Do not think only of your own joy, but vow to save all beings from suffering. This is sharing in its highest form and purity beyond all poisons of this world.

— Avatamsaka Sutra

Helping Others and Helping Yourself

There are basically four ways we can look at the art of helping:

  1. Helping others, but not helping yourself.

  2. Helping yourself, but not helping others.

  3. Helping neither yourself nor others.

  4. Helping both yourself and others.

The first possibility mentioned above is fundamentally a contradiction in terms. The bodhisattva understands that the self and others are one being. If you help others, you must be helping yourself. In this world, however, it sometimes does appear as if someone is helping others while bringing no help to himself. As long as this sort of compassion is not a mask for self-abuse, it is a beautiful and rare occurrence. It is always the behavior of one who is inspired by the highest truths of life. The mental and moral growth of anyone who performs any deed in this consciousness will be very great and it will be inevitable.

Helping the self without helping others also contains a basic contradiction since it is not ultimately possible to help the self without helping others. In this Saha world, however, it often appears to be possible to get more than we give and it often appears to be desirable to do so. This is the reasoning of delusion. As long as you feel that this kind of reasoning has any hold on you, you can be sure that your awareness still has room to grow. There is nothing to be gained in delusion and delusive reasoning will not lead you to the truth.

Sakyamuni Buddha understood this truth better than anyone and that is the reason why he gave forty-five years of his life to preaching the Dharma. He taught the bodhisattva path and he lived it. He taught all of us who follow him the compassionate way to liberation from suffering. This way is based on helping both the self and others at the same time. When one understands the truth of compassion and the wisdom of bringing aid to others, the bodhisattva path opens before one as the only natural course in the world. How could there be another way? How could it be right to help yourself without helping others?

The bodhisattva’s commitment to others is both emotional and wise. When both wisdom and emotion are directed toward the same goal, nothing can prevent its attainment. There is nothing stronger in the world.

Fan Zhongyan of the Song Dynasty (960-1278) said, “Think firstly of those who suffer in this world and have compassion for them. Think secondly of the joys of this world and share them.”

Amitabha Buddha’s vow to help both himself and others at the same time was so great it was a sufficient cause for the creation of his Pure Land. Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva vowed, “Until hell is empty, I will not become a Buddha.” The compassion and determination that produced this vow is truly amazing. This is the highest level of strength a bodhisattva is capable of. Strength based on dedication to others is so wonderful the mere thought of it must move the heart. All of us should frequently contemplate the depths of compassion that produce vows of this nature. Few of us can expect to reach these depths ourselves, but all of us can benefit from contemplating the strength and generosity of those who have.

Sharing in Its Highest Form

Sharing is a kind of generosity or compassion. In its highest form, sharing entails sharing ourselves. When we share the best of ourselves—our best wisdom, our best thoughts, our best feelings—we make a gift of ourselves to the world. The giving of this kind of gift must be done with complete humility. We must clear our minds of illusions about ourselves or preconceptions about other people. To share the best of ourselves means simply to give our best at all times.

Sharing of this kind is one of the most wonderful methods of all for practicing Buddhism. It can be likened to using the flame of a candle in our own hand to light the wick of a candle held in another’s hand. Our action does not diminish at all the light of our own candle while it only increases the amount of light available for everyone.

We could also compare sharing to planting a seed. In the moment it may appear that a few seeds have been lost, but soon it will become apparent that a whole harvest has been gained. When we share, we lose nothing. We only gain. Whenever we share, we transmit positive energy to others in such a way that all beings everywhere are improved by the act.

The Commentary on the Avatamsaka Sutra describes ten basic kinds of sharing:

  1. Taking from ourselves and giving to others. In this form of sharing we especially give our merits to others.

  2. Taking the small and giving to the many. In this we use our small abilities and small accumulation of merit to do our best to benefit sentient beings everywhere.

  3. Taking from the selfish path and giving to the great path. In this we use our small realizations gleaned from lesser paths and contribute them to the great path of Mahayana Buddhism.

  4. Taking small causes and turning them into great results. In this we recognize that all phenomena spring from causes. Rather than placing our attention on the results of past karma manifesting now, we place our attention on the causes we are creating now; these causes ultimately will result in great goodness for all sentient beings if we are properly mindful of them now.

  5. Taking the imperfect and making it perfect. The bodhisattva is able to adapt to the ways of ordinary people in order to lead them toward the highest truths.

  6. Taking all the troubles and details of this world and turning them into the means of enlightenment. In Humanistic Buddhism especially, we do not ignore the realities of this world and we do not turn our backs on others. On the contrary, we use the trials of this life to hone our practice and make us fit to be a benefit to all beings everywhere.

  7. Taking the events of this life and turning them into the truths of an enlightened mind. We must learn to see everything that happens in this world as a manifestation of a higher truth that is neither born nor dies.

  8. Taking differences and seeing in them the one. We must learn to see the underlying unity of all sentient beings and of all phenomena. This is the vision of the unobstructed Dharma that flows everywhere.

  9. Taking the mundane and seeing in it the transcendental. All goodness practiced in this world becomes a means for transcending this world. Knowledge of transcendental truths is an important basis for teaching and helping others.

  10. Taking the ultimate truths of the Dharma and applying them to the events and phenomena of this world. This is a perfect summation of the task of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a conduit for transcendental truths and a standard in this world of the perfection of the Dharma.

How to Practice Sharing

True sharing is selfless. It is a flow of energy between the “self” and the “world.” Since ultimately the “self” and the “world” are both empty, sharing itself can be said to be nothing more than higher awareness. Like compassion it is an aspect of the enlightened mind.

“All glory to the Buddha, all benefit to others, all strength to the monastery, all merit to benefactors.” When one is truly inspired to share, one keeps nothing for oneself since the self is entirely lost in the act of sharing. All of us should spend some time every day contemplating how much of our lives already are based on sharing with others. Our food, clothing, motor vehicles, jobs, language, education and even our deep psychology are entirely dependent on sharing; without the contributions of other people we would be bereft of all of these things. When we recognize this sharing from a Buddhist point of view, we begin to feel almost as if we are floating among the commingling energies of other people and other things. This is a true picture of reality. We are, all of us are, those other beings and things. In reality, there is no separation between us.

The Lotus Sutra contains the following lines that can be chanted whenever one feels that something good may have been accomplished:

I hope that whatever merit has accrued from this deed will spread to all beings in the universe. And I hope that all sentient beings, including myself, will all achieve Buddhahood.