I recently was asked a question similar to the above and thought rather than respond to one individual I would write a Dharma talk about it. It seems important, and there is much I would like to say on the subject.
First the Buddha makes it clear in Chapter XIV “Peaceful Practices” that we should be compassionate to not just monks and nuns, nor just Arhats and Sravakas and Bodhisattvas but to even those who are not Bodhisattvas at all. In Chapter XXII “Transmission” the Buddha tells us that we should teach anyone who does not have faith in the Lotus Sutra another teaching and benefit him, and cause him to rejoice.
You may wonder why I included the second reference since it is about teaching other people Buddhism in general and the Lotus Sutra in specific. I offer it here because there are people who have been known to say something like, well if they only practiced the Lotus Sutra all would be well. This is hogwash from the point of view of causing people joy and benefiting them. You may disagree with me but no where in the Lotus Sutra does it say we should turn our back on people because they don’t practice our faith.
Based upon the principal of cause and effect, which transcends our own personal judgments and prejudices we should view all people, and I should capitalize all here, as Buddhas and so worthy of our greatest respect and compassion.
A phrase I have heard tossed around freely is give a man a fish and you feed him for a day but teach him to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime. Quite frankly I think that phrase is meaningless, compassionless, and a cop out of acceptance of any personal responsibility.
If you were to merely teach a person to fish what will keep him from starving until he catches his first fish. This statement also assumes that there are fish enough to go around. The statement assumes equal access to equal opportunity, but it makes no commitment of ensuring those equalities exist.
I challenge anyone to go to their local GED education center, volunteer to mentor a student in your own trade, raise them up, and then stand with them until they get their first job. I think that after doing that once most people would realize how much that costs, both in time, and effort. Now on top of that, ensure that student can support themselves until they get their first job. How many of the people who toss out the cheep trite expression are willing to make that personal commitment to teaching a person to fish.
What makes the situation worse and something that should cause all of our hearts to ache is not only do we not do it ourselves, mostly because we don’t care enough, really care enough, but we also don’t’ want to financially support the folks in our education system who are teaching not one person at a time but 20 or 30. Not only do we grouse and complain about paying them but we also on the other end remove resources by creating a separate but unequal system of charter schools. We have as a society turned our backs on teaching a man to fish in word and deed. This is not compassionate action.
Now ensuring that there is equal access and availability of fish to be fished is something the cheap shot rejoinder doesn’t even address. With the minimum wage as the predominant wage available for most people who don’t know how to fish and even some who have basic fishing skills, we have created a situation where there are not even whole fishes available to be fished.
Taking away social safety nets, that ideally in principal are intended to give the person a fish until they learn to fish are in place begrudgingly at best and mean spirited at worst.
Yes I know not all education is perfect, not all social safety nets are perfect, but we can do better if we really tried. But walking away, withholding, and withdrawing is not going to fix the problem either and until we fix the problem we should leave the systems in place so they hurt those who wish to change them as a constant reminder to get something constructive done. Constructing is compassion, destructing and destroying when it hurts others in society just because we don’t like it is not compassion; it reeks of mean-spiritedness.
And while I am talking about teaching the man to fish who is going to patch up his wounds when he accidently sticks the hook in his finger or if he slips and falls in the water?
It isn’t compassionate to just toss the person out without helping him find a rod, line, and hook much less a place to fish. Compassion is ensuring that all of those things work and are available.
We have the Eightfold Path listing the eight right ways. Those should guide us in not just causing no harm but in ensuring we do the greatest good. Does it require personal sacrifice occasionally? You bet it does.
Buddhism is not a cheap and easy practice based upon ignoring problems, or expecting them to fix themselves, or letting others do it for us without our personal support. Sitting on a cushion and thinking how great and peaceful you are is an illusion when your neighbors are suffering, because the sufferings of mankind are our sufferings as Buddhists.
The Buddha set out to eliminate the sufferings of mankind, not just his own. He gave away all of his riches, title, and family to accomplish one objective, to save all mankind. It was a personal quest not for self-benefit but for the benefit of all people, known and unknown.
If a conservative belief or ideology does not go counter to Buddhist practice great, I support it. If not then I will continue to speak in favor of Buddhism over the other. Each of us is free to label ourselves how we wish. But when you die do you wish to be known by your label or by your actions. The label will last a day or two at most after your body rots and turns to dirt and worm poop. Your actions will live for lifetimes either as benefit to others or as harm to others.
When you are reborn you don’t get your label back but you do get the effects of the causes made in this lifetime. Finally, ask yourself if you are able, what would you wish done to you if you were living the life of the man who has no fish and doesn’t know how to fish? Life and fortune and fame are transitory, at any moment all of these may leave you. And certainly your life will leave you and you will die. The only thing, which remains, is the causes you made when you had a chance.