but it 'costs'. And even that it leads to an infinite responsability. That is in compassion for even one Other one takes up a response to the suffering of all. I see this as his (Levinas) expression of the meaning what Bohdisattva-hood is. For us who try to stumble forward on this path we learn to be more and more able to respond (respons-ability). I remember Quan shi yin to be the One who heeds, listens and responds to the suffering of all sentient being. Thank you for this for Annetta and me affirmative words. Namo Amida Bu 

Well it seems as though this item has struck a chord. It also relates quite closely to Jimena's item on Liberty - Two sides of the same coin - what we have we take for granted and do not appreciate, yet we still don't want others to spoil it for us by sharing their suffering with us. Everything depends upon conditions and maintaining the conditions that sustain a culture of care is a precious duty. We currently seem to live in a world where the message of looking after oneself and excluding the other is becoming more strident so that selfishness and rejection are legitimised. Let us pray that this is a passing phase and not an enduring new tone in world society.

I wonder if it has to be 'self responsibility' to use Mat's suggested phrase OR selflessness? To me the two are important in conjunction. What if there were 30 babies? When do we say, sorry, I can't do this on my own - I need help, I need to rest, I need to withdraw and recoup before I do something silly? In my experience as I have got more skillful at recognising my (previously unconscious and denied) limits and needs, I have become a healthier helper more able to give freely, more able to signal to others when I've reached the end of my resources and need the help of the sangha. Of course I still make lots of mistakes with this! But I don't want us to throw the baby out with the bathwater here - as Adam says, both ends of the selfishness/selflessness spectrum have their own dangers. 

Thanks, Satya. However, I think that the essential point is the question of what one's attention is on the bulk of the time. If one is doing some useful task, sooner or later the body will tell you that you need food, or the rest of the community will tell you that it is lunch time, and you will make a decision to eat (or not). That is not particularly self-anything. When tired, unless some good reason intervenes, one sleeps. This is simply the organism functioning naturally. The hermit in the story is notable for the fact that 'self' was not high on his priority list. When the child was in his lap he looked after it. When it wasn't he did other things. His mind was not taken up with his own rights, 'needs' or even responsibilities. I think that the Buddhist view is not so much that 'self' is bad as that it is a needless distraction. Of course, we all get caught up in it, but there it is.

I do agree that the bulk of the time it's helpful to be focused on something that isn't me... if I'm in a 'bad mood', I'll often feel transformed after an hour of paying attention to a client's world, and most of the 'me-filters' are based on fear and skew my view. In my own experience, though, my body doesn't always tell me what it needs unless I take my attention away from the other for a short while in order to tune in - this I think is because my focussing-on-the-other can be selfish in that I become preoccupied with How They Are in order to Be Okay myself (if I can make sure they are okay, then I am safe). This works both with physical needs and emotional needs - I can't trust that they will signal themselves to me, because I spent a long time pushing them down/being in denial about them. I wonder if your organism just functions more normally or naturally than mine, and so it just isn't something you have an experience of?! I know this is something we've talked about before in various places, and it's still interesting to me as I still wonder if a) we're saying the same thing but in different ways or b) you understand something that I don't understand or c) we can just agree to disagree! It's good to have the conversation anyway. Namo Amida Bu. 



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