For Ourselves, For Others

Following on From last week’s post about balance in our practice, this week I have been inspired by a sutta about acrobats. But the balance this time isn’t about being on a high wire, it is about striking the right balance between personal practice and practice aimed at helping others. There’s no doubt that this can become a thorny issue when you devote a lot of time and effort to a practice, and the questions can come both from those around us and from ourselves too. When we spend a lot of time working on ourselves, we can wonder if we are becoming too inwardly focused, but likewise when we do a lot for others we can end up feeling that we haven’t left much to meet our own needs.

I’ve heard Ajahn Amaro often talking about this subject of helping others and trying to figure out what was too much and what was too little, reflecting on his time as the co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in California where people would ask for his advice for dealing with ‘compassion fatigue’. People would put so much physical, mental, and emotional energy into supporting good causes that it would eventually burn them out, and they would become overburdened with not just activities, but with the enormous weight of the amount of suffering in the world.

The Buddhist path is often described as one that comprises of the development of two factors: compassion and wisdom. Compassion is the work that we do for the sake of others, and wisdom is the time that we spend cultivating ourselves. Enlightenment cannot be reached by developing only one of these, both have to be equally realised. So the question of balance between our own inner work and our efforts for the sake of others isn’t just a matter of personal choice, it is an important focus that we always have to be monitoring carefully.

The starting point of my investigation of striking the right balance between what we do for ourselves and what we do for others  came from the Sedaka Sutta (SN 47.19), [1] which expounds on this question of whether the correct emphasis is on one side or the other, with the Buddha telling  a story about an acrobat and his apprentice to illustrate it. In the Buddha’s story, the acrobat and his apprentice discuss what would be the best approach to ensure that they both complete their routine safely together and get paid. The acrobat says to the apprentice if you look after me, and I look after you, then that will keep us safe. But the apprentice disagrees and says to the acrobat if you look after yourself, and I look after myself, then that will keep us both  safe.

The Buddha concludes that the apprentice is right, you have to look after yourself, but then adds that you also have to look after others too. The theme that the Buddha develops is that by looking after yourself, you will look after others at the same time too. He then continues that by looking after others you will also look after yourself too.

Looking after yourself to make it possible for you to look after others is something we come across often in ordinary life, as it is well recognised that you can’t really help anyone else if you haven’t got yourself together. ‘Me time’ is a well worn phrase these days, but that is because we better recognise now that self care is important – especially when we have a lot that we need to do for others. One of the most famous examples of helping ourselves before we can help others are the safety instructions that the flight attendant gives before a plane takes off: put your own oxygen mask on first before you try to help anyone else. So we already know in many contexts that doing things for ourselves isn’t always selfish, in fact sometimes it is necessary. But still, when our practice includes service for others we can often feel that the needs of others take priority over our own wants and needs.

The Sedaka sutta is often cited when people want to understand if self-development is selfish, and on one level the message the Buddha is giving is that it isn’t; when you work on yourself you help others at the same time. But I think it would be an oversight to not take into account that in this sutta the Buddha wasn’t making a generalised statement about self-development or helping others. He was talking in very specific terms about what kind of looking after ourselves would help others, and what kind of looking after others would help us too, so in that sense this sutta doesn’t necessarily give an unequivocal answer to the question of whether focusing on your own practice is selfish or not.

In this sutta the Buddha says that what we need to do to look after ourselves is to cultivate the four foundations of mindfulness, which are described in the Satipatthana Sutta [2]. To look after others, he says that we also need to cultivate the four foundations of mindfulness. It is a little intriguing that the same practice leads to us protecting both ourselves and others, but there is supporting information in other suttas I have found that might help to make sense of this.

We can find a way that mindfulness practice protects us through the Attarakkhita sutta (SN 3.5) where in reply to being asked by King Pasenadi ‘who are those who protect themselves and who are those who do not?’, the Buddha said:

 ‘Those who do bad things by way of body, speech, and mind don’t protect themselves. Even if they’re protected by a company of elephants, cavalry, chariots, or infantry, they still don’t protect themselves…

Those who do good things by way of body, speech, and mind do protect themselves. Even if they’re not protected by a company of elephants, cavalry, chariots, or infantry, they still protect themselves.’[3]

What this points to is that through the skill of mindfulness that we are able to monitor our actions, so it is the factor that will allow us to regulate our body speech and mind. We protect ourselves in a very straightforward way with mindfulness by being alert and  paying attention to what is going on around us, which makes us less likely to have an accident; we protect ourselves with mindful speech by not saying things that will get us into trouble; and we protect ourselves with our mind by not dwelling on thoughts that are troubling or unskilful.

When it comes to understanding how practicing in the same way will help others too, it is in a sutta where he is talking to his own son that the Buddha gives us one of the most succinct answers to this question. In MN 61 [4], The Buddha tells his son Rahula, who was also a monk, that you should always reflect before taking any kind of mental or physical action on whether it will lead to hurting others, hurting yourself, or both. You should only follow through on the action if it will lead to neither you nor anyone else being hurt. So the same process of using mindfulness that we apply to protect ourselves includes having consideration for the impact of our actions on others too, so when we use mindfulness we look after both ourselves and others too.

This is a very direct way that we can understand how working on an internal quality has the potential to have an impact both for ourselves and for others, but I also feel that the benefits to both parties from practicing mindfulness come from more than just the act of reflecting before we do anything though. Nyanaponika Thera, writing about the Sedaka Sutta [5] feels that the meditation element of developing the four factors of mindfulness  is a crucial component  in this; notice that the Buddha didn’t just say ‘mindfulness’ is the way to protect ourselves and others, instead he referenced a specific set of mindfulness meditation practices. Nyanaponika feels that without meditation to train our careful behaviours to become spontaneous we are at risk of relying on willpower to keep making the right choices, which is very demanding and stressful, and will eventually create internal conflict. This ultimately doesn’t protect us, instead it harms us, and not only that it makes it much less likely that we will have enough clarity or generosity to  be mindful enough to protect others. Being mindful isn’t enough on its own to protect  anyone, suggests Nyanaponika, only by  having an attitude of care and concern for others as our default position do we realise the protective potential of mindfulness. This is something that was being alluded to in the Attarakkhitasutta too, that if you can’t consistently contain your actions by body, speech, and mind then it doesn’t matter how much protection you have,  you are always at risk of doing harm if you have a mind that still leans towards unskilful thoughts and actions.

So with mindfulness cultivated through meditation we can protect ourselves and we can protect others, and this practice will also protect others by protecting ourselves too. But in the Sedaka sutta looking after ourselves by looking after others isn’t fulfilled by the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness, it is the only one that requires a different practice – the Brahmaviharas.

The Brahmaviharas, as I mentioned in last week’s post, are often translated as the divine abodes, and they are metta, compassion, being happy for other’s successes, and equanimity. It is fairly straightforward to see how these qualities serve to look after others; they are states of kindness and generosity to all beings and naturally when we cultivate them we are much less likely to harm anyone, not only that but they make us much more open to trying to help others when we can too.

But it is that translation of divine abode that I think is a way to understand how the practice of the Brahmaviharas is beneficial to us too. An abode is somewhere to live, somewhere to stay, so the Brahmaviharas are also somewhere that our mind can stay, positive mindstates that we can inhabit. The most immediate way that we benefit from cultivating them is because they are nice states to be in, they are calm, peaceful, and open. It is good for us both mentally and physically to be calm, and being centred and grounded supports the development of our mindfulness and concentration too. So by cultivating a practice like the Brahmaviharas with the aim of acting kindly towards all beings, we benefit from the serene mind states that it allows us to be in.

Mindfulness practice and the Brahmaviharas aren’t the only practices that look after others and look after ourselves at the same time too. It isn’t mentioned in the Sedaka Sutta but another practice where developing ourselves has benefits for others is through sila, or virtuous behaviour. The principal way of developing sila is by following the precepts, the five precepts for lay people are: to work to avoid killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and getting into intoxicated states. It is fairly obvious how this would be of benefit to others, but we too share in the benefit that we create as the Buddha explains in the Abhisanda sutta (AN 8.39):

‘Mendicants, these five gifts are great, primordial, long-standing, traditional, and ancient… What five?

Firstly, a noble disciple gives up killing living creatures. By so doing they give to countless sentient beings the gift of freedom from fear, enmity, and ill will. And they themselves also enjoy unlimited freedom from fear, enmity, and ill will. This is the first gift that is a great offering, primordial, long-standing, traditional, and ancient.’ [6]

The remaining four gifts are the other four precepts, each conveying the same benefit of freedom from fear, enmity, and ill will to both others and to themselves.

So how is it that we gain a share of the gift we have given? Some suttas can make it sound as if the personal benefits of following the precepts come from some kind of divine protection, but quite simply by following the precepts we create an atmosphere of trust, and where there is trust there is usually safety. If you ever get the chance to visit Amaravati once restrictions are lifted you will notice straightaway how calm the whole place is, even the birds and animals are relaxed because clearly it is a place where they feel safe.

It’s easy to forget how impactful even subtle threat is on our behaviours, unfortunately many of us rarely get the opportunity to be in a safe and generous space to remember what it is like to not have to be guarded all the time. The Bhaddiya Sutta [7] shows us an example of how difficult life is when you don’t feel safe. The sutta starts out with the other monks going to the Buddha to tell them that they keep overhearing Bhaddiya saying ‘what bliss! what bliss!’ and they assume that he must be breaking the rules and something pleasurable that he isn’t supposed to. Bhaddiya, who was previously a king before he ordained, when asked by the Buddha about what was causing his bliss recounted how blissful life as a monk was compared to being the king. He tells the Buddha about having to be under guard all the time, and that he was always fearful, scared, suspicious, and nervous. But now as a monk with no possessions or position of importance to worry about he feels safe wherever he is, and lives in bliss.

The moral of that particular story isn’t that we need to get rid of all of our possessions to be happy, but that when we have no fear of loss then we can relax and feel safe. So if we create the conditions where others have no fear of us taking their possessions or harming them, we can give them happiness, and by doing so we create the conditions where we too can be happy and safe. By following the precepts we create a safe environment, and when people feel safe they are less defensive, less suspicious, and more able to be open and caring. This makes a situation that you will clearly benefit from too, because when people are relaxed and open then it is much easier for you to be the same, so you find it even easier to develop your practice of kindness.

This might all sound a bit hypothetical, but a powerful example of how a dedication to personal practice can change the conditions for many others comes from the life of the great laywoman Dipa Ma. Jack Engler told how the rough Calcutta neighbourhood that Dipa Ma moved into changed for the better within six months of her arriving [8]. The area became quieter, people argued less, and men gave up hunting and fishing. Engler attributed this to Dipa Ma’s way of relating to others with care and consideration, and the simple power of her calm presence.

While most of us are unlikely to ever be able to change the whole tone of our neighbourhood with our practice, something we could take from all of these points is that the time we spend working on ourselves has the potential to benefit others in ways that go beyond the obvious. Nyanaponika feels that even just the act of devoting ourselves to self development still makes us a potential force for good in the world even if we don’t engage in active social service because our  silent example of applying ourselves diligently to the practice will help and encourage others to develop themselves too. [5]

It is unusual in the West to think about self development as being for the good of others, but within a Buddhist framework it is an important motivation for dedicating ourselves wholeheartedly to our practice. A chant often used by the Thai Forest Tradition is called ‘The Verses of Sharing and Aspiration’, and it opens with the line ‘Through the goodness that arises from my practice’. There is an understanding that if you practice well that others will benefit from it, and that helps us to put more effort in at times when our application may be waning, or even when we start to wonder if we are being selfish.

So spending time working on your mindfulness and meditation has the potential to be a way that you can create a lot of good in the world for other beings – helping others doesn’t always have to be about direct service. But practice can still be selfish, and helping others can come from a selfish place too, what makes the difference is intention. Mindfulness and honesty will help us to discern just what intention is behind our actions; if we are working on ourselves because it is easier, or if we are throwing ourselves into helping others to avoid facing our inner challenges, then we are not doing anything that will really benefit anyone in the long run, neither others nor ourselves.

But sometimes we need to do some inner work before we are ready to help others, and if we understand that is why we are doing it then that isn’t a selfish motivation. By really working hard on our inner world we develop much more capability to help others, so if we dedicate ourselves fully we can do the most good for others, and in doing so we too will share in the benefits.

Image by didier aires from Pixabay


1.    Bhikkhu Sujato Sedakasutta SN 47.19: At Sedaka. Accessed 15 Mar 2021

2.    Bhikkhu Sujato (2018) Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasutta: The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation. Accessed 18 Mar 2021

3.    Bhikkhu Sujato (2018) Attarakkhitasutta SN 3.5: Self-Protected. Accessed 15 Mar 2021

4.    Bhikkhu Sujato (2018) Ambalaṭṭhikarāhulovādasutta MN 61: Advice to Rāhula at Ambalaṭṭhika. Accessed 15 Mar 2021

5.    Nyanaponika Thera (2010) Protection Through Satipatthana. Accessed 15 Mar 2021

6.    Bhikkhu Sujato (2018) Abhisandasutta AN 8.39: Overflowing Merit. Accessed 15 Mar 2021

7.    Bhikkhu Sujato Bhaddiyasutta Ud 2.10: The Discourse about Bhaddiya. Accessed 15 Mar 2021

8.    Schmidt A (2005) Dipa Ma: The life and legacy of a Buddhist master /  Amy Schmidt. Windhorse, Birmingham

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s