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What Buddhists Believe
Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera

How to Save Yourself

Oneself, indeed, is one's savior, for what other savior would there be?
With oneself well controlled the problem of looking for external savior is solved, -- (Dhammapada 166)

As the Buddha was about to pass away, His disciples came from everywhere to be near Him. While the other disciples were constantly at His side and in deep sorrow over the expected loss of their Master, a monk named Attadatta went into his cell and practised meditation. The other monks, thinking that he was unconcerned about the welfare of the Buddha, were upset and reported the matter to Him. The monk, however, addressed the Buddha thus, 'Lord as the Blessed One would be passing away soon, I thought the best way to honour the Blessed One would be by attaining Arahantship during the lifetime of the Blessed One itself.' The Buddha was pleased by his attitude and his conduct and said that one's spiritual welfare should not be abandoned for the sake of others.

In this story is illustrated one of the most important aspects of Buddhism. A person must constantly be on the alert to seek his own deliverance from Samsara, and his 'salvation' must be brought about by the individual himself. He cannot look to any external force or agency to help him to attain Nibbana.

People who do not understand Buddhism criticize this concept and say that Buddhism is a selfish religion which only talks about the concern for one's own freedom from pain and sorrow. This is not true at all. The Buddha states clearly that one should work ceaselessly for the spiritual and material welfare of all beings, while at the same time diligently pursuing one's own goal of attaining Nibbana. Selfless service is highly commended by the Buddha.

Again, people who do not understand Buddhism may ask, 'It may be all right for the fortunate human beings, in full command of their mental powers, to seek Nibbana by their own efforts. But what about those who are mentally and physically or even materially handicapped? How can they be self-reliant? Do they not need the help of some external force, some god or deva to assist them?

The answer to this is that Buddhists do not believe that the final release must necessarily take place in one life time. The process can take a long time, over the period of many births. One has to apply oneself, to the best of one's ability, and slowly develop the powers of self reliance. Therefore, even those who are handicapped mentally, spiritually and materially must make an effort, however small, to begin the process of deliverance.

Once the wheels are set in motion, the individual slowly trains himself to improve his powers of self-reliance. The tiny acorn will one day grow into a mighty oak, but not overnight. Patience is an essential ingredient in this difficult process.

For example, we know from experience how many parents do everything in their power to bring up their children according to the parents' hopes and aspirations. And yet when these children grow up, they develop in their own way, not necessarily the way the parents wanted them to be. In Buddhism, we believe that while others can exert an influence on someone's life, the individual will in the end create his own kamma and be responsible for his own actions. No human being or deva can, in the final analysis, direct or control an individual's attainment of 'the ultimate salvation'. This is the meaning of self-reliance.

This does not mean that Buddhism teaches one to be selfish. In Buddhism, when someone seeks, by his own effort, to attain Nibbana, he is determined not to kill, steal, tell lies, lust after others, or lose the control of his senses through intoxication. When he controls himself thus he automatically contributes to the happiness of others. So is not this so-called 'selfishness' a good thing for the general welfare of others?

On a more mundane level it has been asked how the lower forms of life can extricate themselves from a mere meaningless round of existence. Surely in that helpless state some benevolent external force is necessary to pull the unfortunate being from the quicksand. To answer this question we must refer to our knowledge of the evolution theory. It is clearly stated that life begin in very primitive forms?no more than a single cell floating in the water. Over millions of years these basic life forms evolved and became more complex, more intelligent. It is at this more intelligent level that life forms are capable of organization, independent thought, conceptualization and so on.

When Buddhists talk about the ability to save oneself, they are referring to life forms at this higher level of mental development. In the earlier stages of evolution kammic and mental forces remain dormant, but over countless rebirths, a being raises itself to the level of independent thought and becomes capable of rational rather than instinctive behavior. It is at this state that the being becomes aware of the meaninglessness of undergoing endless rebirths with its natural concomitants of pain and sorrow. It is then that the being is capable of making its determination to end rebirth and seek happiness by gaining enlightenment and Nibbana. With this high level of intelligence, the individual is indeed capable of self-improvement and self-development.

We all know human beings are born with very varying levels of intelligence and powers of reasoning. Some are born as geniuses, while at the other end of the spectrum, others are born with very low intelligence. Yet every being has some ability to distinguish between choices or options, especially when they concern survival. If we extend this fact of survival even to the animal world we can distinguish between higher and lower animals, with this same ability (in varying degrees of course) to make choices for the sake of survival.

Hence, even a lower form of life has the potential to create a good kamma, however limited its scope. With the diligent application of this and the gradual increase of good kamma a being can raise itself to higher levels of existence and understanding.

To look at this problem from another angle, we can consider one of the earliest stories that have been told to show how the Buddha-to-be first made the initial decision to strive for Enlightenment. A great many rebirths before the Buddha was born as Siddharta, he was born as an ordinary man.

One day while traveling in a boat with his mother, a great storm arose and the boat capsized, throwing the occupants into the angry sea. With no thought for his personal safety, the future Buddha carried his mother on his back and struggled to swim to dry land. But so great was the expanse of water ahead of him that he did not know the best route to safety. When he was in this dilemma, not knowing which way to turn, his bravery was noticed by one of the devas. This deva could not physically come to his aid, but he was able to make the future Buddha know the best route to take. The young man listened to the deva and both he and his mother were saved. There and then he made a firm determination not to rest until he had finally gained Enlightenment.

This story illustrates the fact that Buddhists can and do seek the help of devas in their daily life. A deva is a being who by virtue of having acquired great merit (like the king of the devas) is born with the power to help other beings. But this power is limited to material and physical things. In our daily existence, we can seek help of the devas (when misfortune strikes, when we need to be comforted, when we are sick or afraid, and so on).

The fact that we seek the aid of these devas means that we are still tied to the material world. We must accept the fact that by being born we are subject to physical desires and needs. And it is not wrong to satisfy these needs on a limited scale. When the Buddha advocated the Middle Path, He said that we should neither indulge ourselves in luxury nor completely deny ourselves the basic necessities of life.

However, we should not stop at that. While we accept the conditions of our birth, we must also make every effort, by following the Noble Eightfold Path, to reach a level of development where we realize that attachment to the material world creates only pain and sorrow.

As we develop our understanding over countless births, we crave less and less for the pleasures of the senses. It is at the stage that we become truly self-reliant. At this stage, the devas cannot help us anymore, because we are not seeking to satisfy our material needs.

A Buddhist who really understands the fleeting nature of the world practises detachment from material goods. He is not unduly attached to worldly goods. Therefore he shares these goods freely with those who are more unfortunate than he is -- he practises generosity. In this way again a Buddhist contributes to the welfare of others.

When the Buddha gained Enlightenment as a result of His own efforts, He did not selfishly keep this knowledge to Himself. Rather, He spent no less than forty five years imparting His knowledge not only to men and women but even to the devas. This is Buddhism's supreme example of selflessness and concern for the well-being of all living things.

It is often said that the Buddha helped devotees who were in trouble not through the performance of miracles such as restoring the dead to life and so on, but through His acts of wisdom and compassion.

In one instance, a woman named Kisa Gotami went to seek the help of the Buddha in restoring her dead child to life. Knowing that He could not reason with her as she was so distressed and overwhelmed with grief, the Buddha told her that she should first obtain a handful of mustard seeds from a person who had never lost a dear one through death. The distracted woman ran from house to house and while everyone was only too willing to give her the mustard seeds, no one could honestly say that he or she had not lost a dear one through death. Slowly, Kisa Gotami came to the realization that death is a natural occurrence to be experienced by any being that is born. Filled with this realization she returned to the Buddha and thanked Him for showing her the truth about death.

Now, the point here is that the Buddha was more concerned with the woman's understanding about the nature of life than giving her temporary relief by restoring her child to life -- the child would have grown old and still have died. With her greater realization Kisa Gotami was able not only to come to terms with the phenomenon of death but also to learn about the cause of sorrow through attachment. She was able to realize that attachment causes sorrow, that when attachment is destroyed, then sorrow is also destroyed.

Therefore in Buddhism, a person can seek the help of external agencies (like devas) in the pursuit of temporal happiness, but in the later stages of development when attachment to the worldly conditions ceases, there begins the path towards renunciation and enlightenment for which one must stand alone. When a man seeks to gain liberation, to break away from the endless cycle of birth and death, to gain realization and enlightenment, he can only do this by his own efforts, by his own concentrated will power.

Buddhism gives great dignity to man. It is the only religion which states that a human being has the power to help and free himself. In the later stages of his development, he is not at the mercy of any external force or agency which he must constantly please by worshipping or offering sacrifices.


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Source: Buddhist Study and Practice Group, http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/

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