“Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
“Looking after others, one looks after oneself.”
~Gotama Buddha, SN 47:19
“One should not give up one’s own welfare,
Even for the sake of much welfare of others”
~Gotama Buddha, AN 49:5
“If one is drowning oneself and wishes to rescue someone else who is drowning,
that is impossible”
~ Gotama Buddha, Sallekha Sutta
As children of aging parents, parents of children, pet owners, and citizens of a society that seems to be galloping towards calamity, we are called upon to care for others. The Bodhisattva vow, an integral part of Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, stresses the importance of being of service, even deferring our own spiritual liberation until all beings are free from suffering. In the Brahmavihāra practice, we cultivate the mind states of care, compassion, joy, and equanimity for all beings. The Buddha asks us to stretch beyond our circle of ease and offer our care, love, and kindness to all beings, with no discrimination. That is a big ask and requires a lot of practice and training to shift from our protective and defensive evolutionary conditioning to an unlimited mind of love. While we may aspire to this openhearted state of selfless caring, no one is a boundless well of giving. There may be a part of us that asks, “what about me?” We all need replenishing and abundant self-care to be able to care for others.
In early Buddhist teachings, this idea of self-care is clear and direct. In the Aṅguttara-nikāya 4:95, translated by Buddhist monk and scholar, Anālayo, the Buddha describes four types of practitioners: one who helps themselves without helping another, one who helps another without helping oneself, one who aids neither self not other, and one who helps both self and other. The Buddha ranks these four approaches. Not surprisingly, one who helps neither self nor other is the “most inferior person” (A. N. 4:95, Anālayo, trans. 2015, p. 18). The person who helps another without helping oneself is superior to that and higher than that is one who helps themselves without helping another! The one who is “supreme,” predictably, is one who aids both self and other ((A. N. 4:95, Anālayo, trans. 2015, p. 18). Thus, merit is earned as one progresses on a spiritual path that includes both self and other.
As practitioners, we cannot advise others to practice purification if we are not walking that path ourselves. In order to have any type of transformation of suffering, we must attend to purifying our own hearts and minds first. As legendary Vipassana teacher, S. N. Goenka said repeatedly, “You have to work out your own salvation.” When we understand how to cultivate, equanimity, and joy in our own life and practice, we will have a strong foundation to be available and present for others, even when things get tough. If we do not take care of our own stability, we offer an unsteady footing for those who rely on us.
A popular parable from the Buddhist canon is the Sedaka Sutta: The Bamboo Acrobat. The Buddha tells of a team of acrobats, a master and his young assistant, Medakathalika, sometimes referred to as his granddaughter. The older acrobat perches atop a bamboo pole and Medakathalika climbs up the pole and balances upon the master’s shoulders. The master tells Medakathalika that they will need to take care of each other in order to keep safe in their act and make a living. The young assistant has another view and tells the bamboo acrobat, “That will not do at all, master! You look after yourself, master, and I will look after myself. Thus with each of us looking after ourselves, guarding ourselves, we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment, and safely climb down from the bamboo pole. That’s the right way to do it!” (SN 47:19, Olendszi, trans., 2013). Young Medakathalika understands that each person is responsible for their own unwavering stability of mind and that clarity and focus directly influences others we interact with.
The Buddha goes on to describe how we care for ourselves in order to care for others and how to care for others in order to care for ourselves. “And how does one look after others by looking after oneself? By practicing (mindfulness), by developing (it), by doing (it) a lot. And how does one look after oneself by looking after others? By patience, by non-harming, by loving kindness, by caring (for others). (Thus) looking after oneself, one looks after others; and looking after others, one looks after oneself” (SN 47:19, Olendszi, trans., 2013). Leaving no one out, we extend this patience, gentleness, and goodwill towards ourselves. Being considerate and non-harming may mean we do not do all the things we believe we should, but includes those that help us stay balanced and peaceful.
The paradox of caring for others to care for ourselves involves the cultivation of a deep practice of kindness and gentleness to remove the hearts’ obstacles of hatred, conditional love, disapproval, and intolerance. Practicing in this way opens up the heart space and we reside in what Buddhists call the bliss of blamelessness. This joy and open-heartedness is the reward of self-care that allows for delight in our own goodness and fills up the emptiness and dissatisfaction that may impede caring for all beings. When we practice living a life of integrity and dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to being a presence of love and healing we are caring for and protecting ourselves, our community, and all beings everywhere.
May we all trust our light,
Anālayo (2015). Compassion and emptiness in early buddhist meditation. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse.
Olendzki, A. trans. (2013). Sedaka sutta: The bamboo acrobat (SN 47.19). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition). Retrieved from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn47/sn47.019.olen.html .