It’s a huge idea, one that we can never fully wrap our heads around. Sometimes we run across the phrase “sentient beings,” but that’s meaningless — life is too short for us to work out what is and is not a being we should save, a being with which we have a connection. My friends are beings, the dog next door is a being, the rock in my shoe is a being, that moment of panic I feel when I think I overslept is a being. Differentiating, on that level, is precisely what this practice is not about.
This talk of all beings has evolved over time. In the earliest Buddhist texts, it seems that we don’t see so much of it. Instead, we see teaching after teaching about the universality of experience, about our shared sameness. From the time of the Buddha, it has been taught that suffering, though it expresses itself differently according to each individual, is essentially the same for everyone. Happiness too, and anger. We may get upset for very different reasons and at different times, but that emotional experience of wanting the current situation to be other than what it is — we share that, intimately. (Much of the pain of adolescence, it would seem, is just an inability to recognize that fact. We feel alone, when the exact opposite is true.)
I suspect (and I would love for a Buddhist scholar to jump in and speak to this more authoritatively than I can) that much of the evolution of Buddhism has just been a thought exercise, a matter of people saying, If X is true, and if we factor in Y, then the logical ramifications of that must be Z. In this case, if our conditions (dissatisfaction, impermanence, the absence of an unchanging self) are universal, then just by that definition alone, we share a profound connection. If we are fundamentally the same, then we are not fundamentally different. If we are not different, then the distinction between you and me is a false one. If that’s true, then we are, in a manner of speaking, “one.”
If there is no line between you and me, then your suffering is mine, and your happiness is mine. And by extension, what’s mine is not mine, and what’s yours is not really yours. It’s out of this kind of math, I suspect, that Buddhism came to take such an interest in interdependent origination, and that it arrived at a figure like the Bodhisattva, someone who accepts responsibility for all beings. It’s a logical — and beautiful — development.
The difficulty with these kinds of wide-scale teachings, I think, is that they are so overwhelming as to seem unreal. It makes for great philosophy, but for many of us, it remains an abstraction, something fun to talk about but not something that is immediate and felt in our daily lives. Maturity and empathy can lead us to see, firsthand, that other people’s experiences are not foreign from our own, and that can make us much more skillful one on one. That is no small thing — working from that place of understanding is the foundation of almost any truly honest encounter. It’s something we all need to explore, and remind ourselves of, daily.
But extending that to this thing we call “all beings” is much more difficult. How do we interact with all beings? How do we take responsibility for all beings? We can start with the person we’re with. Following this math, the person in front of you is the face of all beings, so how you treat him or her is how you are treating the world. (This applies to objects as well, which I want to write about later.) On a practical level, if we can remember just that, maybe it’s enough. But I do think there’s value in exploring this heavy, looming abstraction of “all beings.” It’s there, so it’s there for us to confront.
When we’re alone, where is the confrontation? The person that is always in front of me is me. How do I treat myself? And does it matter? We don’t need to believe that all beings are one, or that we’re all connected on some invisible spiritual level, to find this worthy of our consideration. Even the skeptic can recognize that reality is made up of its parts. I am one of those parts. You are one of those parts, just as our organs and cells are our components. If one of my cells is unhealthy, even if I don’t notice that, even if it doesn’t have measurable repercussions throughout my body, still, that cell is one part of the picture that is me, of my health, of my functioning. However we frame this, it’s not that difficult for us to accept that what happens to me is happening to the universe; what I do is an extension of everything and everyone.
This is the basis of responsibility.
I started thinking about all this differently a few years ago, when my wife Tracy was pregnant with our first child. Tracy has always been careful about what she eats, but as soon as she knew she was pregnant, eating healthy foods became a serious matter. She read all the literature and knew what to eat and what not to. She was eating for two. She accepted responsibility for this other life, and in doing so, accepted that her body is not completely her own. To any mother, I think, this must seem obvious, but it’s not limited to mothers. I suspect it’s also a well-known realization among people who dedicate themselves to others: firefighters, nurses on call, soldiers, and on and on and on. This body is not just mine — it is also part of a larger function. If I keep it healthy, that is in service of that function. If I let it get weak or sick or injured, then that hinders my ability to be skillful, to fulfill that mission.
Watching Tracy eat for two, I had this idea: What if I were eating for all beings? What would I put in my body? What would I refuse? If we take these teachings of connectedness and singularity to one extreme, then my body is the body of all beings; what I eat is the food of the world. I forget this little idea of mine often — old habits die hard, and I don’t always eat the healthiest thing on the menu. But when I do remember it, for example at the supermarket, it changes the way I shop. I can use all manner of twisted rationalization to let myself eat those chips, or get the big box of cookies. However, if I imagine, even for a moment, that by eating I am feeding others, then so-called “foods” with no nutritional value reveal themselves to be absurd. They are absurd, of course, but this frame helps me to see it. (One could completely misinterpret this whole idea in disastrous ways, I know: “All beings sure would like a beer right now,” “I think I’m going to treat the universe to a big piece of chocolate cheesecake,” and so on. We have to look with the eyes of an adult, or it all falls apart very quickly.)
Take this as a true understanding of the body, or take it as an exercise — in either case, the effect is the same. When we allow ourselves to feel the responsibility of caring for all beings, we intuitively know how to respond. If it’s just an idea, just a philosophy, we can get stuck on the seeming impossibility of it — how to save all beings? We stumble because we’re looking for the heroic act, the grand gesture. But if we take it to its logical end, if we imagine that when I eat, all beings eat, and when I talk, all beings talk, and so on, then we start to simply offer up the best of ourselves, of our best selves. We listen to those little voices in our heads telling us to sit up straight and floss and walk the three blocks to the post office instead of driving. We take care in our actions, and in doing so, we take care of something much, much bigger.
We know so much already. We know what to do. We know how to offer ourselves.
It’s good news, I think.