These two sentences are supplementary and should
not be taken or quoted separately. Nowadays, when social service is so greatly stressed,
people may be tempted to support their ideas by quoting only the second sentence. But any
such one-sided quotation would misrepresent the Buddha's standpoint. It has to be
remembered that in our story the Buddha expressly approved the words of the apprentice,
that one has first to watch carefully one's own steps if one wishes to protect others from
harm. He who himself is sunk in the mud cannot help others out of it. In that sense,
self-protection forms the indispensable basis for the protection and help given to others.
But self-protection is not selfish protection. It is self-control, ethical and spiritual
There are some great truths which are so comprehensive and profound
that they seem to have an ever-expanding range of significance that grows with one's own
range of understanding and practicing them. Such truths are applicable on various levels
of understanding, and are valid in various contexts of our life. After reaching the first
or second level, one will be surprised that again and again new vistas open themselves to
our understanding, illumined by that same truth. This also holds for the great twin truths
of our text which we shall consider now in some detail.
"Protecting oneself, one protects others"--the truth of this
statement begins at a very simple and practical level. This first material level of the
truth is so self-evident that we need say no more than a few words about it. It is obvious
that the protection of our own health will go far in protecting the health of others in
our environment, especially where contagious diseases are concerned. Caution and
circumspection in all our doings and movements will protect others from the harm that may
come to them through our carelessness and negligence. By careful driving, abstention from
alcohol, self-restraint in situations that might lead to violence--in all these and many
other ways we shall protect others by protecting ourselves.
The Ethical Level
We come now to the ethical level of that truth. Moral self-protection
will safeguard others, individuals and society, against our own unrestrained passions and
selfish impulses. If we permit the "three roots" of evil--greed, hate and
delusion--to take a firm hold in our hearts, then their outgrowths will spread far and
wide like a jungle creeper, suffocating much healthy and noble growth all around. But if
we protect ourselves against these three roots, our fellow beings too will be safe. They
will be safe from our reckless greed for possessions and power, from our unrestrained lust
and sensuality, from our envy and jealousy; safe from the disruptive consequences of our
hate and enmity which may be destructive or even murderous; safe from the outbursts of our
anger and from the resulting atmosphere of antagonism and conflict which may make life
unbearable for them.
The harmful effects our greed and hate have upon others are not limited
to the times when they become passive objects or victims of our hate, or when their
possessions become the object of our greed. Both greed and hate have an infectious power
which vastly multiplies their evil effects. If we ourselves think of nothing else than to
crave and to grasp, to acquire and possess, to hold and to cling, then we may rouse or
strengthen these possessive instincts in others. Our bad conduct may become the standard
of behavior for those around us--for our children, our friends, our colleagues. Our own
conduct may induce others to join us in the common satisfaction of rapacious desires; or
we may arouse in them feelings of resentment and competitiveness. If we are full of
sensuality, we may also kindle the fire of lust in them. Our own hate may provoke them to
hate and vengeance. We may also ally ourselves with others or instigate them to common
acts of hate and enmity. Greed and hate are, indeed, like contagious diseases. If we
protect ourselves against these evil infections, we shall to some extent at least also
Protection through Wisdom
As to the third root of evil, delusion or ignorance we know very well
how much harm may be done to others through the stupidity, thoughtlessness, prejudices,
illusions and delusions of a single person.
Without wisdom and knowledge, attempts to protect oneself and others
will usually fail. One will see the danger only when it is too late, one will not make
provision for the future; one will not know the right and effective means of protection
and help. Therefore, self-protection through wisdom and knowledge is of the greatest
importance. By acquiring true wisdom and knowledge, we shall protect others from the
harmful consequences of our own ignorance, prejudices, infectious fanaticism and
delusions. History shows us that great and destructive mass delusions have often been
kindled by a single individual or a small number of people. Self-protection through wisdom
and knowledge will protect others from the pernicious effect of such influences.
We have briefly indicated how our own private life may have a strong
impact on the lives of others. If we leave unresolved the actual or potential sources of
social evil within ourselves, our external social activity will be either futile or
markedly incomplete. Therefore, if we are moved by a spirit of social responsibility, we
must not shirk the hard task of moral and spiritual self-development. Preoccupation with
social activities must not be made an excuse or escape from the first duty, to tidy up
one's own house first.
On the other hand, he who earnestly devotes himself to moral
self-improvement and spiritual self-development will be a strong and active force for good
in the world, even if he does not engage in any external social service. His silent
example alone will give help and encouragement to many, by showing that the ideals of a
selfless and harmless life can actually be lived and are not only topics of sermons.
The Meditative Level
We proceed now to the next higher level in the interpretation of our
text. It is expressed in the following words of the sutta: "And how does one, by
protecting oneself, protect others? By the repeated and frequent practice of
meditation." Moral self-protection will lack stability as long as it remains a rigid
discipline enforced after a struggle of motives and against conflicting habits of thought
and behavior. Passionate desires and egotistic tendencies may grow in intensity if one
tries to silence them by sheer force of will. Even if one temporarily succeeds in
suppressing passionate or egotistic impulses, the unresolved inner conflict will impede
one's moral and spiritual progress and warp one's character. Furthermore, inner disharmony
caused by an enforced suppression of impulses will seek an outlet in external behavior. It
may make the individual irritable, resentful, domineering and aggressive towards others.
Thus harm may come to oneself as well as to others by a wrong method of self-protection.
Only when moral self-protection has become a spontaneous function, when it comes as
naturally as the protective closing of the eyelid against dust--only then will our moral
stature provide real protection and safety for ourselves and others. This naturalness of
moral conduct does not come to us as a gift from heaven. It has to be acquired by repeated
practice and cultivation. Therefore our sutta says that it is by repeated practice that
self-protection becomes strong enough to protect others too.
But if that repeated practice of the good takes place only on the
practical, emotional and intellectual levels, its roots will not be firm and deep enough.
Such repeated practice must also extend to the level of meditative cultivation. By
meditation, the practical, emotional and intellectual motives of moral and spiritual
self-protection will become our personal property which cannot easily be lost again.
Therefore our sutta speaks here of bhavana, the meditative development of the mind in its
widest sense. This is the highest form of protection which our world can bestow. He who
has developed his mind by meditation lives in peace with himself and the world. From him
no harm or violence will issue. The peace and purity which he radiates will have an
inspiring, uplifting power and will be a blessing to the world. He will be a positive
factor in society, even if he lives in seclusion and silence. When understanding for, and
recognition of, the social value of a meditative life ceases in a nation, it will be one
of the first symptoms of spiritual deterioration.
Protection of Others
We have now to consider the second part of the Buddha's utterance, a
necessary complement to the first: "Protecting others one protects oneself. And how?
By patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and harmless life, by loving-kindness and
compassion (khantiya avihimsaya mettataya anuddayataya)."
He whose relation to his fellow-beings is governed by these principles
will protect himself better than he could with physical strength or with any mighty
weapon. He who is patient and forbearing will avoid conflicts and quarrels, and will make
friends of those for whom he has shown a patient understanding. He who does not resort to
force or coercion will, under normal conditions, rarely become an object of violence
himself as he provokes no violence from others. And if he should encounter violence, he
will bring it to an early end as he will not perpetuate hostility through vengeance. He
who has love and compassion for all beings, and is free of enmity, will conquer the
ill-will of others and disarm the violent and brutal. A compassionate heart is the refuge
of the whole world.
We shall now better understand how those two complementary sentences of
our text harmonize. Self-protection is the indispensable basis. But true self-protection
is possible only if it does not conflict with the protection of others; for one who seeks
self-protection at the expense of others will defile as well as endanger himself. On the
other hand, protection of others must not conflict with the four principles of patience,
non-violence, loving-kindness and compassion; it also must not interfere with their free
spiritual development as it does in the case of various totalitarian doctrines. Thus in
the Buddhist conception of self-protection all selfishness is excluded, and in the
protection of others violence and interference have no place.
Self-protection and protection of others correspond to the great twin
virtues of Buddhism, wisdom and compassion. Right self-protection is the expression of
wisdom, right protection of others the expression of compassion. Wisdom and compassion,
being the primary elements of Bodhi or Enlightenment, have found their highest perfection
in the Fully Enlightened One, the Buddha. The insistence on their harmonious development
is a characteristic feature of the entire Dhamma. We meet them in the four sublime states
(brahmavihara), where equanimity corresponds to wisdom and self-protection, while
loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy correspond to compassion and the
protection of others.
These two great principles of self-protection and protection of others
are of equal importance to both individual and social ethics and bring the ends of both
into harmony. Their beneficial impact, however, does not stop at the ethical level, but
leads the individual upwards to the highest realization of the Dhamma, while at the same
time providing a firm foundation for the welfare of society.
It is the writer's belief that the understanding of those two great
principles of self-protection and protection of others, as manifesting the twin virtues of
wisdom and compassion, is of vital importance to Buddhist education, for young and old
alike. They are the cornerstones of character building and deserve a central place in the
present world wide endeavour for a Buddhist revival.
"I shall protect others"--thus should we establish our
mindfulness, and guided by it devote ourselves to the practice of meditation, for the sake
of our own liberation.
"I shall protect others"--thus should we establish our
mindfulness, and guided by it regulate our conduct by patience, harmlessness,
loving-kindness and compassion, for the welfare and happiness of many.