Some find it difficult to reconcile what seems to be a conflict between realising the Buddha's teachings for oneself, versus actualising (or practising) them to help others do so. This is because some teach that one should fully focus on spiritually liberating oneself before attempting to help liberate others (which include humans, animals and other unseen beings), while some teach that both can be done at the same time. Also, there are some who advocate to always put others before oneself. Those in the first case are sometimes accused by those in the second case - of not being compassionate enough, for not helping others in a more enthusiastic manner, while those in the first case sometimes accuse the second case as lacking in priority - for how can one effectively liberate others when oneself is not liberated? Is there a way to reconcile this dilemma?

What is Liberation?

There are different levels of "liberation". In perhaps its simplest sense, when one is able to give advice to help free another from one's troubles, one is already liberating another from suffering, though this is not ultimate liberation from all suffering. Doing what we can to relieve suffering in the moment, we too can "liberate" beings in limited ways - which can lead towards ultimate liberation when we inspire those we help to practise and realise the Dharma. In this sense, we do not need to be fully liberated to "liberate" others in one way or another, though we can only help fully liberate others when we ourselves are fully liberated. An analogy would be that of a nurse who has limited healing abilities, while a doctor is fully skilled. Nevertheless, nurses can still heal patients to some extent. And the more nurses practise their skills (with doctors' guidance), the more are their skills aligned with that of doctors.

What is Essential for Buddhahood?

The path to self-liberation does not require Bodhicitta (though it helps), which is the aspiration to aid all beings to Enlightenment. Those who attain this liberation are called Arhats. In history, there have been many great Arhats who help to liberate the deluded after their realisation. Arhats also do demonstrate compassion prior to their Enlightenment, though it might not always be as much as aspiring Bodhisattvas who have the Bodhicitta aspiration. Many believe Arhats can further aspire to be Bodhisattvas too. It is having Bodhicitta, which leads to Buddhahood, which is the supreme Enlightenment that surpasses that of Arhats and Bodhisattvas. This is agreed in all traditions. We need to note that whether Bodhicitta is called so or otherwise in each Buddhist tradition, it is the altruistic intention to help all beings be fully liberated that make us Bodhisattvas, even if as unenlightened ones at the moment. The Perfections (Paramitas/Paramis) in each tradition, which lead to Buddhahood are also the same in essence.

Is There a Middle Path for Priorities?

Is there then no contradiction between between priority in helping oneself and others? Regardless of whether one has the Bodhicitta ideal of not, when one comes across someone suffering, can and should one just turn away? There is no scriptural record of any person who turns away, and is yet able to attain self-liberation shortly after. This is because there is a strong sense of self-centredness in this turning away, which is the antithesis of the realisation of non-self, which is a result of liberation. Does this mean socially-engaged Buddhism should be the emphasis of all Buddhists, with disregard for intensive personal practice in private? This is not so because walking a Middle Path is possible. The truth is, we will always alternate between encountering the suffering of others and ourselves. If we are true to our compassion in the moment, we will know what best to do there and then. Our spiritual priorities have to toggle skilfully between helping others and ourselves. When we do not toggle at all, we are definitely unskilful.

How Can "Mud Bodhisattvas" Help?

A common saying goes, "A mud Bodhisattva who crosses a river cannot save oneself." This is absolutely true, and is often used as an argument that we should always save ourselves before saving others, or we might even jeopardise our spiritual lives. However, the saying never urged anyone to bring others across the river (of suffering) when one is not ready, as the saying is usually assumed to be saying. In other words, one who is not ready to bring others to total liberation (ie. cross the river) need not do so. Instead, one can help others while on this "shore" of Samsara - till one is fortified to be stronger than "mud". In fact, it is in Samsara that we can fortify ourselves the best in our altruistic resolutions. There is no need to await a better time or place to actualise the Buddha's teachings of compassion. Does this contradict Pure Land teachings?

Is Pure Land Buddhism Escapist?

It is interesting to note that practitioners of the Pure Land Buddhism tend to have three main different attitudes to Samsara (our present world filled with much suffering). The first attitude is largely that of indifference or ambivalent neutrality - not very much unlike how the average person on the street might be in terms of altruism. The second is that of fret and disgust, which become motivating factors to seek birth in a Pure Land. The third is that of enthusiastic compassion, to do one's best to make this world a Pure Land (through one's thoughts, words and deeds), even as one seeks birth in a Pure Land. Which of these three attitudes is more conducive in leading to be reborn in Pure Land? The answer is surely obvious. While Pure Land practice offers escape from Samsara, there is no need to be escapist while in Samsara.

How to Be Reborn in Pure Land Now?

Even those who aspire to be reborn in Pure Lands should courageously attempt to emulate the (vows of) Buddhas who "purified" their initially "unpurified" worlds for the sake of others - by actualising Bodhicitta in ways they can now - as soon as possible; not only later when "graduated" from Pure Land. Whether one succeeds in completely purifying one's world is not the issue; what matters is doing one's best, as one is capable of. Interestingly, one's active altruism can render us subtly "reborn" in Pure Land here and now, as our impure attitudes to Samsara change. This is possible because "when the mind is pure, the land is pure". This positive conditioning increases the likeliness of being reborn in Pure Land after death.

How to Further Ensure Birth in Pure Land?

In fact, actualising Bodhicitta as much as possible now further guarantees the possibility of attaining birth in a Buddha's Pure Land. This is because the stronger one's Bodhicitta is, the more is one motivated to seek birth in Pure Land for the right unselfish reasons. Aspiring for birth in Pure Land no longer remains a personal small-minded project for one's salvation, but transforms into a noble selfless mission to seek the Dharma directly from a Buddha (in Pure Land), so as to be enlightened, and more importantly, so as to return to Samsara to help the unenlightened.

When Does Bodhicitta Arise?

For those aspiring to be Buddhas, we need to remember that Bodhicitta does not automatically spring into being from nowhere once we are liberated, while we remain void of compassion before being liberated. This is because the path to Enlightenment is the process of being less and less attached to self, which means compassion should correspondingly arise - though the scope it encompasses varies, as determined by the spiritual aspirant. This means compassion is an integral part of the path - even before we are liberated. If we continually ignore the need for compassion, our spiritual path towards Buddhahood has not really started yet. The Bodhicitta ideal is the greatest ideal of compassion possible, that we can all work towards realising right here and now.

Compassion Measures Spiritual Progress

In a sense, only the Buddhas have perfect Bodhicitta because they have realised perfect compassion, which also makes them perfect Bodhisattvas. Compassion thus measures our progress on the path to Buddhahood. The greater it is, the closer are we to Buddhahood. If so, why not start nurturing it now? Lifetimes of wilful ignoring of the need for actualising compassion does not lead to the arising of Bodhicitta. If we are to wait to be Buddhas before helping other beings be free from suffering, we would never be Buddhas - because the path to Buddhahood requires the practice of universal compassion to all beings. In this way, helping others and ourselves is in reality concurrent. When we help others, we are helping ourselves. When we help ourselves, we are helping others. When helping, we need to do so with wisdom too, for compassion and wisdom are the twin wings which make flight to liberation (for one and all) possible.

Compassion as the Universal Cure

In conclusion is a reflection by the Bodhisattva Shantideva, author of the celebrated "Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life" -

"All the joy the world contains
is through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
has come through wanting pleasure for oneself."

This is perfectly true, whether we wish to be an Arhat, Bodhisattva or Buddha - because selfishness is the universal poison of spirituality, while compassion is the universal cure, which urges the seeking wisdom on how to liberate one and all.