Focus on reducing the suffering of self, or of others - which is more right? Or Real world/Deluded world - which is which?

There have been a number of threads that have shown a delineation between a focus on self liberation versus focus on alleviating the suffering of other, and the resultant question of which focus is ‘more right’.

I’m cross posting from this thread to here, so that we can continue discussing this aspect in a new thread, rather than de-railing the original topic.

edited post.

We cannot change the essential nature of samsara - maybe in a small location for a brief period of time. But to expect to turn samsara into a heavenly realm ? ?

By the essential nature of samsara I meant that the essential nature of samsara is one of unsatisfactoriness and impermanence. One can fiddle around the edges, but one can not change it’s essential nature of being dominated by ignorance, and have it result in a state of lasting right view. When I speak of a brief period of time , and a small location , I’m talking about a state or a country for some years. Public policy can change very quickly, even in the best of times. Within 10 years in a county or a state, public opinion, public policy or legislation regularly changes, and not always for the best. To expect that one can effect a longer, semi-permanent change, for a part of the earth that encompasses cross national/political boundaries… well I don’t think that is realistic. This is what I’m talking about. One just has to read history to see the ebbs and flows of beliefs and practices. So yes, in a long term view – hundreds of years – is it realistic to expect a particular view to remain unchanged? Suffering will always exist in Samsara, that is its essential nature – just in what way it is expressed will alter, this century it may be pandakas, next century women, some other century those with different skin colour… or perhaps all of these at the same time somewhere on this planet…

That is the hard, unpalatable truth and reality of samsara. Does this mean we condone it? As practicing Buddhists, the answer is NO. We do not do anything to make other beings suffer. This is enshrined in the precepts, in the 8 fold path and in the Vinaya. Basically we undertake to be compassionate and kind to those with whom we have contact specifically and to all beings generally.

But the underlying question is what complicates everything, and that is about whether being pro-active is a “should” or a requirement, beyond simply being harmless and compassionate.


This is unfair and should be called out as such. It is harmful, based on ignorance and hatred. So, as spiritual practitioners we should acknowledge unfair discrimination anywhere, especially on the monastic path, and work hard to overcome it.

But what exactly does this mean. Is it about overcoming this within our own views and actions, or is it about trying to get others to overcome it and to change their behaviour, like the arguments about socially engaged Buddhism. How far outside our own circle of influence should we intervene?

To me this is about the interface between samsara and the spiritual path. It is based upon ones perceptions about which is the ‘Real World’ and which is the ‘Deluded World’ . Which-ever one has primacy, is the result of causes and conditions of every human being.

There have been a couple of threads recently on D&D that clearly brought out these different perspectives, eliciting different responses depending on which perspective participants were taking. Today I attended a dhamma talk at BSV and this same issue was evident. It is almost like there is a perspective of ‘Lay buddhism’ and ‘Monastic Buddhism’ or mundane v/s supramundane, or even more emotionally charged, a contest of what is Right est View, with regards to being compassionate and working to reduce suffering.

Now this is way, way above my pay-grade or level of competence to speak about in any definitive way, but I think this question is one that importantly underpins so many peoples practice today, that I would like to encourage our resident Ajahns to perhaps share their wisdom on this issue.

As Ven Akaliko has so poignantly illustrated, the Right Action is difficult to penetrate with regards to difficult issues today, be they related to gender, as in this thread, or climate change, socio-economic conditions or any of the proliferation of real issues that cause suffering today.

My own adult life could be cut in half, to actually resemble this division of views. The first half of my life was spent actively and consciously working on reducing the suffering of others and trying to make the world we live in a ‘better place’. Now I only apply it on an immediate interpersonal level – ie to reduce my own suffering, and through the practice of Sila, to contribute towards beneficial conditions and well being of those beings with whom I have direct contact instead of working from the big picture.
Is one of these approaches more correct or better than the other? – I don’t think so. Each one applies due to causes and conditions and ones’ personal circumstances at the time.

The solid base though, is one of No Harm, of ensuring that ones actions are harmless, as far as it is possible given the lack of control we have over outcomes… intentions do not guarantee outcomes.

Now I have purposely talked about the ‘ proliferation of real issues that cause suffering today’ , instead of just addressing the issue of Pandakas and Ordination. I have done this on purpose, because, in my view, the question behind it is much broader, and applies equally to each issue that causes suffering. The solution about how to address this kind of situation, where one is witness to conditions that cause suffering, needs to be able to applied to all such situations – indeed in principle there is no difference between them except for in a superficial way – whether the suffering is caused by ideas/conventions involving gender, or religion, race or age, or any other socially constructed and accepted view/convention at this point in time. What is the Right view, Right Action, Right intention, Right effort in regard to the dilemma of witnessing suffering as a Buddhist practitioner, either Lay or Monastic?

As Buddhists, we are committed to harmlessness, so at the minimum, acknowledging that many things are unfair, and that they cause suffering, and that we should not personally or knowingly contribute to that suffering but show compassion, and use as much wisdom as is possible in those situations, is a given. But beyond this, is there an obligation to change the system?

For me, this goes to the heart of each practitioners own causes and conditions and the aspects of the 8-fold path that is the current focus of practice. As has been mentioned, even the most senior teachers do not agree on the best way to address this, within the debates about socially engaged Buddhism.
In my personal view, this is because there is no ‘objective or static’ best/right way. It is conditional. Because it is conditional, it will be different for each individual, and each practitioner will have to answer it for themselves.

Again in my view, the least harmful way forward is to acknowledge this conditionality, and not to cause suffering to those for whom the ‘right action’ at this point in time varies from ones’ own. It is the understanding and tolerance, to see that, as long as harmlessness is maintained, no-one can determine the specific right action for another practitioner with regards to their spiritual journey toward enlightenment (within the structure of the 8-fold path, the precepts and the Vinaya depending on their status,).

But these are just my views based on my limited experience and limited knowledge of the Suttas, which is why I have limited confidence in them!

So what did the Buddha say about this situation?

with much metta and karuna for all beings :dharmawheel: :dharmawheel: :dharmawheel:


So then the bamboo acrobat said this to his assistant Medakathalika:
“You look after me, my dear Medakathalika, and I’ll look after you.
Thus with us looking after one another, guarding one another,
we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment,
and safely climb down the bamboo pole.”

This being said, the assistant Medakathalika said this to the bamboo acrobat:
“That will not do at all, master!
You look after yourself, master, and I will look after myself.
Thus with each of us looking after ourselves, guarding ourselves,
we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment,
and safely climb down from the bamboo pole.
That’s the right way to do it!”


Thank-you SarathW1 :slight_smile:

Here is the link at Sutta Central

the sutta continues

That’s the correct procedure,” said the Buddha. “It’s just as Medakathālikā said to her teacher. Thinking ‘I’ll look after myself,’ you should cultivate mindfulness meditation. Thinking ‘I’ll look after others,’ you should cultivate mindfulness meditation. Looking after yourself, you look after others; and looking after others, you look after yourself.

And how do you look after others by looking after yourself? By development, cultivation, and practice of meditation. And how do you look after yourself by looking after others? By acceptance, harmlessness, love, and sympathy. Thinking ‘I’ll look after myself,’ you should cultivate mindfulness meditation. Thinking ‘I’ll look after others,’ you should cultivate mindfulness meditation. Looking after yourself, you look after others; and looking after others, you look after yourself.”


Samsara is a cycle between birth and death, and as such has a momentum. Seeing this is the primary task. I meditate in a forest area, and by the time I have finished meditating on the forest, the connections with samsara have been sloughed off. As I cycle back through the town I can clearly see the elements that are arising trying to connect the mind to samsara. Once this freedom has been established it has to be progressively strengthened through renunciation. Only the practitioner themselves can do this work.


Per AN4.95, practicing to help ourselves is better than practicing to help others. Helping both is best.

The person who practices to benefit neither themselves nor others is like this, I say.
The person who practices to benefit others, but not themselves, is better than that.
The person who practices to benefit themselves, but not others, is better than both of those.
But the person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is the foremost, best, chief, highest, and finest of the four.


I read in one sutta, I believe it was the Rhinocerous Sutta, that the renunciant should live on “gleanings”. That might have been the earliest ideal. But eventually early Buddhists settled on the notion that renunciants should live on gifts made by worldlings out of the surplus generated by worldly economic activity.

I don’t know whether that was really the Buddha’s idea, or an idea developed by his followers. I guess it doesn’t really matter much. But once Buddhism made that choice, it ceased to become a teaching that rejects samsara, and became instead a system in which samsaric life and the holy life are intertwined, and the latter depends for its survival in the former.

If someone wants to devote their life entirely to their own personal liberation, and to the eventual blotting out of human life in some distant future, that is OK I guess. But I think they should practice great restraint in offering advice to people who have taken responsibility for the preservation of life and the organization of the worldly affairs upon which their very survival as renunciants depends.


This is great, but yet it doesn’t specify the extent of ‘the others’. Is it my sphere of influence, my neighbours, my village, my country, the world? Is it a direct relationship - the more others one helps, the greater the benefit? Does one actively seek out others to help, or just those who cross ones path? I’m exploring this specifically in regard to the dhamma behind socially engaged Buddhism :slight_smile:


It’s a rich topic. Some research shows that rare animal and plant species contribute disproportionally to their ecosystems. I do not reject the analogy between well-practiced mendicants and lay people and a rare yet valuable species. Compassion for instance prevents many wounds. Would we have tobacco companies in a more compassionate world? If not, surely fewer people would have lung cancer? I suspect one of the paradoxes that drives the engaged/withdrawn Buddhism faultline is ‘how to tolerate the intolerable’? In a hypothetical deva realm without much of the cruelty and enslavement of the natural world witnessed on Earth the paradox disappears, as does the need for engaged Buddhism.

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How could there be “my” or “others” with right mindfulness?

It’s like when it rains heavily on a mountain top, and the water flows downhill to fill the hollows, crevices, and creeks. As they become full, they fill up the pools. The pools fill up the lakes, the lakes fill up the streams, and the streams fill up the rivers. And as the rivers become full, they fill up the ocean.

I guess people have to decide for themselves whether human life - and life in general - is on the whole a good thing or a bad thing.

If it is on the whole good thing, then one cannot ignore the tangible progress that has been made. Life expectancies have been dramatically lengthened. Painful infections can be cured. Sanitation and nutrition have been improved, etc.


When the Buddha set the wheel of the dhamma in motion the effects were felt throughout the cosmos (SN 56.11), mind is therefore a powerful influence. When the Buddha accidentally saw old age, sickness and death in the street, he did not alight and help the sick, rather it set him on the path of compassion to all beings through achieving enlightenment. This illustrates the character of Theravada, mind takes precedence. When a practitioner instead of indulging desire (unskillful), takes the path of renunciation (skillful), it has an effect on themselves and any other person who’s involved. This is observed through the awakening factor of investigation. Graduating to this world of the mind and forsaking the world of the material is a stage of the practice.

"And what is the food for the arising of unarisen analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening, or for the growth & increase of analysis of qualities… once it has arisen? There are mental qualities that are skillful & unskillful, blameworthy & blameless, gross & refined, siding with darkness & with light. To foster appropriate attention to them: This is the food for the arising of unarisen analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening, or for the growth & increase of analysis of qualities… once it has arisen.”— SN. 46.51


It’s a common misconception that Mahayana Buddhists postpone personal enlightenment, instead waiting until all other beings are enlightened.

Most commonly, the Bodhisattva ideal is to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible, in order to then lead all other beings to enlightenment.

It also doesn’t need to be seen as either/or, since the path to enlightenment itself includes, among other things, working toward the welfare of others.


Reduce the suffering of oneself first. Then others: you must learn how to pull yourself out of the mud. I believe this is the order I have seen in the suttas, in a spiritual sense and interesting fact is it’s mentioned in how to spend your income. It’s clear that the level of poverty was high, with a few wealthier people thrown into the mix. I think people have it better, at least in the West. Temples should need minimum donations but in some places uncommonly- there is an excess! I think if this happens it should be a gifted back to those who need it in the community.

I think among the seniority in the sangha there are individuals who have thought a lot about and have experiences in lay life. Their compassionate and ethical viewpoint is of value! What is social engagement - is it organising a climate change protest march, or sharing on a post on Facebook, about climate change?


If one is really mindful that person may only consume what is needed and not excess.

Also asking questions from self like “do I really need this much of plastic in my life?” :thinking: might be helpful before trying to change the world. (I fail at this challenge most of the time due to laziness :no_mouth:)

Being a small, insignificant fish in the big scary world I do my bit depending on the situation. If I fail, I don’t beat myself up about it. #JustDo or #JustDon’t , best is not to keep feeling guilty about it. If the cause that motivates one to make an effort is beneficial one should go for it. That’s just my (conditioned) perspective.

Added: I was talking to a (very environmentally friendly) colleague the other day and she inspired me a lot to be more mindful about my daily (worldly) consumption. Perhaps we can inspire others too the same way without having to take part in protests. But being an activist is one’s motivation that could help too.
I guess we need to find our best skill that will help alleviate suffering of others first. Mine at the moment is (unregulated) counselling to friends and family in distress. So far no one has complained or sued. :crossed_fingers:t3:


Waves of gentle inspiration spreading outwards, limitless and unopposed, come what may.


I see renunciation of the world and purification of the mind as the path. Sometimes, when the mind is calm and is not weighed down by tiresome tasks, the allure of being detached completely from everything that arises and falls into decay is tantalizing. All the temptations of the world shining with glitter on the surface that pull the mind in a thousand directions, and the other, internal world in oneself that is filled with confusion, ache, compromises, attachments etc. - everything seems like a heavy burden. SN 22.22 goes right to the heart of this mayhem in one’s mind:

The path of bringing the world to an end involves reducing (and ultimately extinguishing) the desire to be an active participant in life - and this is one of the hardest things to do. I used to be very dismissive of monks who seemed to be unable to let go of the world and were indulging in many activities that I thought were irrelevant and messy. But, I have slowly learned to temper this judgmental side and see that all I was doing was merely stoking the flames of vanity inside myself. For me, refraining from judging the apparently worldly monks until I have actually pulled out the thorn of the desire for life and existence in myself is a better choice. The only thing is that one has to be careful to not allow the constraints and limitations in one’s life to overwhelm one’s mind and then build a hodgepodge of randomly gathered views and notions simply to justify whatever one is doing in order to get through this life.

This works for me. :slight_smile: