Help Others, Help Your Mind
April 03, 2024

As we train the mind, it’s important to remember that the Pali term for “mind,” citta, also includes the heart. And we have to train both sides. The side that figures things out, the side that reasons—that’s the mind. The side that wills—that’s the heart.

When we teach the mind how to think clearly, observe clearly, we want the heart to have goodwill. We have to understand that, because there are a lot of people who try to abuse the principle of goodwill. I was reading a while back someone saying that the Buddha, even though he taught right speech, was actually harmful in his speech. It turns out, though, that this person’s idea of “harm” was that the Buddha would say things that were unpleasant, that, in general, our saying unpleasant things is harmful to people.

You might as well just forget to speak, give up speaking, because no matter what you say, somebody’s going to be displeased. When you tell the truth, there are people who don’t like the truth. The Buddha’s very clear that you harm people not by saying or doing displeasing things, but by getting them to do unskillful things, because then that becomes their own karma. So in observing the precepts, you also have to remember that you’re not going to get other people to break the precepts. You also have to think about, when you’re living with one another, what’s involved.

The Buddha talks about how, when you’re meditating and developing the establishings of mindfulness, you’re helping other people. He gives the image of acrobats. When acrobats are working together, each acrobat has to maintain his or her own balance. In doing so, you make it easier for the other person to maintain his or her own balance. That’s the part that the Buddha illustrates with a simile. But then there’s the other part where he says that when helping other people, you’re also helping yourself. Unfortunately, there’s no simile, but he does talk about the qualities you develop when you’re helping others.

One is equanimity. When you’re dealing with other people, there are going to be a lot of things you don’t like. You can’t let your likes and dislikes get in the way of your doing what’s skillful. If you treat the people you like well but treat the people you dislike in a shabby way, that becomes your karma. It’s not good for you. So you have to remember, you’re not treating people well because they deserve it. You’re treating people well because it’s part of your training. It’s part of your safety, your protection. The Buddha talks again and again about goodwill as a form of protection. And goodwill always has to be accompanied by equanimity, just as equanimity has to be accompanied by goodwill. If we have just equanimity without the goodwill, we become indifferent, callous. We become apathetic.

There’s that great story of the storm that went through Ajaan Chah’s monastery once. The next day, Ajaan Chah went around the monastery checking up on the damage, and he found one monk sitting in a hut with half the roof blown off. He asked the monk, “Why aren’t you fixing the roof?” The monk said, “I’m practicing equanimity.” Ajaan Chah said, “That’s the equanimity of a water buffalo. You’re a human being. Fix the roof.”

So equanimity on its own is never taught. It’s never extolled. Equanimity always comes with other qualities. Goodwill is one of them.

We also see equanimity in the context of the seven factors for awakening. There it’s paired with persistence so that your equanimity doesn’t become lazy.

The seven factors start with being mindful. Based on your practice of mindfulness, you begin to analyze the mind, to see what’s skillful and what’s unskillful. That’s the function of analysis of qualities. It’s also the discernment faculty in the list. I read a translator one time putting a footnote on this, saying he didn’t understand why the Buddha, in defining discernment, defined it in terms of skillful and unskillful actions, or seeing what’s skillful, what’s unskillful. Apparently he thought that discernment had to mean seeing things in terms of the three characteristics.

But the Buddha’s categorical teachings don’t include the three characteristics. They include the principle that skillful actions should be developed, and unskillful actions should be abandoned, and then the four noble truths, which are basically the application of that first principle to the problem of suffering.

The discernment comes in seeing what’s skillful and what’s not, in your own mind. When you follow certain patterns of thinking, where do they lead? The Buddha himself applied this principle to his action and he got on the right path. He saw that he could divide his thinking into two types—based not on whether he liked it or didn’t like it, but on where the thoughts would come from in terms of the qualities of the mind, and where they would lead in terms of harming himself or harming others.

Based on that, he developed right effort or persistence, which is to abandon the unskillful qualities and to develop the skillful ones. And based on that, there’s a sense of refreshment leading to calm, concentration, and equanimity. So there you’ve got equanimity conjoined with the qualities you develop in meditation.

**But you develop these qualities in other contexts as well. When you’re living by the Vinaya, you have to be mindful of the rules. You have to analyze your mind states, because an important question in the Vinaya is often: What’s your intention? There are times when you break the rules unintentionally, and it doesn’t count as breaking the rules. Other times it does. Those are cases where you have to be really careful, really observant of your intentions, really persistent in trying to keep your intentions skillful. So there you are: three of the factors for awakening right there, simply in the abiding by the rules. **

So when the Buddha says you develop equanimity in dealing with other people, it’s not equanimity on its own. It encompasses other qualities as well in order for the equanimity to be balanced and not to get lazy, not to get indifferent.

Then, another quality he says you develop in helping others is patience, endurance, the Pali word khanti. And here again, you have to be clear about what you’re enduring. You may have to endure unpleasant words. You may have to endure seeing people doing things you don’t like. But with the endurance, you don’t just accept, accept, accept. If you really do care about other people, you have to ask yourself, “What can I do? If this person is misbehaving, what can I do to alert the person to that, in a way that the person will be willing to change his or her behavior?” This is a question we often don’t ask ourselves. We ask ourselves, basically, “How can I get that person to stop, period?”—whether they want to or not. That doesn’t create harmony within the group.

**Think about Talleyrand, the French diplomat. He said one of the principles of diplomacy is to figure out what the other side wants. If it’s in line with what you want, you’ll be happy to give something to them to please them. If it’s something not in line with what you want, he says you have to get them to see that they don’t really want that. That’s the art of diplomacy. Of course, he used that art in some pretty nefarious ways. But the principle, if it’s applied in line with the Dhamma, holds. It’s always better to get people to want to do what’s skillful rather than to just force them. **

Think about the old fable about the sun and the wind. The sun and the wind got into an argument one time as to who was stronger. The wind saw a man coming along the road below them. He said, “I’ll show you. I’ll blow that guy’s cloak off. You can’t do that.” So the wind blew and blew and blew, and the more it blew, the tighter the man held his cloak to his body. Finally, the wind had to admit that he had failed, he couldn’t do it. Then it was the sun’s turn, and the sun just beamed. As it got warmer and warmer and warmer, the man took the cloak off voluntarily.

**That’s a fable we tell to children, and then we think it’s just for children, but it’s not. A lot of things are basic—things that we start out with, principles we start out with from the very beginning—because they’re important all the way through, like that old book, All the Things I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Think about those principles the Buddha taught to his son, Rahula. They’re simple, but they’re not simple-minded, and they’re not simplistic. The Buddha was teaching that these are the principles you’ve got to hold all the way through. Once you start from this perspective, maintain that perspective: looking at your actions, gauging them, learning how to correct your mistakes.

That’s how you show goodwill for yourself and goodwill for others. That’s how you deal correctly with patience. It’s not that you don’t try to do better and say, “Well, I’ll just accept whatever comes up.” It’s more a question of realizing there are some things you’ve got to accept, and other things you don’t have to accept. This is why the list includes not only patience, but also goodwill. If you really have goodwill for yourself, you don’t just sit there, doing nothing. Again, you don’t want to be just a water buffalo, even a buffalo radiating thoughts of goodwill. You want to be a human being.

Then, the final quality the Buddha says that you develop when you deal with other people and is going to be good for you is the Pali term, anukampa. It can be translated as “sympathy”; it can be translated as “kindness.” And it comes down to sensitivity to what other people need, what do other people want, what you can provide in little ways that would help them. This is a large part of the training in the forest tradition. When you’re the ajaan’s attendant, it’s not that the ajaan tells you all the time what he wants you to do. You have to read him. You have to sense: What does he need?

Think about Ajaan Fuang talking about Ajaan Lee. One time, I discovered there was a belief that Ajaan Lee was King Asoka reborn. So I got a book on Asoka’s life. At the back of the book, it had a series of his edicts translated. And one of the edicts—which was addressed to his government officials—said, “If you want to please me, you have to know what I want before I do.” I translated that for Ajaan Fuang. He said, “Two thousand years, he didn’t change.” If you can learn how to anticipate other people’s needs, you benefit in terms of sensitivity, and it makes the community run more smoothly.

So these are the qualities, the Buddha said that, when you develop them in the course of dealing with other people, they become part of your own virtue, part of your set of inner qualities that benefit you: equanimity, patience, goodwill, kindness. So remember, everything you do throughout the day can be part of the practice. You’re training both the heart and the mind. The lessons you learn outside get applied inside. The lessons you learn inside get applied outside. Both sides benefit.

I read a book one time that compared a vipassanā center back east with a Thai temple, also back east. The person who was doing the study commented to a woman in the vipassanā center that it didn’t seem like the people in the Thai temple were practicing. The woman in the vipassanā center had the good sense to say, “Well, maybe their practice isn’t just sitting and meditating. Maybe Buddhist practice includes more things, like generosity and virtue.” She was right.So try to see this as an all-around practice.

When you’re helping other people, as I said, be clear on the fact that you’re not just pleasing them. You’re trying to do things that are actually good for them, which sometimes may or may not be pleasing to them. You can’t let their likes and dislikes run your life, because the likes and dislikes of people, even if they’re close to you, are not all that reliable. The things they like today, they may not like tomorrow. You practice the Dhamma, and they don’t like it. You break the precepts, they like it. What kind of guidance is that? What kind of principle is that?

As I said, what do we mean when we say, “helping other people” or “avoiding harming other people”? You do what you can not to break the precepts and not to get them to break the precepts. You do what you can not to provoke greed, aversion, delusion in yourself, and you don’t try to provoke greed, aversion, and delusion in others. As you do that, you develop qualities that will help you on your path, train both your heart and your mind to the point where you see that they really are part of the same thing, and that they grow best by growing together**.**