Benefitting Others: The Balance between Benefit and Harm
His Holiness the 17th Karmapa’s Teachings on Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation
Tergar Monastery, Bodh Gaya, India
February 18, 2020
Bodhisattvas have only one aim and responsibility which is to benefit sentient beings. Every thought, every action, every breath they take, and all their resources need to be directed to the benefit of sentient beings. They also need to know how to benefit sentient beings. Based on listening, contemplation and meditation, you can gain experience; just following your own views and opinions might cause more harm than good and can be driven by a selfish motivation.
There are factors which can militate against your ability to help others such as your lack of skills, your environment, and health problems. Sometimes, taking care of your own health, both physical and mental, becomes benefitting others. As the Way of the Bodhisattva says:
But when your strength diminishes,
Put work aside to act again later.
Once it’s well done, leave it behind—
Look forward to the next and later.
There, are, therefore important considerations when we wish to work for the benefit of sentient beings. His Holiness listed nine:
- Considering both oneself and others;
- Considering the bounds of benefit and harm;
- The status of sentient beings;
- The number of sentient beings;
- Considering this and future lives;
- Considering the vows and non-virtues;
- Considering the pros and cons of giving;
- Considering sentient beings’ separate interests;
- Considering the pros and cons for one’s own dharma practice.
Considering both oneself and others
If an action is beneficial, His Holiness commented, you should do it, but if it causes harm, you definitely shouldn’t do it. If it harms you but helps others, you need to assess the situation intelligently and weigh up the good versus the bad. His Holiness used an illustration from the auto commentary on Chandrakirti’s Entering into the Middle Way. If you plant a fruit tree, at first, when it is just a sapling, you need to really protect it. If you do that, later when the trunk has grown, it will bear apples and everyone will be able to eat the fruit. Similarly, with a beginner bodhisattva, their bodhichitta and their courage are like a young shoot that could be easily broken or die, and it needs protecting. Because it is the foundation for benefitting others, protecting it is also benefitting others. Once it is stable, you do whatever you can to benefit others. Once you have achieved the bodhisattva levels, you work only for the sake of other sentient beings.
Considering the bounds of benefit and harm
Basically, His Holiness explained, if something is of great benefit to others and of little harm to oneself, you should do it. If it’s of great harm to you and little benefit to others then there is no need to do it. If, however, the harm and benefit are equal, you need to do what is right in that situation at that time. We also need to consider short-term benefit versus happiness in the long-term. “Our ancestors built such things as the Taj Mahal and the Potala Palace in Lhasa and that is what they have left behind,” he commented. ”We are leaving behind a mountain of rubbish the size of Mount Meru for future generations!” This is a crucial moment in the history of the earth and human beings have a responsibility to consider the future happiness of the planet. If we have to choose between temporary benefit and ultimate happiness, we should be working for the latter.
Considering the status of sentient beings
There are many examples of differences in levels: between humans and animals; in society between nobles and ordinary people; differences in the level of realisations; between laypeople and bhikshus there are different levels of precepts; between sravakas and bodhisattvas there are different levels of motivation. From our birth, we have experienced different degrees of closeness to others. However, from the perspective of bodhisattvas, there should be no differentiation between close friends and enemies or sentient beings with whom they have no connection. All sentient beings on this earth, no matter who they are, are equal in wanting to avoid suffering and attain happiness, and this should be the primary concern of bodhisattvas, whatever their circumstances.
However, there are many instances when we are confronted by a choice that we have to make on our own, a decision based on our experience, awareness, listening and contemplation. A Chinese saying goes: A thousand days of military training are for the sake of going into battle once. In the same way, we study the dharma and read a lot of texts, in order to be prepared, but if at the critical point, we cannot hold on to it, it’s as Milarepa said: “The good is great in learning, but now is the profundity of knowing what to do and not to do.” We need to be able to use what we have learned.
Considering the number of sentient beings
In this fourth consideration, it is a question of assessing whether an action will be beneficial to many but harm the few, in which case it is appropriate to carry out the action. If it will harm many to help the few, it should not be done. If there would be equal harm and benefit, we need to choose skilfully what to do. The choice may not be clear. His Holiness referred once more to environmental concerns. The situation in the world today has arisen because human beings consider human happiness and control to be paramount so they kill other animals and destroy their habitats without a second thought. His Holiness posed several questions, “If you have to choose between the lives of human beings and animals, which do you, choose? … Are you going to forget about animals for the sake of humans or forget about humans for the sake of animals? Or are you going to look really carefully at the situation and ignore the few for the benefit of the majority?”
The Karmapa cited the examples of the swine flu and avian flu epidemics when millions of animals and birds were killed in order to contain the virus. Is this a case of ignoring the few for the many or choosing humans over animals? He then posited another dilemma: You are driving a car when the brakes fail. You only have two choices, one way is full of pedestrians, and the other way has a small number of construction workers. If you choose the first, many will die, but if you choose the second only a few will die. There is no time to think about it or take advice. What would you do in that situation?
These examples show how difficult it is to work for the benefit others. Bodhisattvas are meant to be as diligent as if their hair is on fire. “We usually sit around drinking tea, chatting and boasting,” the Karmapa observed.
Milarepa said: “When I feel compassion deep within, it’s like all beings are burning in a pit of fire.” When he feels compassion deep in his heart, it’s as if all sentient beings of the three realms are burning in a pit of fire and he asks what he can do to save them “in this very session, on this very cushion, at this very time”, His Holiness commented, ”This is unbearable compassion.” Milarepa doesn’t have time to sit and relax. If we are truly committed to benefitting others, we need to prepare our minds for any situation, and we need to begin to prepare ourselves now.
The teaching concluded at this point.
His Holiness asked everyone to reassemble after the tea-break to recite the Praises of Twenty-One Taras in order to pacify all outer and inner obstacles for themselves and all other sentient beings, for the teachings to flourish, for great beings to have no obstacles to their life or activities, for the sangha to flourish and prosper, and for all the countries, especially China where COVID 19 has spread, that patients may recover quickly, and that the nurses and doctors may be able to give medical treatment without any obstacles, and themselves be free of illness and mental suffering.