Aug 2011 08

by Brad Warner

A few people have responded to my blog by comparing me to this or that teacher and saying those guys are much better because they encourage their followers to help others. One reader advised me to get over myself and, “learn to live for others.” It’s good advice, to be sure. But what exactly does it mean?

One of the complaints often lodged against Zen is that it’s a selfish philosophy and practice. Spiritual teachers of other schools are always talking about how we should give to others, help those in need, lend a hand to our brothers and so on. But when you take a look at Zen literature there’s not a whole lot of that. Oh, Dogen Zenji talks a bit about compassion and sometimes you hear the Metta Sutra, the Buddha’s words on kindness, chanted at Zen temples in America. Although elsewhere in the world this chant is more associated with the Theravada school than with Zen.

Zen, on the other hand, tends to seem self-centered. Rather that hearing a lot about how we should be of service to others, the standard canonical texts of Zen appear to focus on what we need to do to improve our own situation and state of mind. They do sometimes make reference to helping others and saving all beings. But these references are almost always a bit abstract. They say we need to help others, but don’t go very deeply into how that might be done. This focus on the self is ironic considering that Zen is often portrayed as a practice aimed at eradicating the self.

But have you ever glanced up randomly when you’re on an airplane ignoring the flight attendants safety instructions? When they tell you how to use those oxygen masks they say that you should first secure your own mask before helping others. There’s a good reason for this. If the plane is losing oxygen you’re going to be too woozy to be of service to anyone else until you first get your own stuff together. This is the way it is in life as well.

It sounds really sweet when someone tells you that you ought to be selflessly serving those less fortunate than you. It’s a beautiful and highly attractive idea. There’s no better way to make yourself seem really holy than to advocate selflessness. Religious leaders have known for centuries that the best way to cultivate a devoted following who’ll gratefully fill up the collection plate is to spread the word that a truly holy person gives to others until it hurts.

It’s always comforting to be told that the source of the world’s troubles is out there, in other people, in our surroundings and circumstances and not in ourselves. Much of what passes for religion these days takes as its underlying unstated assumption and starting point that we ourselves are OK. It’s those other people that need fixing, not us. It’s painful when that assumption is challenged. I understand that because it was painful to me when I first came across the supposedly selfish aspects of Zen.

The underlying problem is the same as the problem with the emergency oxygen masks on airplanes. In our usual condition we are far too woozy to be of much service to anyone else. When our own condition is all messed up our attempts to be helpful are more likely to make things worse than to improve them.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do anything when we see someone is in trouble. We always have to act from the state we’re in at this moment. It’s our duty to do what we can with what we have.

One of the greatest and most useful lessons I’ve learned from Zen practice is how not to help. Zen teachers are often seen as cold. Lots of times in this practice when you go to your teacher in times of distress, instead of being met with warm hugs and reassuring words you’re given the cold shoulder. You’re told to take care of the problem yourself. This seems mean, heartless, even cruel.

But as Shakespeare and Nick Lowe noticed sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind (in the right measure). The best way to be truly helpful is often to leave things be. I used to find this all the time when I worked for Tsuburaya Productions. It was often best to allow a bad scheme to fail and then fix it. Jumping into the fray and try to fix things before they broke often was the worst idea. Because then the same thing just kept happening over and over. People learn best from their own mistakes and learn nothing when you fix things for them.

This is not always easy. We want to help. Our self-image is tied up in being a good person and a good person is a helpful person. It damages our ego when we have to let things be instead of jumping in to fix them. Sometimes the hardest thing you can do is to not be helpful. People resent it. They label you as a bad person. Because they don’t want to have to deal with their own shit, they want someone else to deal with it for them. They want Superman to rush in and save the day after they’ve messed things up.

On the other hand it’s important to be of service, to “learn to live for others.” We are not independent objects. We are part of an intimately connected network of sentient and non-sentient beings that stretches all the way to the end of the universe. We never really live just for ourselves, even when we try to do so. To try and live for yourself just causes pain. Not just to others, but to ourselves as well.

The problem is not whether we should live for others or not. The problem is how we should live for others. If our efforts to help end up doing more harm than good, then we aren’t truly living for others any more than the most selfish cad among us lives for himself. We’re just feeding our own egos, establishing a clearer and more fixed self image as a good person.

It’s important to discover how to truly help. And sometimes that means not helping.


Brad is on tour right now and may be in your area. To see where Brad will be speaking next take a look here.

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!


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