In the Buddhist world, a division is often made between those who practice for themselves and those who practice for others. Such a dualistic notion is far from what the Buddha actually taught. Nonetheless, those in one camp can easily disdain those in the other and vis versa. The Mahayanists can be accused by the Theravadins for doing “social work” whereas the Theravadins can be accused of seeking their own liberations exclusively while not caring about others who are in need. As usual, the Buddha cautions us of adopting extremes in either direction. In fact, in a sutta, the Buddha says that there are four types of people: 1) one who practices/lives for the good of neither oneself or others, 2) one who practices/lives for the good of others but not oneself, 3) one who practices/lives for the good of oneself but not others, and 4) one who practices/lives for the good of both oneself and others. Of the four, the Buddha praised the last: one who lives for the good of both oneself and others.
Now, what exactly do we mean by “practice”? What does practice look like? The way one answers that question is very much determined by the underlying view of one’s goal in life. If one is bent on escaping this world because it is full of suffering, then practice will most likely be of a solitary nature focused on one’s internal states of mind. On the other hand, if one leans towards compassionate action in this world (often referred to as the “Bodhisattva ideal”), then one is willing to engage with the messiness of the world in order to be of benefit to the greater whole. With the former, practice and life can look separate; whereas for the latter, one’s life is one’s practice.
Lest I be accused of generalizing or judging, I am not saying that individual practice has no benefit. The Buddha rated the one who practices for her own benefit as higher than the one who practices only for the benefit of others. This is because we can’t really help someone if we ourselves have not developed our own capacity. (You may remember the old simile of one who is unable to pull the other out of the mud while still in it himself.) But the Buddha didn’t stop there. He went on to mention that the fourth option is the one who takes what has benefited her and uses it in service of the whole.
I’m always impressed when reflecting on how after the Buddha was enlightened, he decided to forego a life of ease - resting in the bliss of his attainment - and instead help others find the way out of suffering. Although I cannot compare myself to the Buddha’s level of attainment, I can still emulate his example by caring for the welfare of others while I continue to care for my own welfare. For it is in the company of others that I begin to see my limitations and have the opportunity to grow beyond them. The whole concept of a separate “I” who can get “saved” apart from others is built on what the Buddha considers to be the central distortion of perception. The renown monk and nobel peace prize winner, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks, instead, of “inter-being” as the reality of which we are all a part. To separate ourselves from the web of life is impossible. Not only do philosophers and mystics agree with this truth but also modern science points to this same law of interdependence in the natural world.
Finally, the sutta on loving-kindness instructs us to “not disparage any being in any state”, whether this is a fellow practitioner who chooses a different mode of practice or any individual or group we might consider outside the boundaries of our caring attention. The boundless quality of loving-kindness is just that - boundless. No boundaries! Our so-called safety zones are neither safe nor ours. To ask where do I belong is to be asking the wrong question. There is a place where we all belong. It is the place beyond the separate me and mine. May we consciously choose to open to that reality.