Not to abandon any living being
This is an incredibly vast practice. The meaning of this vow is we exclude nobody from our bodhichitta. We seek to attain enlightenment for all living beings without exception. At a very practical level, what this means is when we see somebody with some problem we never think, “not my problem.” Any problem any living being has is our problem. We should have a feeling of personal responsibility for every living being without exception. If there is even one being for whom we don’t feel personal responsibility, then to a certain extent we can say we have abandoned that being. Technically, however, we only actually abandon a living being when we make the active choice that we are no longer going to work for the benefit of a particular person. We conclude, “they are on their own,” or “they are somebody else’s problem now.”
This vow can give rise to a good deal of confusion. This vow does not mean we can never leave a relationship with somebody. Very often people hear the teachings on cherishing others and not abandoning others, and they conclude that it means they should stay with their partner despite the fact that their partner is abusive. This is a completely wrong understanding. Not abandoning others does not mean we don’t end relationships with people when they need to be ended, rather it means we never abandon caring for the other person. When somebody is being abusive towards us, often times the best way we can express our caring for the other person is by leaving them. We do not help people by letting them abuse us. We do not help people by indulging them in their delusions. Why? Because we are letting them create all sorts of negative karma for themselves. Every time we let them be abusive towards us, they create the karma to be abused themselves in the future. Because we care about them and we don’t want them to create that karma, we need to end it or at least no longer cooperate with it. I have discussed these points at length in the series on Cultivating Healthy Relationships, so you can find more detail there.
Another common confusion that arises with respect to this vow is how we help people. Sometimes out of compassion not wanting others to suffer, we solve their problems for them. We know if we don’t solve their problem for them, they are really going to struggle, and possibly fail, and we want to spare them from having to endure that, so we solve their problem for them. If we don’t do so, it feels like we are abandoning them. We know we could help them, but we don’t. They then suffer, and cry out to us for help, they may even get mad at us and guilt trip us for not helping them. For many parents, episodes like this tear them apart. But the bottom line on this is very simple: we are not helping people by doing for them things they can do for themselves. Quite the opposite, if we do for them things they can do for themselves, we are actually dis-empowering them and allowing them to develop bad habits of viewing others as the solution to their problems, and making them think they have no power from their own side to solve their own problems. This leads to some highly dysfunctional dynamics between people and ultimate drags both people down. This is wrong compassion, it is compassion without wisdom.
If instead, we tell people, “Look, I could do this for you, but then you would never learn how to do it for yourself. You would be forever dependent on other people. This doesn’t help you. Therefore, I am going to let you do this one on your own. I am helping you more by letting you do it on your own. It is because I love you that I realize the best way I can help you is by letting you handle this one on your own.” At first, they may not understand this logic, but if you start with small things that you know are doable for the other person, they will eventually start to get it. The key is finding the 110% threshold of the other person’s current capacity. If something is 200% beyond their capacity, there is no sense in letting them deal with it on their own because they will inevitably fail and become discouraged. You also definitely don’t want to do things that are say 80% of their capacity because that just makes them lazy and absolutely saps their self-confidence of being able to do even the most basic of things. 110% is the perfect threshold because it forces the other person to stretch themselves to succeed, but it is still within the range of doable. It will take some trial and error before you start to develop a fairly reliable intuition for where the person’s 110% threshold is, but with blessings and experience it won’t take long.
The interesting thing is when you start to relate to people in this way, their own capacity quickly begins to grow. What was 110% for them last week is only 100% this week, and will be 80% in a few weeks time. So you keep upping the ante on them, you keep stretching them and growing them until eventually they are completely capable and self-sufficient in life. You will know you are doing your job correctly when the other person has some problem, you go to help them, and they say, “no don’t. Let me do this myself.”