The Buddha’s final words were of self reliance—being our own saviors, our own light. The whole of his ministry was one of taking the reigns of our own plight. He repeatedly broke down excuses offered to him and replied with, in essence, only you can change your life. Only you can do the work, only you are responsible for you.


By Ty H. Phillips

The snow falls gently on hard worn city streets and the light of city lamps dance on the white blanket of cold winter.

Small and dirty faces peek out from behind dumpsters and bodies shiver from hunger and cold, while others, well dressed in bright winter wear, make snowmen and pull shiny new sleds up steep hills before they climb aboard and giggle their fast shooting way towards the bottom.

Adults are wrapped in fuzzy blankets sipping hot coffee and cocoa while enjoying the colors and sounds of their favorite TV program. Others take their final breaths as their worn and weak bodies give up the ghost under city bridges and darkened alleys; the snow acting like a death shroud.

For many, cries of injustice come to mind. We take up signs and march down streets hoping to be seen and heard; determined to make a difference. We take a break to warm up in a local Starbucks over a five dollar coffee. We talk among ourselves, proud and righteous in our actions yet forgetting that right around the corner, a child is hungry and that five dollars could have filled their belly.

Some of us, angry with a system we think has systematically oppressed us, destroy our own homes and city in protest. We are seemingly unaware of how that same time, effort and energy used to destroy, could have been better used to help uplift our community. Instead, we inflame each other and continue a path of destruction all the while demanding that others clean it up and placing yet more blame when they do not.

Our institutions of education spend less time teaching now and spend the vast majority indoctrinating. We shelter young minds from ideas that may cause actual thinking and self reflection and create new theories in order to work around our own cognitive dissonance. All things that disagree are labeled and tagged as dangerous. We offer burgeoning adults places to essentially suck their thumbs instead of teaching them how to think critically instead. A generation of participation trophy winners have created a culture of weakness and apathy where anything but self reliance and hard work are rewarded.

We offer a ladder of excuses and apologies to climb instead of teaching the next generation how to use the tools and resources to build their own ladder.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt talks about how the more we do for our children instead of allowing them to do it for themselves, the more long term detriment we cause. As soon as they are able to walk and understand what we are saying, we should be taxing them with chores and activities that teach them accomplishment and self reliance. Have them help set the table, teach them how to make their bed, how to wash dishes, sow a button on their clothes and all things useful and needed in daily life.

The more reliant on us they are accustomed to being, the less they thrive and grow in life.

Years of studies have shown a direct correlation between more self sufficient children being successful and driven in life and more coddled children lacking drive and likely to fall prey to addiction. They look for an easy way out instead of knowing they are capable. This same rule of thumb applies to us as adults. While it is vital and moral to help each other out, it is also vital and more to teach a way out instead of simply offering a way out that requires little to no effort on behalf of the person who needs help. Do not offer a golden goose, offer a skill. Do not offer a free lunch every day but instead offer an opportunity to earn their own lunch.

Unfortunately, many today no longer understand the balance between charity and education. Some feel it must be all or nothing, one way or the other. Charity without further moral purpose or education without opportunity. Neither extreme offer a usable long term outcome.

A perfect example of charity with education are homeless run soup kitchens. Food and shelter offered in turn for work. Teaching skills and self reliance until outside jobs can be secured for those who drive forward. Circulating the homeless in and out of these institutions. Having them help each other, start city gardens, rebuild abandoned and dilapidated homes and in turn teaching these skills to other homeless.

While offering free food seems like a moral idea, it is not a long term or moral solution. It is a band-aid on a broken dam wall. Without education and opportunity it simply becomes enabling or idiot compassion as Trungpa Rinpoche used to say. It makes us feel better, it makes us feel holy and righteous but in the long term, it does little to change the outcome and may actually hinder change.

While there are myriad examples and Ideas that I could share, the point of this is understanding balance. We live in a period of such astounding polarization that we no longer understand or are willing to be balanced. It is easier to demonize than to participate in dialogue. We have forgotten how to debate and discuss and have instead embraced victimhood and vilification. Our cognitive dissonance has led us down a road of trying to rewrite reality in order to fit our unreasonable outlooks.

In a nation of plenty we do little but plenty of whining.

We demand acceptance of our views while rejecting the right of outside views to exist. We cry fascism while enforcing it on others. We cry racism and sexism while seeing the world only through race and sex. We have removed each others humanity in order to fit individuals into group and category. We have ourselves become a self fulfilling prophecy.

The Buddha’s final words were of self reliance—being our own saviors, our own light. The whole of his ministry was one of taking the reigns of our own plight. He repeatedly broke down excuses offered to him and replied with, in essence, only you can change your life. Only you can do the work, only you are responsible for you.

In most spiritual traditions, we see the value of our inner life outweighing the importance of our outer lives. His teaching was one of the middle way. Caring for each other yet relying upon ourselves for ultimate change. As is the case, we have largely rewritten what the Buddha taught in order to fit specific political or national ideologies. A close look of the Pali Canon however, leave much of what we consider Buddhism to come crumbling apart.

It fits not with modern progressive ideology nor with political conservatism. These philosophies of course unknown at the time of the Buddha yet human nature remains largely the same. Human nature is of course what the Buddha was addressing. Our extremes of opinion and behavior and offering instead a middle path. If change is something we truly want, we must abandon our polarized views and rigid left or right stances and understand that only in balance is lasting and meaningful change possible.

Charity without education is harmful and education without opportunity to cruel.

We must stop the continual search for outside, higher than us, help, and start creating the change we want as communities. Being the change we want to see does not mean enforcing it upon each other with ever increasing government power but with every increasing teamwork on the street level.

We cannot continue to demand top down change thinking all the while that nothing bad will come of this. History if anything has shown this to be faulty thinking. Change, strong and true, must come from the bottom up. We build a base among ourselves, internalized and vibrant or we lose it all.

Be a light unto yourselves, work out your own salvation with diligence.


Photo: (source)

Editor: Dana Gornall


Like this article? You might also like:

Mindful Diversity and Constructive Discomfort

  By David Jones I used to think diversity had to do with things like skin color, nationality, gender, sexual particulars, or categorized disability. I work for the government, so my view was shaped by their view. Now I wonder. A friend of mine once offered that...

Interbeing: Thich Nhat Hanh is Forever

  By Johnathon Lee Thich Nhat Hanh was a truly beautiful person, and an astonishing teacher who introduced millions of people to the Path. He will be missed by the masses. A lot of people are already writing articles about him that surpass anything I could come...

Please Stop Saying What Buddhism Is

  By Johnathon Lee Buddhists believe X. In Buddhism, we Y. According to Buddha, Z. Please stop.  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone use one of the above phrases—mainly because I never anticipated needing to keep track. I’m not throwing stones because...