The moral discipline of benefiting other sentient beings.
The meaning of this vow is we should help sentient beings whenever possible in the most appropriate way. To understand this, we must look carefully at the meanings of “whenever possible” and “most appropriate way.”
Practically speaking, “whenever possible” means whenever others are willing to receive our help. Ronald Reagan once famously quipped, “the most feared words in the English language are, ‘I’m with the Federal Government, and I am here to help.’” While I disagree with the politics of Ronald Reagan on almost every count, this line does reveal a very important point, namely if we don’t want somebody’s help, we reject what is on offer. A Bodhisattva is somebody who literally strives to be the savior of all. But it is obviously completely counter-productive for us to walk into every situation proclaiming, “your Savior has arrived, stand aside.” It is because we want to actually help people (as opposed to feel like we are a savior) that we only directly help those who are asking for our help. If people reject the help we offer, who have we really helped? Nobody. Since the help we offer is Dharma advice, if they reject the help we offer they are actually creating the karma to reject the Dharma, which will harm them not only in this life, but in all of their future lives. As a general rule, if people are not asking for your advice, don’t give it. If people are not asking you to mediate their disputes, don’t do it. If people are not seeking help, don’t provide it. Sometimes the best way we can help people is by letting them do things themselves. If a mother always picks up after her children, how will they ever learn to do so themselves?
We should not, however, take this too far. Someone does not have to directly, verbally ask us for help before we should come to their aid. We need wisdom to read a situation and know when somebody is willing to receive our help, even if they are not explicitly asking for it. Oftentimes, the best way to help somebody is to do so anonymously. This not only removes our attachment to receiving some form of recognition for our kind deeds, it also makes it easier for others to accept help. Even better is helping others in such a way that it seems as if the good things just happen on its own, without anybody having helped out behind the scenes. Then, people think they did it on their own, and their confidence grows. The person who first got me interested in spiritual pursuits was a very close friend in college. He gave me a copy of a book he was reading at the time on the mind of the ninja – not the ninja of Hollywood, but the deep inner philosophy of the ancient ninja masters. In one phrase, the ninja “operates from the shadows.” The meaning of this is quite deep, in fact it is no different than the Taoist concept of having all of our actions originate from the Tao or, closer to home, have all of our actions emerge from the clear light emptiness. By staying centered in emptiness, correct conventional actions arise spontaneously.
At a more practical level, when acting in the world, the Tantric Bodhisattva likewise operates from the shadows. No one sees what they do, yet they change everything. Scientists now are discovering that the unseen scaffolding of the universe is elaborate lattices of dark matter and dark energy. We only see the visible universe, but what holds it all together and provides its structure is unseen. It is the same with the true spiritual masters of this world, they are like the dark matter holding everything together. Venerable Tharchin once said something to the effect of, “it only takes 10 or so true spiritual masters in a country to make that country a source of peace in this world.” We can understand this from the section on Cherishing Others in Eight Steps to Happiness where Geshe-la describes how somebody who cherishes others is a like a magic crystal with the power to transform any community. We don’t need to be public about what we are doing, in fact it is usually better if we are not, but quietly, without anybody noticing, we work from the shadows bringing love to the world.
“Most appropriate way” means in such a way that it functions to cause people to engage in virtue from their own side. As a general rule, we should help people in every way possible. Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking, “because helping people by giving them Dharma advice is the best way to help others, every other way is somehow bad.” This is wrong, and a classic example of making the best the enemy of the good. Oftentimes, it is by helping people with their mundane problems that we can develop a closer karmic relationship with the person through which we can later help them in spiritual ways. It is true, as Dharma practitioners, we primarily seek to help people solve their inner problem, but that does not mean we can’t and shouldn’t also try help people solve their outer problems too. Most people are completely convinced that their problems are their external situation, so when they hear Dharma advice on how to change their mind they think, “that’s nice, but it does nothing to help me solve my problem.” Given this, when somebody comes to us with a problem, it is usually more skillful to first try help them solve their outer problem, and then when they see solutions exist to their outer problem, their mind opens to possibilities for how to also solve their inner problem.
Sometimes Dharma teachers fear giving people advice about how to solve their outer problems because if the advice doesn’t work, then the person might come to blame the Dharma teacher for the bad advice, and as a result come to reject the Dharma. Of course, there is a risk of this. But there is likewise a risk that somebody, still convinced that their problem is an external one, will not come to the Dharma teacher at all viewing them as having nothing useful for them. While of course we want to help people primarily with their inner problem, it is better we help people with their outer problems than to not help them at all. Through the closer karmic connection we create with them by helping them with their outer problems, we can in the future help them also with their inner problem. Protecting the other person from rejecting the Dharma if our external advice turns out to be bad advice is straightforward enough: we just present our outer advice saying, “I have no idea if this will work, but you could try …” or “this doesn’t always work, but when I was in a similar situation I did …” or “this may be completely wrong, but it seems to me you could …” or “please feel completely free to ignore this, but if I were you I would …” Couching our outer advice in caveats such as these protects the other person from thinking our outer advice is gospel and leave us free to try help in every way we can.