As we deepen our insight into the suffering of our self and others, genuine compassion begins to awaken. And while the heart is genuinely opening with the desire to alleviate suffering, there’s still a desire to protect our self, so we can easily become confounded and tangled as we try to help others.The self is still arising and we are still attached to it. Now we have a conflict: Whom do I serve? Do I take care of my own pain or do I respond to yours? Do I turn inward, and go deeper into that solitude? Or do I turn outward and address the illnesses of the world? Do I move toward silence and stillness, or toward activity? Do I return to the one or do I intermingle with the many?
In Buddhist literature, the Bodhisattva Vow is almost always spoken of in terms of alleviating the suffering of others, putting others first. This vow assumes, though, that the young bodhisattva is already dedicated to their own liberation. It has to be so because if that’s not true, then they are still just tangled up in their own attachments. If I’m still entrapped by my own conditioning, how can I serve you? How can I actually help you in your anger if I haven’t addressed my own? How can I not be caught in the solidity and fixedness of your suffering if I still believe in the fixedness and reality of my own?
A student from one of our prison sanghas once told me that every single thing he’d ever done had arisen from a selfish desire. He felt like he’d never done anything that was actually, purely for another person. As we are seeing through the construct of our self, we are also recognizing how pervasive our self-centeredness is. The whole thing is beginning to come undone—but we may feel unable to hold this. It can be very unsettling. Yet the path is here to guide us. This is what training is all about.