Forum: How Should I Help?

Forum with Paul Haller, Robina Courtin, and Bernie Glassman on the relationship between social engagement and Buddhist practice.

By Lion’s Roar

Photo by John Wigham.

It is hard to disagree with the idea that the way of the Buddha is to help others. If we help others, we get beyond carving out a space in which we can comfortably nest. Helping others challenges our tendency to zone out on a comfort binge of food, clothing, shelter, companionship, meditation—you name it. What could be better for promoting liberation and enlightenment than extending ourselves to others? And yet there could be big problems.

Being helpful can be very unhelpful. Much of what passes for help is really hindrance, as in, “Honey, I was just trying to help.” For one thing, we can comfortably delude ourselves into thinking we are a big help, and out of a desire to alleviate the pain we feel in the presence of someone else’s pain, give them exactly the Band-Aid they don’t need.

Our predilection for creating situations in which we are the boss can also be very deeply ingrained. I, like so many parents, realize now there were countless times I thought I “helped” my children (and patted myself on the back for doing so) when in fact I was cleverly constructing ways to make myself feel better about being a father and mold my children into something that made me happy. I appeared, heroically, to leave my comfort zone, when really I was feathering my nest. This mode of “helping” can be fostered within the family and then exported way beyond the family unit. It’s called Big Nurse.

Another obstacle to real helping can be a lack of skill. Doctors frequently advise people who don’t have first-aid knowledge to avoid doing too much to help someone who is injured. Unless you have the skill to handle someone with an injured spine, for example, you can worsen that person’s condition for life. Good intention does not automatically lead to genuine help. Should we just help others without any thought of the actual outcome, so long as it is well-meaning?

Meditation is a means to be kind to ourselves, so that we can be kind to others. It also strips back the layers of self-delusion that sabotage so many of our efforts to reach out to others. The Buddha first sat under the bodhi tree, and then, as others’ needs came to his attention, he acted. But, as several threads of the discussion in this forum indicate, the notion that we have to attain wisdom before we can help can be another big trap—a trap that many people feel our Western Buddhist communities have fallen into. Being committed to helping ourselves first, so that we may be capable of helping others, could lead us to hesitate when we should leap, to be caught in a web of casuistry—endlessly wringing our hands over when it is appropriate and not appropriate to help. That is why Thich Nhat Hanh first waved the banner of Engaged Buddhism, to rouse Buddhist practitioners off of a complacent seat on a cushion.

Our panelists are all longtime practitioners who have found many ways to offer help to the world at large, and they have also learned that the path does not necessarily have to begin with meditation. It could begin with helping—which may become augmented by meditation or even become a form of meditation. The panelists offer a broad vision for our Buddhist communities and lots of practical advice about how to be genuinely helpful and work with the interplay between formal practice and engagement.

They have also seen how the act of helping can generate profound, intense insight, as we are forced to deal with the fuzzy boundary between self and other—what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” Bodhisattvas vow to help others achieve enlightenment before they achieve enlightenment themselves, making them amateurs by profession, bumbling and stumbling along, making mistakes. Inevitably, for the would-be bodhisattva, there are many sidetracks on the path of helping, but unless we commit ourselves to that path in the first place, real practice never begins.

– Barry Boyce


Buddhadharma: Buddhists are known for meditating, but how much should they engage with the world outside of their meditation hall, household, and community of fellow meditators? Does the Buddha’s principle of right livelihood imply social and political action in the larger community?

Paul Haller: Meditation is simply one Buddhist practice. The fact that meditation practice is what is most attractive to us may well be a consequence of our background as privileged people living in the midst of post-industrial materialism. Since we approach our practice from that background, looking for individual liberation is prominent. But I would hope that as we mature in the practice, it moves from taking to giving, that it becomes less of an individual practice and more of a collective practice. As it becomes more of a collective practice, compassion for ourselves and for others becomes a more active ingredient and expression of our practice.

Robina Courtin: It is said that just as a bird needs two wings, we need both wisdom and compassion. The inner wing of our practice is wisdom, and the outer wing is compassion. That’s the action wing, the political wing, the social-work wing. When you work on your own mind, you are developing the meditative wing, wisdom. The more you do so, the more you will decrease your delusions, increase your positive qualities, and increase your own sense of happiness. Therefore, you will increase your sense of connectedness, and inevitably, you’ve got no choice but to put yourself out there to benefit others.

A bird needs two wings. It’s not enough just for us to have internal practice. It’s got to be externalized. It’s an inevitable product of our practice if we’re doing the job properly.

Bernie Glassman: Separating meditation and action is too dualistic. The only meditator who could possibly not engage with the world outside would be somebody who stays in a cave, like Bodhidharma. But even he had to engage with the world in order to eat. As you live twenty-four hours a day, you’re engaging in all kinds of ways. How could we train a Buddhist to not engage with the world? Separating out action and meditation almost implies that while you’re meditating you’re a Buddhist, and when you step outside of the meditation hall, you’re something else.

Robina Courtin: Well, of course, we act all the time both internally and externally, but most of our external work right now—not to mention the internal—is motivated by attachment and self-centeredness. The effectiveness of our external work is the real point. We all function externally, but it’s got to be effective work, which means it has to be based on wisdom and the genuine wish—and the genuine ability—to help others.

Bernie Glassman: I like to think of it in terms of the metaphor of making meals from the ingredients we have. I look at the ingredients wherever I am. If I look back ten or twenty years, or even fifty or sixty, I can see that I had to take the ingredients of who I was at that point and try to make the best meal possible. That’s what I would do today. I do what I can with what I have and what I encounter.

If somebody falls in front of me, I don’t say, “I can’t pick them up because I’m not enlightened enough,” or, “I haven’t purified myself enough.” If a person falls in front of me, I pick them up. It’s part of living. It is true that as one practices, one can see the environment a little more clearly and can do more, but there is never a need to wait for purity or enlightenment.

Paul Haller: We’ve all made it clear that it doesn’t make sense to hold up meditation in contrast to the many other things that we do. We would hope, however, that as practice matures, our preoccupation with a small self diminishes, and everything in life just organically becomes our practice. As we open up, we start to see the suffering of the world. Then, quite naturally, we reach out to it and start to relate to it as helpfully and compassionately as we can. For myself, I never really intended to engage the world in a certain way. It just started to happen.

Buddhadharma: Does the term “engaged Buddhism” still work to describe Buddhism beyond the cushion or does it need to be updated?

Robina Courtin: I think you could consider it dualistic, in the same way that Bernie was just talking about. I don’t find it particularly necessary or useful.

Paul Haller: As dualistic as it might be, I think it has a place. I prefer the term “socially engaged Buddhism,” because “engaged Buddhism” makes it sound like there’s Buddhism that’s engaged and Buddhism that’s not engaged. We are in a time when we’re balancing the contemplative with the active, seeing that they’re just different expressions of the buddhadharma. To have a term like that helps us give that kind of work an identity. It’s an archetype, just like the bodhisattva ideal.

Bernie Glassman: I agree. It was a helpful term that Thich Nhat Hanh gave to us. Of course, all of Buddhism is engaged, but it helps to qualify it in the way that Paul was talking about. We do have to be aware of the dangers of being too rigid about our practice, of defining it too narrowly, or we can create inhospitable places within our own communities.

One time, at one of our centers, people were doing a very beautiful liturgy, The Gate of Sweet Nectar, in which we invite all the hungry spirits, all the unsatisfied, to come into our mandala, and we offer them the supreme meal of bodhi mind. They had just finished the liturgy, and a homeless person walked into the zendo where they were having the service, and one of the priests said, “You can’t be in here.” Another time, a doctor working with us was practicing and his beeper went off for an emergency, and he was chastised for disturbing the practice.

Paul Haller: One of my students recently told me he had been walking down the street with his mala, doing a mantra of compassion, when a homeless person approached him, and he told him to go away because he was interrupting his practice.

Buddhadharma: Despite the need to avoid a hard and fast dualism between meditation and action, many students do look for guidance on the proper balance between formal meditation practice and concerted action in the world.

Robina Courtin: If we were talking about music, the same question would arise: How much do you practice and how much do you perform for others or teach others? The answer seems obvious. The extent to which I have practiced is the only extent to which I can do something worthwhile for others. Otherwise, we’re just wasting time. The more I practice my piano, the more capable I am of putting it out there. If we’re practicing properly and have a sincere wish, we will respond to the need when it arises, better and better all the time.

Paul Haller: I’ve noticed that some people definitely come to practice through being of service—doing hospice, prison, or homeless work is the dharma gate they enter through. After a while, the other aspects of practice start to take on relevance and appropriateness. Perhaps in the orthodoxy of our Western practice situations, we think almost exclusively of people coming through the meditative dharma gate. As the offering we make to the world matures, both gates will be offered, and people will come through whichever gate the conditions and the karma of their life make most appealing.

Robina Courtin: When I first became a Buddhist, I was compelled to go into it fully, but meditation sounded so boring. I didn’t want to sit still for one second. I wanted to do something. So action was certainly my entry point. The wish to become a nun was a wish to do something. Then, very slowly, grew an understanding of what it meant to contemplate and know my own mind.

We’re all very different. Each person has to approach it from where they are.

Bernie Glassman: Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, said we should remember that Zen is the way of awakening, and for him that meant realizing the interconnectedness of life, and dropping the gap between subject and object. Now, in Soto Zen, we do stress the meditation part, but I think Dogen was asking us to consider what the goal of all of this is. If your focus is on yourself, you tend to take care of yourself. But if you see the oneness of life, you see the world as yourself, and you’re taking care of the whole world. Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon, said that the way you gauge the depth of a person’s enlightenment is by how much they’re serving others; it’s not by how much they’re sitting on the meditation cushion.

Robina Courtin: The sign of a good musician is not how well they practice, but whether they can get out there and share their music.

Paul Haller: I think we need to examine whether in our communities we have set up a hierarchy where meditation is the primary practice and helping others is a kind of secondary extension.

Robina Courtin: It seems that sometimes we have the tendency to get a little fundamentalist and puritanical, like measuring whether you’re a good Buddhist by how much you meditate.

Paul Haller: We may think of ourselves here in the West as the orthodoxy, the cornerstone, of Buddhist practice, but if we can put ourselves in a wider context—the context of the whole of Buddhist practice around the world—it’s a lot easier for us to not cling to that position of righteousness. For example, in the world at large, I think it’s accurate to say that the majority of Buddhists are Pure Land Buddhists, and meditation is not the cornerstone of their practice. So we should stop assuming that anyone who is sincerely practicing will look and be just like us.

Bernie Glassman: Even though in this country we’re young in the world of Buddhism, already we’ve formed our own institutions and clubs, with rules as to what makes you a good member of the club and what doesn’t. All that has nothing to do with awakening. Whenever you form a club, you will be excluding some, and then you have to figure out what to do with the ones you exclude. The most common thing is to ignore them.

Certainly, clubs and rules have their place, but we have to recognize that while the clubs and rules we establish will be great for a given number of people, we have to be very careful not to forget the people outside of the club. When I started working in Yonkers, I was working with homeless folk. There was no way that they were going to do the kind of meditation that we were talking about. They were automatically outside the club of the Zen community of New York. In order to work with meditation with these folks, we started every meeting with a minute of silence. So you can have many clubs and many different kinds of rules, depending on the people and the circumstances.

Robina Courtin: To a certain extent, it’s important to begin by minding your own business. The Tibetans say, “You don’t know who anybody is, so don’t judge.” If we keep our mouths quiet and look at ourselves instead, that’s a good beginning. Then, we can work with people according to our capabilities and their capabilities.

Bernie Glassman: That’s what upaya is about. It’s not that any given upaya is bad or good, but there are many upaya, and they have different places and times where they apply.

Robina Courtin: At the Liberation Prison Project, we have six hundred people knocking on our door every month, so we give them whatever they need. Some of them would not be called Buddhists. Some are Christians. Through letters, phone calls, and visits, and by supplying books, videos, and CD’s, we help them understand that they can’t change the external situation—they can’t change their prosecutor, their judge, and their jury, and the disgusting prison situation—but they can work on their own minds. They can learn to see themselves better, understand their own delusions, understand their own positive qualities, develop self-confidence, and become more content within their situation. We give them Buddhist tools, and they make use of them according to their capability, just like any other student would. Part of the wisdom of helping others is knowing that the extent to which you’re able to help somebody is the extent to which they want to be helped.

In the West, we’ve kind of institutionalized working for others. In Tibet, you didn’t join a nonprofit or give your money to an NGO. You helped the person in front of you. Now, because of our complicated world, it’s all institutionalized, but helping in an institutional way can be very beneficial. There’s no way we could do what we’re doing for prisoners with one person going door to door. You need systems.

Buddhadharma: Some people prefer just to work on a personal, individual level and steer clear of institutional helping.

Bernie Glassman: You need both! I’m tremendously individualistic, but I get involved in institutions all the time.

Robina Courtin: There certainly can be problems in institutional forms of helping. Before I was a Buddhist, I was involved with great people trying to rush out and change the world, but they would come back from a demonstration and beat up their wife. You’ve got to do the inner work all the time. Then your institution can be amazing. After ten years of the prison project, we have a really harmonious group of people, and one of the reasons is that we have simple rules, like never talk behind a person’s back. We have to apply the wisdom within the group as well as offer it to those we are serving.

Paul Haller: When people get involved in helping, we actually find that they can develop quite rapidly and deeply. In helping to set up the Zen Hospice Project, I noticed how potent it was for people to be at the bedside of the dying. There were very strong effects for people who immersed themselves in that. They felt like people who had sat a sesshin. They became more their own person, more open, more grounded. They did their practice at the bedside, bearing witness to someone else’s journey from life to death, and meeting that by being of service.

Seeing that happen over and over became a compelling twist for me. I realized there are many ways to open, to become grounded, and to see the interconnectedness of all life. The key component is immersion, being fully engaged in what’s going on. That’s one of the marks I look for in social engagement. If it’s possible to put into effect an all-engaging immersion, that can be as powerful as an intense meditation retreat.

Robina Courtin: Lama Zopa often says that helping others can be the equivalent of years of retreat.

Bernie Glassman: When I did my first street retreat twenty years ago, there were people who had practiced for a long time and some who had never meditated. I was totally surprised to see that being on the streets for five or six days caused people to experience things that they were unable to experience in over ten years of practice. It was because of the kind of deep immersion that Paul referred to, where people are entering a world they have no rational understanding of. I saw the same thing when we went to Auschwitz.

It made me realize why people practiced in charnel grounds in Tibet and other countries. We need that kind of deep immersion to do real meditation, but I would say 95 percent of people who meditate are getting into a nice, calm, relaxed place and are not necessarily doing the kind of immersion that happens when you’re at the bedside of somebody who is dying. For many people, their early sessions of meditation involve that kind of immersion. But how do you keep the intensity up? How do you keep it from just being a nice snack? Even the notion of “retreat” can be suspect. To get to a place where you can have some peace and quiet for a couple of minutes is not what Buddhism is about.

Paul Haller: In other Buddhist countries, the practice is more integrated into the culture, into the society. Our practice has been more in isolation. We go on retreat. We go somewhere isolated and special, and we do our practice, and then we go back to another life, another world, and once again take up the values, the separateness, the individuation, the materialism of that world. Our Buddhist communities need to create the social engagement that can put us into this state of immersed interconnectedness, particularly because of the nature of the society we live in.

Buddhadharma: Has the individualistic nature of Western society played a dominant role in shaping the Buddhist groups that we’ve formed and the values they espouse?

Robina Courtin: I wouldn’t speak out against focusing on the individual. The Buddha talks a lot about the individual and personal responsibility. The Buddha would say every individual has a potential for perfection. To develop that, you do have to do the work individually. I have got to look at my mind, take responsibility for my junk, my delusions, and not blame others. That’s very individual. But as I lessen the sense of “I,” the awareness encompasses others. What starts out as individual becomes social. Western culture may be self-centered, but that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with working on ourselves individually. You have to work on the individual. I can’t work on you. Only you can work on you.

Buddhadharma: But many would say that our Western Buddhist groups often seem like retail stores for improving yourself.

Robina Courtin: I wouldn’t put that down. It’s better than killing people. Let’s not get too fundamentalist and lay that judgment on people. Any single, tiny thing that has the label Buddha on it, if it can help make you a slightly better person, is all to the good.

Buddhadharma: But if a group doesn’t have any form of reaching out, after a while could that become something that is not in the spirit of Buddhism anymore?

Bernie Glassman: Buddhism is very young here. If you consider the Catholic Church or Buddhism in Japan, there are so many different ways that people are doing things. In the Catholic world, there are monastic orders, social action orders, educational orders, and orders for parish priests. All sorts of different schools and groups arose to take care of the multitude of needs of people.

In Japan, the Pure Land school is very prominent. One of the newest schools, and probably the largest now in Japan, Rissho Kosei Kai, was founded by a Gandhi sort of person. It does not emphasize meditation, but rather social action and working in Third World countries. Soto and Rinzai have their own well-known approaches. The Tendai school stresses working with people’s psychology.

This same kind of differentiation is going to happen here. Some will say that to be a good Buddhist, you have to spend thirty years in a cave, and others will say, “Spend thirty years in my meditation hall,” and others will say you have to do social action. The world is a huge garden, and people have to have their choice. There will be people at different times of their life wanting one form or another. There will be many gates. Why say one is right or one is wrong?

Paul Haller: I agree. Different personalities and karmic dispositions will be attracted to different forms of practice. We’re at this very interesting phase where we’re moving away from the retreat meditative model, from the enclosed community, to more expanded versions of practice.

Robina Courtin: I think we need to be moving toward having more retreat centers. In France, for example, there are many communities doing very long retreats. If you think of it as just going off so you can feel good and get away from things, it’s a mistake. But if you’re taking a long-term view and going into retreat to gain realization, to make a profound shift in your mind, you will come out as a bodhisattva, fully qualified to benefit others. Of course, we need to move toward doing more social work, but we also need more retreat. If we don’t allow for that, knowledge holders, genuine beings with deep internal experiences, won’t exist in the West.

Bernie Glassman: Of course we need retreat. It’s a matter of the numbers. The numbers who will be doing those kinds of retreat are always going to be small. The numbers who are highly active in working with others is still going to be small. The largest group will be those who practice because they think they’re going to escape suffering.

Robina Courtin: Let’s not forget that escaping can be very intelligent.

Buddhadharma: You’ve all been talking about a range of ways to practice that involve different levels and types of engagement. Students often find it difficult to figure out which way to turn at a given point in life, and they seek guidance. How do you go about giving them advice about an appropriate level and type of engagement?

Robina Courtin: I tell people that you’ve got to have the sincere wish to do what’s most beneficial—that might be to get married and have ten kids or to enter a monastery. You need to be guided by a sincere wish. That gives you the courage to see the options more clearly, and to not be motivated by fear or by what society thinks, or by what you think you should be doing.

If you keep in mind your sincere wish, you’ll be much more in touch with what you’re really doing at any given moment, and you can make your choices step by step. Sometimes it’s time to do retreat; other times it’s time to go out. Before you can know, you have to look to your deep motivation. Then you can see the next steps more clearly.

Paul Haller: That’s a wonderful admonition. Also, I would try to describe to someone what I think each of the different modes of practice offers, and how it fits into a bigger mandala. Then, I can try to help the person unpack their own motivation, and to be as honest and accurate as they can about where they’re at and what they think is appropriate at this point.

Robina Courtin: The step they need to take may not be the one that is the most comfortable. Attachment is so powerful that we crave staying in the comfort zone. Sometimes the best step might be to stay in that lousy job, stay in that lousy relationship, because somehow, you’re making some changes internally.

Paul Haller: It might also depend on whether they need to be thoroughly challenged, to go beyond their safety and security into the unknown, or whether it is a time for stability and definitiveness.

Buddhadharma: We’ve all had the experience of trying to help somebody and making a big mess of things. Is there an argument to be made for stopping before you help to consider whether you’re simply going to add more neurosis to the situation?

Paul Haller: No matter how well-intentioned we are, we’re never presenting an absolute solution. We’re just presenting a relative solution, and we need to hold it with some tentativeness and see what effect it has. It helps to realize that we’re here to serve others, and not to somehow have them join our club or make us feel better because we’re helping out.

Robina Courtin: Since we can’t bear to see all this pain out there, we often just jump in out of idiot compassion. When we see this yearning to make it all nice, sometimes we need to back off.

Bernie Glassman: The word “help” has a hidden trap. I prefer to use the word “offering.” When you say “help,” you are implying that you’re going to make it better, you’re going to fix it. If you’re in the world of offering or serving, the offering may not be wanted. That’s fine. The best I can offer may create more problems, it may create fewer problems, and it may be totally ignored. That’s irrelevant.

Paul Haller: Speaking of concern with outcomes, the efficacy of helping can get quite challenging and interesting when we get into the area of politics and advocating for a position, such as opposing the death penalty or nuclear arms. At different times in the politics of San Francisco, I have decided to take a stand. At one point, we got engaged in trying to pass a proposition to create more public housing. We went door to door, distributing leaflets encouraging people to vote for it. I would like to know what Robina and Bernie think about those sorts of initiatives.

Robina Courtin: Whether you call it a capital “P” politics, or just helping people, if you’re sincere, you’re simply trying to make the world a better place. Many of the young monks and nuns in Tibet have been the main political activists. They are trying to effect change, but they don’t do it with expectations. As Bernie was saying, the outcome might be what is wanted or it might not be. All that matters is your motivation.

Paul Haller: But in deciding to go around and leaflet people, you are endeavoring to create a certain outcome. Otherwise, you wouldn’t do it.

Robina Courtin: I walk out the door with the expectation of the outcome that the street will be there. I can’t guarantee the street will be there, I can’t guarantee the law will be passed. But you do your best to make that happen, without expectation of result.

Bernie Glassman: It seems like my whole life, in Buddhism, I’ve been running up against people saying, “That ain’t Zen.” Life is Zen. So why exclude politics?

Paul Haller: Have you been engaged much in the political activities of the different localities you’ve been involved in?

Bernie Glassman: Yes, but I tend not to get involved in “anti-” things. My own preference is to propose things, get involved with actions that I think should be done. I’ve been involved in efforts to get together with other progressive clergy to form a spiritual coalition that offers a different view from the far Right. But I’ve seen a huge absence of Buddhists in that. Rabbi Michael Lerner has been spearheading such an effort, and he asks, “Who are the Buddhists who would play this game? Who would get involved?”

When I was heavily involved with creating housing in Yonkers, each year the state housing legislation would be circulated to the church groups for comment. The draft legislation would go to the Catholic charities, to the United Jewish welfare group. There was not one Buddhist or Hindu group involved. And I would ask, “Where are they?”

Buddhadharma: Many people feel they practice Buddhism to become nonbiased, but politics is biased by definition, so they don’t wish to get involved.

Robina Courtin: It’s far too abstract to say, “I don’t want to have an opinion.” In fact, it’s impossible. If it’s beneficial, please have an opinion. If it’s not, be quiet. The Dalai Lama recently said that he and other Nobel Prize winners have decided that the next time something like the Iraq war comes up, they are going to speak up more loudly. It can only be good to speak up, but shouting and yelling and being divisive is the kind of politics that causes a problem.

Paul Haller: I do think it’s important not to take a position that excludes others from the practice. When the Iraq war was beginning, I felt compelled to protest that. And there was some concern within our community that this was an exclusive activity. At the time, though, I thought I was holding up a

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

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