There is a story about how the Buddha will knock on your door if your house is on fire, but he will not kick it down because you have to answer the door yourself. This is analogous to the Four Noble Truths, in which one must realize their suffering, and from that they can make the effort to find the path to the cessation of suffering. The Buddha will not force you down that path, nor will he be your savior; he will only help you if you ask him. However, the Buddha also asks those to practice sincere compassion for others.

My question is: if I see a friend suffering (let's say from a slight alcohol abuse or they think that they are ugly), yet I think they will never understand their suffering, how can I give my compassion to that being that needs help to deal with their suffering, when their understanding of suffering must come from within? They need to come to the realization of their suffering, but I know that these people will never see the light themselves. Where's the balance in this tricky situation? These friends are unwilling to change their unhealthy habits, but I, as one who tries hard to practice compassion, find it hard to just let it slide and hope someday they will realize their suffering and understand that it exists, and that there's a path to the cessation of it.

Any insight would be much appreciated. And I hope my thoughts make sense to some of you.

  • 1
    In addition to the good answers below, I would add: remember that pity is the "near enemy" of compassion. Notice when you're going to sympathy ("You're sad, so I feel sad") which is less helpful, or going to empathy ("You're sad, and I care about that") which is more helpful. Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 14:18
  • Two perspectives: 1) In the movie The Hotel New Hampshire, one of the main characters said, "Helping people is the same thing as messing with them." 2) The story of the dog that died saving a toddler in a house fire by lying on top of it. Your call.
    – user2341
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 23:41

6 Answers 6


The truth about the Buddha, as far as I can see, was that he was disinclined to do much of anything after his enlightenment:

'With great pains have I acquired it. Enough! why should I now proclaim it?
This doctrine will not be easy to understand to beings that are lost in lust and hatred.
'Given to lust, surrounded with thick darkness, they will not see what is repugnant (to their minds),
abstruse, profound, difficult to perceive, and subtle.'

-- Mv. 1.5 (Rhys-Davids, trans)

Of course, we see a complete reversal of intention after the Buddha was first asked to teach and he looked and saw "beings whose mental eyes were darkened by scarcely any dust, and beings whose eyes were covered by much dust, beings sharp of sense and blunt of sense, of good disposition and of bad disposition, easy to instruct and difficult to instruct, some of them seeing the dangers of future life and of sin." (Ibid)

'Wide opened is the door of the Immortal to all who have ears to hear;
let them send forth faith to meet it.
The Dhamma sweet and good I spake not, Brahmâ,
despairing of the weary task, to men.'

-- Ibid

But the point remains that his whole life of teaching depended upon being asked to teach. The first question you have to ask yourself is, "why help someone else at all?"

Some of the things you have to keep in mind when answering are:

  1. Will I actually be able to help this person, given I'm not a fully enlightened Buddha?
  2. Will they accept my help or will they reject it?
  3. Will helping this person distract me from my own practice or will it help make me a better person?

What you shouldn't do is let your partiality for this person lead you to spend more energy on them than is appropriate; if the same amount of energy could obtain greater results elsewhere, it stands to reason that you work for the greatest gain possible.

Compassion means an attitude of non-harming; it fails when it becomes a desire to free others from suffering, because that is a type of craving that leads to suffering when it is unable to obtain its desire. This means that true compassion requires the person to approach you in some way - approaching them to probe into their personal life or nagging them about seeking help is not compassion.

Compassion is characterized as promoting the aspect of allaying suffering. Its function resides in not bearing others’ suffering. It is manifested as non-cruelty. Its proximate cause is to see helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it makes cruelty subside and it fails when it produces sorrow.

-- Vism IX.94 (Nyanamoli, trans)

Of course, simply crying in your presence or making a fool of themselves would be enough to elicit an appropriate response, since it would be cruelty to repress the intention to comfort others or warn them of their bad behaviour, etc.

In most cases, your friendship with the person will put you in a position to nudge them in the right direction as a simple matter of course. What you don't want to do is want to help them, since that will have negative consequences, most likely for the both of you. In the end, we are all responsible for our own fate; this is what sets Buddhism apart from theistic religions, that we have to save ourselves.

Let one not neglect one's own welfare for the sake of another, however great.
Clearly understanding one's own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.

-- Dhp. 166 (Buddharakkhita, trans)

Still, you should not underestimate your influence on others, nor should you dismiss the power of small acts of goodness.

Think not lightly of good, saying, "It will not come to me." Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.

-- Dhp. 122 (Buddharakkhita, trans)

Simply being mindful and conscientious around other people can have a profound impact on them over the long term, if you are patient and truly compassionate with them.

  • Is there a connection between "your influence on others" and "the power of small acts of goodness"? Because line 122 in the Dhammapada says that the wise person, by doing good, accumulates (becomes full of) merit. I'd like to think that an "act of goodness" towards a friend can "do good to the friend" or "be good for them" or even "make them better", but that's not clear from the text (instead it says that merit is accumulated by the doer). The last sentence ("Simply being ... profound impact ... compassionate with them") might be usually true, but unusually difficult with an alcoholic friend.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 20:00

No, the Buddha did not wait for people to ask for help. Only at the beginning, after attaining the Buddhahood, he waited for the invitation of the Maha Brahma, to preach the Dhamma to the world. That is customary to all the Buddhas.

The issue with making it a rule to wait for people to ask for help is that people rarely realize that they need help. Even when they are in a pathetic condition, they don't realize the type of help they really require is the Dhamma. Lord Buddha would often open conversations with strangers without waiting for the other person to engage. Sometimes he would travel great distances, just to meet one person. ex: the story of King Pukkusati. Sometimes he would use Samyak-Prayoga to convince someone to practice the Dhamma. Ex: The story of Prince Nanda. All Nanda wanted to do is to marry Janapada Kalyani. He had everything and never felt like he needed help.

If you want to bring a friend to the Dhamma, you have to be smart about it. You can study the likings and dislikings of the friend and figure out what method of convincing would work best. If one method doesn't work, you can try another. Read about how Anathapindika, the chief supporter of the Buddha, convinced his son Kala to listen to the Dhamma. Also read about how Ghatikara the potter convinced his friend Jotipala to go see the Buddha.

Sigalovada Sutta lists down four kinds of good friends. The 3rd kind is "he who gives good counsel".

No one can force someone into Nibbana. But that doesn't mean you should always wait for the SOS. :) But, if you get upset when your friends don't listen to you, that is not Karuna. That is expecting them to act according to your liking. That is a defilement.

One important thing to notice is that in most of those stories, the person who does the convincing had already attained a stage of enlightenment. Anatapindika was a Sotapanna. Ghatikara was an Anagami. So it's best not to waste too much time trying to convince others, if you are still ordinary. Focus more on seeing the Dhamma yourself first. It's not very effective, trying to pull others out of the mud, if you yourself are still stuck in it.

  • Other kinds of "warm-hearted friends" are also good, IMO, including "he who is the same in happiness and sorrow".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 17:09
  • 2
    I agree! The Buddha once said that the survival of the whole Sasana depends on Kalyana Mittas, a.k.a. good friends. Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 17:13
  • 1
    Thank you for saying "Kalyana Mittas" because that let me find this translation of the Upaddha Sutta. I read that before in another translation, which says, "The half of the holy life, Lord, is the friendship with what is lovely etc." In that translation, "fellowship with what is lovely" is so abstract (or "ideal" an idea, instead of "real" a thing) that I didn't understand it was even talking about people, about friends. I had guessed "lovely" meant "Dhamma".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 20:37
  • Welcome! Yes, I've always heard it as real people. One takes refuge in the Dhamma. For monks, the Kalyana Mittas would be the Ariya Sangha. Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 20:51

There are great answers here, but there's something you said, in both the title and body of your question, (well, in your original title, before editors removed it), that no-one here is speaking to: the focus on "Change From Within", and "their understanding of suffering must come from within."

Must it?

Here's why I'm putting a spotlight on the question:
1) Because everything is connected.
2) Because of the importance of the Sangha.
3) Because of the Buddhist focus on Anatman, rather than Atman.
4) Because of the value of "practices".
5) Because of personal experience, of impacts, limitations, and drawbacks--mixed blessings at best--related to this concept, that ... must come from within.

This emphasis on "change from within" is such a cultural assumption of the 60s, and of the New Age movement, and of Americanized Buddhism... but I'm not clear how much it was part of Buddhism's "original product". (Someone else speak to that?)

Does change come from within? Absolutely. Does change come ONLY from within? Absolutely not.

(Not dealing with, right now: whether enlightenment actually involves "change"... and is there anything that needs to "come from" anywhere.)

Following the numbering above: (1) ItsAllConnected: if the "inside" and the "outside" are actually One, then why not notice the intermingling, when doing "inner work"?

(2) The importance of the Sangha. A quote from Buddha: "Admirable friendship is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk [or anyone else] has admirable people as friends... he can be expected to develop and pursue the Noble Eightfold Path." (http://www.viewonbuddhism.org/dharma-quotes-quotations-buddhist/sangha-monks-nuns.htm) If change is from within, what does the Sangha do?

(3) Anatman, rather than Atman. This focus on what's "from within" can actually be isolating. I'm not making "retreat" wrong -- it definately has value -- but want to point out that we can be standing in the point of view of the "us" we're being connected with. Some of the most enjoyable meditation I've experienced stands in this point of view... and just standing there, and noticing how that interacts with feelings, can be transformative.

(4) Are practices "internal"? If it's all from within, then why sit? Because the internal and the external are in cooperation.

(5) When you stand in the point of view that "the real stuff comes from within", it automatically presents you with a quandary, whenever anyone tries to contribute to your process: you have to somehow make it "within", for your "self". And sure, approaches like that to "internalizing" things can be of real value... but it can also add a "chronological step" (this has to happen, before that), that doesn't actually always have to be there.

We're in this together, and if what you're saying resonates / feels like a fit / aligns with the Four Immeasurables (equanimity, love, compassion, empathetic joy), then is that enough to simply run with it?

Or do I need to make sure it first "works for me"... whoever "me" is?

In a similar way, while it would be one form of separateness (superiority), for you to see your buddy as "needing you to tell him," it would be another form of separateness (isolation), for you to withhold because "he's got to get it on his own."

((Another thing I'm not going to try to handle right now: healthy "boundaries", which, lol, I think can paradoxically serve a purpose, even in a point of view of connectedness.))

  • 2
    Maybe "boundary" is just another word for "relationship".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 17:53

You have all this compassionate feeling in Buddhism, as you have seen from other people's (good) answers, helping others is part of all major religions and Buddhism is no different.

On the other hand we have several stoties (Dhammapada for instance) where the Buddha said we should leave bad friends behind, the fools can only harm us or at least delay our realizations, it doesn't mean we should go around judging people and removing them from our lifes, but it means (in my interpretation) that association with fools should not take place, therefore you must offer help and simply go away if they refuse.

So what will determine if he is going to get help or not?

His karma will plan a very important role in this situation, if he created good karma, your offer for help will create the conditions for his good karma to reapen and he will accept your generous help, however if he wants to keep destroying himself, at the end of the day, that's his call.


If we take Buddha's own example, we can see that he faced the same dilemma: "Now that I've reached the other shore and clearly saw that most people seek in a wrong direction, should I invasively mess with their quests or should I let them figure it out on their own?" The answer Buddha chose was not entirely black or white.

Buddha helped people, he did not just wait until everyone gets Enlightened on their own using whatever methods that existed before him (jains, ajivika). He was pretty disruptive towards what was then the establishment. However, the way he helped people was never against their natural inclinations so to speak, but always going along with them. With Brahimns he spoke of how to be a true Brahmin. With ascetics that denied everything, he spoke how in order to be consistent they should deny the denial. With people seeking purity he spoke how his Path is the path of purity. With people seeking Nirvana -- how it leads to Nirvana etc.

If you think about it, this is a rather wise and skillful approach. Instead of fighting with student's impulse, we use it as the force to propel them to a gradually deeper realization of Sat-Dharma.

So in your example, of someone who drinks too much, in order to help them you would need to find out why do they drink. What do they want in life, what do they think is right, how does that light of goodness look from their perspective. Perhaps they drink because they think the society is messed up. Then you find out what "messed up" means for them, perhaps it means this success-oriented society they don't want to, and cannot be, a part of. Then you can probe what their higher value is. Perhaps it is Truth. They want to live in Truth but everyone around them lives in a lie, therefore they can't be part of this society, and that's why they drink. Then you use Truth as a lure to get them out of their personal hell. You teach them that in order to be consistent, they have to live by the Truth themselves. And then you slowly-slowly work with them, always going with what they are motivated to do so far, until they will naturally realize that they don't want to drink and never really wanted to drink, because it goes against their own Truth.

Easier said than done of course. I am only beginning to learn to do this myself.

BTW that house on fire story, you got it wrong. The story says, if house is on fire and the kids are inside, the father will lure them out with toys or whatever they like, to save their lives. This is a parable from the Lotus Sutra.

That said, thanks for the warning friend! :)

  • +1 for getting the parable right, at least. "I stand at the door and knock" is Christian.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 16:46
  • thanks for the "at least" remark, it made me warm and fuzzy ;)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 16:57
  • yes, no "damning with faint praise" O:-)
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 17:06
  • Perhaps beware of "finding out why they drink"? A converse theory might warn that they drink for a wrong reason (whatever the reasons are, the reasons are wrong). So asking "Why drink?" reinforces the drinking-logic (in the same way that prayer might reinforce the God-ego duality). Perhaps a psychiatrist (not that I'm one) must be careful to not reinforce their patient's delusion. For example if someone with a psychosis said "I am Christ" then entertaining a conversation about that e.g. "Oh? So, uh ... who have you saved recently?" wouldn't be on-topic.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 17:36
  • Your replies should ideally stay grounded on consensus-reality, e.g. to "I am an omnipotent being" you might say "So, you're feeling good today?" Perhaps I'm exagerating (there's no evidence that the friend is psychotic), but still: beware of sharing/accepting delusion. Finding out "what they want in life" might be problematic too: if it's "I want to drink". I'm not saying you're wrong, but I'm saying it can be difficult.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 17:36

You can visit an Al-Anon meeting (or eventually several meetings).

There, people who are or have been in that situation will speak out of their experiences. Hopefully you will develop insight into what works and what doesn't, what's effective and what's harmful.

Sankha's answer says, "It's not very effective, trying to pull others out of the mud, if you yourself are still stuck in it."

Some would go further, and suggest that if you are in the mud then your attachments might be part of the problem (your views and your behaviour may be helping to put or keep your friend in the mud).

From an Al-Anon web site:

Who are alcoholics?

They could be anyone, from all backgrounds and walks of life. Over 95 percent of alcoholics have families, friends, and jobs. They may function fairly well, but some part of their life is suffering. Their drinking causes a continuing and growing problem in their lives, and the lives they touch.

How do alcoholics affect families and friends?

Alcoholism is a family disease. The disease affects all those who have a relationship with a problem drinker. Those of us closest to the alcoholic suffer the most, and those who care the most can easily get caught up in the behavior of another person. We react to the alcoholic's behavior. We focus on them, what they do, where they are, how much they drink. We try to control their drinking for them. We take on the blame, guilt, and shame that really belong to the drinker. We can become as addicted to the alcoholic, as the alcoholic is to alcohol. We, too, can become ill.

I guess I should add, why I suggest Al-Anon.

They have more experience with (effects of, reactions to, causes of) alcohol abuse than the general public does (Buddhism in particular says to avoid alcohol, I don't know whether it has much to say to help people, to say about helping people, specifically, who don't avoid it).

They (people who attend one or several Al-Anon meetings) can talk about the subject for longer, so you'll get more information from that than from a web site.

They're confidential (and somewhat anonymous) so the information exchanged can be more personal (hurtful).

Hearing other people's stories helps to give you a more detached view (insight) of your own stories.

When you see other people in person, they can be a more fulfilling (role) model.

Your relationship with your friend might have unhealthy inter-personal boundaries. Meeting new people lets you develop/see new relationships/boundaries with those people, which may be healthier than your current boundaries with your friend. Learning about healthier boundaries might help you both. Your having healthier boundaries to live within might make you more capable (capable of helping you both).

  • Still, this isn't really an answer from Buddhism... Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 3:59
  • @yuttadhammo You are right: it isn't; though it is further to Sankha's conclusion. What's more, people sometimes say that AA or Al-Anon meetings are "spiritual", but if anyone does ever mention a "higher power" a Buddhist might have to understand that as "letting go, it's not me that's in control of all the world". If someone posted to ask about a unexplained, chronic pain, would "I suggest you see a doctor" be part of a useful or responsible set of answers? So I recommended non-Buddhist specialists in that subject, expert in treating that malady. Can you give a more skillful, Buddhist answer?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 10:45
  • Challenge accepted. Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 17:24
  • 1
    @yuttadhammo When I read your answer, I was glad I had asked you to. It seems well-balanced and on-topic. I thought of "Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!" but wasn't sure that was appropriate, so I just "+1" instead. I especially like the "drip, drip" drop-by-drop image which you included: it reminded me of the "knock, knock" image in the OP (perhaps returning to knock again each day). And whereas konrad's answer (which I also upvoted) is about the present, saying "at the end of the day", yours is about the continuing/continuous present.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 17:39

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