It’s not our responsibility to make others happy, nor our fault if they are not happy

Intellectually understanding the Bodhisattva path is relatively easy. Practicing it skillfully in our daily life is much harder. For me at least, nowhere is this more true than when it comes to understanding our personal responsibility towards others’ happiness and freedom from suffering.

Attaining enlightenment depends upon Bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of all. Bodhichitta depends upon great compassion, the wish to free all living beings from all of their suffering. Hinayanists develop universal love and great compassion, but what differentiates the Hinayana from the Mahayana path is the mind of “superior intention,” or the mind that assumes personal responsibility for the eventual enlightenment of others. As Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path, a bystander might wish a child not drown, but the child’s mother will dive in to save the child herself. As would-be bodhisattvas, it is not enough for us to merely wish others are free from all suffering, we must assume personal responsibility to make that happen. The entire Bodhisattva path is the practical expression of our superior intention. If we get superior intention wrong, then our entire bodhisattva path will likewise be wrong and unsustainable. But if we get superior intention correct, the rest of the bodhisattva path will be nearly effortless and always joyful.

Because we are still deluded beings, it is very easy to inadvertently develop all sorts of deluded interpretations of what it means to have “superior intention.” Personally, as a husband, father, and Dharma teacher, I have tumbled into quite a number of these deluded interpretations, and also led others down similar wrong paths. I am writing this to try hopefully spare others from making the same mistakes I have. There are three mistakes in particular I would like to highlight: viewing others’ suffering as our problem, misplaced responsibility arising from misdiagnosing what their problem is, and misplaced guilt causing us to push ourselves beyond our capacity.

Others’ suffering is ‘not my problem.’

Normally, when somebody says something like this, it is an incredibly heartless thing to say. It’s hard to think of a thought that seems more non-Buddhist! The entire point of the Buddhist path is to free others from their suffering. So how can we possibly look at others’ suffering and correctly think, “not my problem?”

We need to make a crystal clear distinction between great compassion and attachment to those we love not suffering. Great compassion is developed by first generating cherishing love for others – considering their happiness and well being to be important – and then contemplating all of the different ways that they suffer. Doing so naturally gives rise to a mind that “cannot bear” the suffering of others. Great compassion strongly wishes others were free from all of their suffering. Now let’s look at the mind of attachment to those we love not suffering. It too cannot bear the suffering of those we love and strongly wishes they were free from all of their suffering. Compassion is said to be a joyful, empowered mind; whereas attachment to those we love not suffering is a miserable, depressed mind. What exactly is the difference between the two?

The difference is attachment to those we love not suffering thinks others’ suffering is our problem whereas great compassion realizes clearly their suffering is not our problem. Attachment means to think our happiness depends upon some external thing, in this case others’ happiness. If we are attached to others being happy, then when they are not happy, we become unhappy. When they suffer, we go down with them.

But to say their suffering is not our problem sounds like we don’t care. Quite the opposite, actually. It is because we care and want to be of use to them that we cannot allow ourselves to become mentally attached to their well-being. Think of doctors trying to help their patients in the age of the Coronavirus or parents trying to raise their kids in a world of suffering. We are in the midst of an ocean of suffering, and if we do not free our mind from our attachment to others being happy, we will simply drown with the rest of them. Many doctors wind up committing suicide when confronted with the wave of suffering and their inability to stop it; many parents fall into depression as they powerlessly watch their kids make one wrong choice after another.

Our actual “problem” when we see others suffering is our deluded attachment to them not suffering. Paradoxically, we need to create the space within our mind for those we love to suffer to actually be able to help guide them out of their suffering. The mind of patient acceptance is a pre-requisite for developing the mind of renunciation. We need to accept that samsara is the nature of suffering and always will be. We need to give up hope of ever “fixing” samsara before we can once and for all make the decision to leave it behind. If we still think happiness can be found in samsara, we will invest our energies into securing a better position within it, rather than waking up from it. Thinking happiness can be found within samsara is a “non-acceptance” of samara’s true nature. By fully accepting samsara for what it is, we create the space in our mind for samsara to be – for ourselves to experience suffering. Once we accept suffering, we can begin to transform it into the path and use it for spiritual purposes. Then, unpleasant experiences cease to be a “problem” for us.

In exactly the same way, we need to accept as long as others remain in samsara, they too will suffer – sometimes terribly. Just as acceptance of our own suffering is the foundation of renunciation, so too acceptance of others’ suffering is the foundation of great compassion. We need to create the space in our mind for others to suffer. When we free our mind of attachment to others not suffering, we ourselves no longer have a “problem” with them suffering. This doesn’t mean we don’t care, rather it frees us up to actually be able to help because we are not preoccupied about our own welfare in the face of their suffering. Their suffering “is our great concern, but not our problem.”

Others’ suffering is ‘not our responsibility’ either

This is a tough one for parents. But also for someone in a couple, for anyone in a position of responsibility for others, and for Dharma teachers. When we see our kids suffer, like the mother in Geshe-la’s example for superior intention, we naturally want to dive in and save our child – often from themselves. Our children also expect this of us. They believe it is our responsibility to solve their problems for them – and why wouldn’t they think that, we have been doing so for their entire lives.

Just as great compassion and attachment to those we love not suffering are easily confused, so too are superior intention and feelings of misplaced responsibility towards others. Superior intention is the mind that takes personal responsibility for the welfare and eventual enlightenment of others. Misplaced responsibility – thinking it is our job to solve other people’s problems for them – also has a sense of personal responsibility in the face of others’ suffering. On the surface, they are very similar. Superior intention is the powerful mind of a bodhisattva, whereas misplaced responsibility is the heavy mind of a confused caregiver.

To differentiate clearly superior intention from misplaced responsibility we need to realize two key distinctions. First, conventionally speaking we can’t solve others’ problems for them, they need to resolve their own problems for themselves. Buddhas cannot bestow enlightenment upon us, they can only guide us on what we ourselves need to do to attain enlightenment. We can influence the external conditions around others, but only they can control their own mind. It is our responsibility to do what we can to help, but it is their responsibility to control their own mind. We can’t do that for them.

When others think it is our responsibility to solve their problems for them, it disempowers them to solve their own problems. So we need to be very clear in handing over responsibility to others for their own well-being, while being mindful of their capacity to assume responsibility for themselves. Eventually, we want to lead everyone into assuming personal responsibility for all living beings, but this begins with them assuming personal responsibility for themselves. In the beginning, a lot of the responsibility will fall on us because they are not yet capable of assuming responsibility for themselves, but the direction of our relationship should be to equip them with the skills and opportunities to be able to care for themselves. This will almost invariably create all sorts of conflict in our relationship with those we normally care for as they expect us to solve their problems for them and might resist us giving that responsibility back to them. At such times, we should clarify that our intention is to help them more by teaching them and giving them the opportunities to help themselves. It’s no different than a child learning to walk on their own – we should celebrate each transition of responsibility in the same way.

The second key distinction is correctly identifying what their problem is. If our mind is still pervaded by ignorance, we might think the reason why they are unhappy has something to do with their external circumstance, and so if they are to be happy, their external circumstance must change. Likewise, if their mind is still pervaded by ignorance, they will think it is their external circumstance that needs to change for them to be happy. But if their mind remains the same, they will be equally unhappy in their new circumstance as their old one, so nothing will really change. We need to be repeatedly clear with them that whether they are happy or not in a situation depends upon their own mind, not their external circumstance. Their problem is their delusions. They have no problem other than their delusions. This does not mean we don’t make external improvements where possible, but it does mean what really needs to change is their mind. It also means we are not responsible for how their mind reacts to things. Even if they insist it is their external circumstance that needs to change and we may be the only one who can change their external circumstance, we need wisdom knowing this won’t work and the only way they can be happy is if they change their own mind – which only they can do. If we assume it is our responsibility to change their mind, then once again, we disempower them to find their own happiness and we transform ourselves into something they need to emotionally manipulate to get us to do something so that they can change their mind. Endless misery for all.

It’s not our fault if they are unhappy

A close cousin of misplaced responsibility is misplaced guilt. We think it is our fault if others are unhappy. We think it is our fault if they suffer. We think it is our fault if they are deluded. We then blame ourselves whenever they suffer, and then this guilt drives us to do more for them. It can almost seem like our guilt is virtuous because it is propelling us to engage in virtuous actions for others. But this is wrong. Virtuous actions depend upon our intention, and guilt is delusion of self-hatred, not a virtuous intention of cherishing others. Motivated by guilt, we help others to avoid beating ourselves up (which hurts), not out of any caring for others.

When we are driven by guilt, we tend to push ourselves way beyond our capacity to help, and this then leads to burnout of ourselves and even greater dependency of others upon us to be happy. In other words, we destroy our own capacity to help others by burning out and we actually harm others by reinforcing their wrong belief that they cannot be happy unless we do something for them. We think we are being the kind bodhisattva, cherishing others no matter the cost to ourselves, but actually we are allowing our guilt to destroy ourselves. What makes this particularly hard is others are convinced it is up to us to solve their problems for them, and they will tap into our guilt to emotionally manipulate us into doing something for them to be happy. This can even reach the point where others threaten self-harm or even suicide if we don’t step up. Because of our misplaced responsibility and misplaced guilt, we then give in to their manipulations – or even actively participate in them – and just cause the cycle of suffering to continue further.

We need wisdom in such situations. If others are unhappy, it is the product of their karma and their own delusions, neither of which are our fault. They are responsible for their own karma and their own delusions. We cannot manage their karma for them and we cannot manage their delusions for them. Only they can do it for themselves. We also need to be aware of our current capacity. If we push ourselves so hard that we burn out, then we are useless to others and can help them less in the long-run. We need to be very targeted in what help we provide to make sure it is help that will actually make a difference knowing they are responsible for their own karma and mental reactions. Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is “not help.” Sometimes the wisest thing to do is to say no. But we need to do so without guilt. Wisdom is the antidote to misplaced guilt.

Don’t be like me

In my own life, I have made these three mistakes many times, and they have been the source of almost all of the suffering I have experienced by being a husband, a father, and a Dharma teacher. I have also, ignorantly, wound up transmitting these same mistaken trains of thought onto others, inadvertently causing them to generate attachment to others’ not suffering, developing misplaced responsibility, and pushing themselves to burnout out of misplaced guilt.

The first step to recovery is recognizing how I have been making these mistakes. Then, it is an issue of reminding myself again and again of the wisdom that counters the mistakes. Largely, it is an issue of training myself in new habits of how I relate to others, and accepting the relationship tensions that will naturally arise as I change my ways. In the short run, it may lead to more conflict with others, but in the long-run it will lead to more healthy and sustainable relationships with others. It will also enable us to enjoy our bodhisattva path instead of feel this enormous heavy pressure we put on ourselves to solve everyone’s problems for them in ignorant ways, or the emotional strain of fearing emotional blackmail from others if we don’t conform to their wishes.

In writing all of this, I hope others can learn from my mistakes and thereby be of much greater benefit to others, not only now, but for lifetimes to come. We need superior intention, but it needs to be informed by wisdom.

6 thoughts on “It’s not our responsibility to make others happy, nor our fault if they are not happy

  1. Merci Ryan pour cet enseignement très profond. Il y a déjà 10 ans que tu es parti de Genève mais tes enseignements sont toujours aussi instructifs et intéressants. Quel plaisir de te lire encore à défaut de pouvoir t’entendre.

  2. I’m trying to be a bodhisattva, Have I got this right, I understand I can’t fix everyone’s worldly problems so I don’t worry about the things I can’t fix but when I become enlightened then I can lead everyone to that place and end their suffering for good. Until then I don’t put myself in danger trying to help someone as becoming enlightened is my priority 🙂

    • Not quite. Yes, you can’t fix everyone’s worldly problems, but you should still do what you can to help where you can. The question is not whether we help or not, it is whether we mentally are doing so out of compassion or attachment to other’s not suffering. It also depends upon whether we understand their problem to be their delusions/mind or their worldly circumstance. It also means we should be mindful of our capacity, and not make the distinction between cherishing others and misplaced guilt. What we practically do depends a great deal on our circumstance, but the mind with which we help is what matters.

  3. I’m printing this article right now, thanks.
    My mind is still pervaded with all these misunderstandings, still causing me alot of problems.
    I very much appreciate this message coming from you :-p

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