The Urge to Help the World

The desire to end the suffering of all beings is at the heart of the Dharma.  But this tall order can be daunting.  Fortunately, each of us can help meaningfully when we hold it in perspective. 

At almost any time in history this world has been in dire shape.   Thousands of years ago humans, like most species, were living on the edge of survival.  Then civilizations grew on the labor of the oppressed.  Greed, hatred and delusion led to wars that made whole societies primitive again.  Famine and pandemics devastated populations in waves.  Today many of these catastrophes are held at bay, but the power of humans to destroy, and their willingness to do so, is at an all-time high. 

Seeing the suffering and threats faced by so many beings, most of us feel an urge to help.  But a look around at all that’s needed can overwhelm our ability even to make a start.  There are people with inspiration, energy and resources who make noticeable impacts on the problems that keep Earth from being a Garden of Eden, but no one has ever changed the planet into one.

What’s a good Buddhist to do?  As with all the Teachings, the first step is Wise Understanding.  We’re used to thinking happiness depends on external factors, but the Buddha showed it’s greed, hatred and delusion that cause dukkha, or suffering.  People who seem evil are often moved to cause harm by these states of mind.  This is true of the bad boss, the domineering spouse and the tyrant bent on world conquest.  And it’s true of every other person, too.  Social systems that disadvantage some beings for the gain of others are outgrowths of these three root causes of misery. 

Once we recognize the origins of the world’s suffering, we see that to end it, we must lessen these three forms of clinging in ourselves.  In doing so, we become an influence on others that can help them be free of dukkha.  Most motivations are mixed, so being mindful of our intentions to help the world may reveal a desire for self-respect, fame, or material gain.  When we acknowledge these collateral motives, we can keep them from hijacking our efforts to help others.

Armed with understanding of our own relationship with suffering, we’re better equipped to change the harsh material circumstances of other beings.   Whatever we undertake – to save endangered species, avoid wars, feed children, control disease – will be held within the broad perspective of equanimity, so we won’t be too discouraged by the limitations that inevitably confront our efforts.

Those of us who can only make small donations or sign petitions can know that our growth toward a mind and heart free from clinging helps liberate others, too.  Just as someone’s dissatisfactions spread to those around them, so a peaceful person’s wisdom radiates to others in far more ways than can be seen.  Every moment of Liberation spreads from one person to others exponentially, until our efforts to be free can eventually benefit all beings.

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2 Responses to The Urge to Help the World

  1. lulu says:

    Timely. Thank you, Rebecca!

  2. Laurel Yeates says:


    This post made me cry. Despite troubles in the world and in my life, I consider myself content and blessed. I have little ability to shape the larger world except, as you say, by seemingly paltry donations, signing petitions and the occasional random act of kindness. But I can be kind to people. I can continue to cultivate peace within myself, maybe modeling for others that peace and calm are available with intention and attention.

    I am so deeply grateful for your willingness to bring the Dharma to me and others hungry for comfort and hope, believing that it was to be found inside of me and not in the external world. I just didn’t have the tools or teachings to access it before I found you.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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