If we are caught in the great web of desire and aversion, and are roiling in Samsara, helpful or well meaning advise (to let go, to be in the moment, to inspect the emptiness of reality, to not indulge in distractions, to not follow emotions blindly) may fall on deaf ears.

Sometimes when the Buddha encountered such people, he seemed to have a knack to lead them to realization of the drawbacks of Samsara. Ex. Stories of Kisa Gotami or Patacara (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.10.01.than.html)

Other times, he wasn't so successful in making others happy, as with the case of his father who was very aggrieved about losing a successor, or monks in his order who plotted against him or the sangha. Sometimes even expulsion didn't seem to help. In fact, Buddha initially had reservations about teaching the Dhamma at all - http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn06/sn06.001.than.html

It is unclear whether it was his wise words, or his enlightened mindful compassionate energy presence or the receptiveness of the listener that led some lucky ones to this realization. In any case, lacking the wisdom of the Buddha, we may alienate those we seek to help by explaining the suffering of Samsara when they expect conventional help.

In these situations, would it be wise for a Buddhist to offer everyday immediate samsaric help, like, taking someone out to a movie or to a drink to forget their pain (obviously only works in suffering of a lower intensity than losing your family to death)?

Or, would it harm the Buddhist himself, by weakening his/her belief in Dhamma? i.e. implying Dhamma isn't always the best cure

Which is more compassionate? Or, what would an aspiring Bodhisattva do?

  • Made the question more balanced by adding observations about people with dust in their eyes.
    – Buddho
    Jun 10, 2015 at 14:07

3 Answers 3


An aspiring bodhisattva would use Upaya and do anything to ease the suffering of another without breaking the five precepts. Only when another person's mind/hearth is calmed and malleable would it then be able to receive/absorb dharma.

Even then he can only act within the limits of his own wisdom, so his intention, skilful or unskilful, is very important.

Then, again there are "...people with little dusts in their eyes...".

  • Indeed, but when does Upaya turn into idiocy? An aspiring monk about to leave his family is almost always going to run into stiff opposition, even the Buddha had to sneak away in the night because he lacked the power to convince his father. Surely people he left behind grieved Siddharta's departure, his wife may have felt abandoned, his son grew up in a broken family. In a modern legal context, we would in fact call the Buddha a dead beat dad is it not? Yet, even the Buddha wanted his monks to get the king's permission to go forth when he himself did not.
    – Buddho
    Jun 10, 2015 at 12:59
  • 1
    Under certain circumstances we cannot know the results of an action, but we can know only the intention of an action, whether skilful or unskilful.
    – Samadhi
    Jun 10, 2015 at 13:07
  • Even the Buddha from all accounts didn't succeed in easing the suffering of all he encountered. There were monks in his order, in his time plotting schisms or breaks in the order, or plotting his assassination, or contemplating ways to bend the precepts. His own father didn't forgive him, and felt aggrieved even when Buddha's wife, mother and son became monastics. Perhaps there aren't records of the numerous times grieving people came to the Buddha and turned away unconvinced. This is why growing unshakeable faith in dhamma is emphasised as the responsibility of the student.
    – Buddho
    Jun 10, 2015 at 13:07
  • 1
    An aspiring bodhisattva can only act within the limit of his wisdom. So his intention is all important.
    – Samadhi
    Jun 10, 2015 at 13:17
  • I really like the simplicity of your answer, and above all one has to be compassionate to oneself. Sometimes even drinking with whores maybe the right thing to do, as Zen master Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) discovered. Ikkyu Sojun was appointed headmaster of the great temple at Kyoto, he lasted nine days before denouncing the rampant hypocrisy he saw among the monks there. He in turn invited them to look for him in the sake parlors of the Pleasure Quarters. A Zen monk-poet-calligrapher-musician, he dared to write about the joys of erotic love, along with more traditional Zen themes.
    – Buddho
    Jun 10, 2015 at 13:39

Unfortunately (because it doesn't answer your question), I'd guess it's better to find "practical solutions to everyday suffering" that don't contradict Buddhism.

When my father died, there's a couple of things people did for my mum which she appreciated (i.e. these are stories which she retold, of examples of how to help people who are grieving because she found them helpful).

  • People made and gave her cakes. This is useful because, she said, "you don't feel like cooking, people are coming to visit you every day, and it's nice to have some cake to offer your visitors."

    Isn't this is a practical and a Buddhist gift: because it helps the recipient to be generous?

  • My parents moved to a new place when they retired. One of the people in the new village, who she hadn't met before (word of her loss had travelled), stopped to talk to her in the street of offer condolences. He said, "Neighbours are more important than family." Oh: really? "Yes because we're here (and your family is in another country)."

    Isn't that sort of Buddhist too? It's not Dhamma exactly (not talking about dukkha for example) but it's bringing attention to what is (instead of attention to what has gone), to human contact.

  • Several people told her to keep on making contact with other people. One told her "you mustn't just go home and close the curtains" (and told me not to let her do that). Another phoned a neighbour and told the neighbour to visit every day.

I'm not sure why "going to a movie" might help a person to "forget their pain". Perhaps it's just the passing of time (impermanence of pain), or distraction (to stop clinging), or human contact (your company at the theatre, or compassion felt for the characters in the movie).

Without saying that a movie is unwise, perhaps using conversation to touch on these topics or evoke them is a skillful alternative.

By the way a friend once told me there are different axes along which a topic of conversation between two people is more or less intimate:

  • What's distant in time (past or future) is less intimate (less immediate) than the present (now)
  • What's distant in space (other places) is less intimate than the present (here)
  • Talking about other people is less intimate than talking about ourselves.

If you're trying to have a conversation with someone who is grieving, maybe that's good to remember. A person might get bored if the topic of conversation is too distant ("why is Buddho trying to tell me a story that happened to someone else a long time ago and far away?"), but uncomfortable if the topic is too intimate ("what do you mean, 'how do I feel?' I feel terrible, what do you expect?"), so adjusting that to find some topic in the middle might be skillful.

I guess my mum enjoyed a couple of things I did for her, over the next months, she said: one was practical help, like helping her use her computer, helping her count her money (her budget); and the other was my acting silly sometimes which made her laugh.

That said, I'm reading "Good Question Good Answer" by Bhante Dhammika at the moment. In the chapter about the five precepts, one of the question is whether you should lie to a killer to prevent them from killing. His answer was that,

"If you were sitting in a park and a terrified man ran past you and then a few minutes later another man carrying a knife ran up to you and asked you if you had seen which way the first man had gone, would you tell him the truth or would you lie to him?"

"If I had good reason to suspect that the second man was going to do serious harm to the first I would, as an intelligent caring Buddhist, have no hesitation in lying. We said before that one of the factors determining whether a deed is good or bad is intention. The intention to save a life is many times more positive than telling a lie is negative in circumstances such as these. If lying, drinking, or even stealing meant that I saved a life I should do it. I can always make amends for breaking these, but I can never bring a life back once it is gone. However, as I said before, please do not take this as a license to break the Precepts whenever it is convenient. The Precepts should be practiced with great care and only infringed in extreme cases."

  • Thanks, I enjoyed your answer. Indeed, there's a great many things one can do by being a decent human being first and foremost. Now to the story of the knife wielding man - suppose the escaping man has set a time bomb, and is running away with the code to defuse it, and the man chasing him wants to get the code to save lives, would knowing this context change things? p.s. I agree that intention really does matter, and so at least from the karmic context he accrues no harm, though the courts may think he aided and abetted a criminal, and that too would then be karma.
    – Buddho
    Jun 10, 2015 at 12:47
  • I saw a frightened gazelle being cornered by Komodo dragons on TV, his only escape route was blocked by a grazing buffalo, left alone by the dragons because of his size. The buffalo couldn't care less about the tragedy about to befall the gazelle, he seemed to really be interested in the grass before him. Was the buffalo wrong, and cruel, or wise because this is the circle of life and intervention is wrong. If a human were to act similarly, would that be cruel? Sometimes being decent is complicated.
    – Buddho
    Jun 10, 2015 at 12:49

While you may not be able to emulate Buddha's psychic powers, the Buddha recommends in the Sigalovada Sutta on how good friends are. The role of mentor and compassionate friend applies to your case.

  1. "Young man, be aware of these four good-hearted friends: the helper, the friend who endures in good times and bad, the mentor, and the compassionate friend.

  2. "The helper can be identified by four things: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, and in various tasks providing double what is requested.

  3. "The enduring friend can be identified by four things: by telling you secrets, guarding your own secrets closely, not abandoning you in misfortune, and even dying for you.

  4. "The mentor can be identified by four things: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you towards good actions, telling you what you ought to know, and showing you the path to heaven.

  5. "The compassionate friend can be identified by four things: by not rejoicing in your misfortune, delighting in your good fortune, preventing others from speaking ill of you, and encouraging others who praise your good qualities."

Another point is that the Buddha knew when to say the right things to people. So, as a good friend who is a mentor (above), you may want to consider the following from the Abhaya Sutta:

[ 1] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[ 2] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[ 3] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[ 4] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[ 5] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[ 6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings."

  • Good friendship is great compassion, true, but I was specifically asking about the utility of everyday solutions that may run counter to Buddhism. For example, if a friend says, drink with me, so I don't feel lonely, does one say no, it goes against my precepts? Would that be compassionate or selfish?
    – Buddho
    Jun 10, 2015 at 7:56
  • @Buddho, a friend who asks you to break your precepts just so they don't have to feel lonely while drinking is maybe not such a good friend. Answers here regarding giving up bad friends might be interesting supplemental reading.
    – Robin111
    Jun 10, 2015 at 11:22
  • Yes, you shouldn't compromise your principles in order to help others. This applies to the five precepts only if you observe them. But as per the answer by ChrisW, the precepts can be broken in extreme cases (if you took a vow to observe them).
    – ruben2020
    Jun 10, 2015 at 12:58

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