Couple, Climbing, Help, Mountain, Sunset, Hiking

I recently heard a “Dharma talk” question and answer session with an esteemed Korean Buddhist monk. A question came from the audience from a smart, well-read and travelled woman. She asked the monk how she could help people around her who were suffering and causing her to suffer. The answer was not what I expected.

The monk first asked her how she knew they were suffering. She replied that it seemed fairly obvious. She said she could visibly see that they were upset due to their attachments and aversions. He responded that if they are suffering and she is suffering, then she is no different from them. If she is to help them, she should first help herself to overcome suffering.

Then, and only then, if they ask for help, she can wisely offer assistance from a place of her own stability and happiness.

But, he said, it’s dangerous to think that she can help them without first overcoming her own attachments and aversions. First of all, it might come as unwanted, and add to their suffering and then to hers. Second, even if it was wanted, her own attachments and aversions might lead her to make a mistake in how she helps them.

A Childhood Story

[A small warning, this story could be a bit gross for some. Feel free to skip to the next section if you’re easily grossed out.] The monk then told a story from his childhood. He was raised in a poor family in a village in South Korea.

His family had to dig their own toilets. One day, he saw some maggots around the edge of the toilet. Spontaneously, he was filled with compassion and concern for the maggots. He wanted to rescue them from the dirty place they were in. So he took a stick and began moving them out. Some tried to crawl back into the toilet. Others died as he took them out or after a while outside of the toilet.

He didn’t realize that the toilet was just the right place for the maggots. He projected his own feelings about it being a fowl and unclean place. But for the maggots it was not a bad place, but a good one.

The Moral of the Story

Boy, Monk, River, Buddhist, Water, Ritual, Buddhism

The moral of the monk’s story about his childhood was that while he thought he was doing the right thing by moving the little creatures, he was actually causing them harm. He was even upset at the time that the creatures were ungrateful for his deeds.

So, he says, it is similar with our friends and colleagues. It is dangerous to assume that we know exactly what another person is going through and to intervein on their behalf. Most people probably believe that they are doing the best that they can.

If, however, they ask for your ideas or help, then feel free to share. But do so knowing that they might not be ready or able to heed your advice just as it is given.

Open-Handed Generosity

This is very in line with the Buddhist vision of open-handed giving. In fact, the vision of how we should hold all things in life is that of the open hand. This is difficult to do at times. We know what needs to be done, and we know how to do it. In these cases, it is possible to simply act. But we must know that the consequences might not be what we expected. We might inadvertently harm others. Or we might help them in some ways but lose their trust.

Parenting: Applying this Advice

Sweets, Candy, Sugar, Girl, Beautiful, Young, Cute

In a recent parenting advice column, a woman wrote in to ask what to do about a friend who feeds too much sugar to her child. The woman notes that this seems to have caused an addiction in the child and whenever sugar is cut off, the child has wild mood swings. And, like the woman asking the monk, she says this affects her too because she sometimes watches the kid.

Her question was: “how do I skillfully intervein?”

Interestingly enough, the advice columnist’s answer was almost exactly what the monk said. First of all, back off for a second. The questioner’s inquiry was filled with a judgmental attitude and the columnist frankly admitted that she had been a child raised on a lot of sugar and turned out pretty okay.

Second, parents are going through a lot right now. You never know just how hard it is for others. So, suggested the columnist, rather than trying to fix a problem you see, try asking the child’s parents how things are going and how you can best help.

However, she also echoed the monk’s advice to set clear boundaries for oneself. If the moody child is causing you suffering as a friend who is watching them from time to time, work on rules and activities that you agree with and that the kid enjoys.

People sometimes worry that not acting up or speaking out will make them feel like or actually be a push-over or door-mat. No one wants to feel that way either. However, this middle road allows for assertiveness while not tending toward aggression or manipulating others. It is a hard road to travel at times, but with practice it is a peaceful path.

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.