be your own island haven;
let the truth be won.
Alone, this way please tend,
when there’s no wise, prudent friend;
– this truth defend!
Refrain from evil,
going alone is graceful;
fools are unartful.
Search all domains,
none is dearer than your-aim;
others are the same.
are the whole of the goodlife;
a life without strife.”
By Bup Sahn Sunim
The story goes that after Buddha became enlightened he considered not teaching anyone, but did so after the most-high god Brahma Sahampatihe begged him to change his mind. In fact, tradition tells us that the past six Buddha’s before Gotama also thought long and hard before deciding to teach (D 14)(D 14.3.1-7/ 2:35- 40) implying that it is optional for an enlightened one to teach. It is natural to ask how this reluctance to teach fits into the idea that Buddhism’s aim is to ‘save all beings.’
In order to start to tackle the question of the seeming contradiction between the insistence between personal responsibility and ‘saving all beings’ it is important to understanding that as westerners we understand ‘all beings’ differently from how it would have been understood in traditional Asian culture where this saying was coined. For us, we see ‘all beings’ as a collection of unique, autonomous beings endowed with equal-worth (ie, the western individual) but traditional Buddhism does not understand beings to be equal but instead introduces a hierarchy of worth.
This hierarchy is easy to see with respect to animals where the western tradition largely agrees that they have less and sometimes of no moral worth, but harder for us to accept for humans who in the western tradition all have equal worth as children of God made in his image. However, Buddhist terminology betrays equality and creates a hierarchy of worth with terms like Buddha, Arahant, Pratyekabuddha, Sotapanna, Sakadagami, Anāgāmi, Bodhitsattva, stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner and classes of human who can never become enlightened such as icchantika or sometimes even women.
In the western tradition we are told repeatedly that there is equality among people, but conversely in Buddhism it is suggested that it is better to live alone than have fellowship with a fool. In the western tradition feeding the poor is a salvic moral act in and of itself while in Buddhism feeding the poor is an act of generosity but really quite pointless as far as salvation goes since it is through personally nurturing the virtues and meditation that one achieves the goal. In traditional Buddhism feeding someone who’s hungry will not help them or us reach enlightenment and they will continue to suffer until they work it out for themselves often over many (perhaps infinite) lifetimes. This is the reason why, in traditional Buddhist communities there are heirarchies where the ‘nobel-ones’ (the monks) are seen to have higher worth since they are the closest, in theory, to enlightenment. This is one reason why people give arms to the monks and temples instead of the poor and needy.
We will probally as westerners keep returning to our default position that all beings are equal, but that is not the teaching of traditional Buddhism. At some abstract level everyone is equal in they have Buddha-nature and the potential eventually to become enlightened but right now we are far from equal in terms of progress in the Buddhist path. I suspect that many westerners will eventually come to insist that ‘enlightenment’ isn’t even a possibility because that would imply inequality which the very thing that our culture insists doesn’t exist. No doubt westerners will cling onto Buddhist ideas and sayings that seem to promote equality such as the idea that everyone is already enlightened in order to paint Buddhism with their own ideas of individualistic equality but that is us painting Buddhism in our own image.
We are now able to return to the question of why Buddha hesitated to teach. It is because Buddha initially thought that it would be impossible for anyone else to learn what he had discovered (M 1:169). He later realized that there are a few people who would in fact be ready to learn, but not many (M 26). Everyone was not equal in this regard. Everyone was not ready then and that is also the case today. Nevertheless, are a few ‘noble-ones’ who were ripe for the picking. The majority though will have to wait, perhaps forever.
Better it is to live alone; there is no fellowship with a fool. Live alone and do no evil; be carefree like an elephant in the elephant forest.
Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.
– Upaddha Sutta (UD 5.1)
Searching all directions with your awareness, you find no one dearer than yourself. In the same way, others are thickly dear to themselves. So you shouldn’t hurt others if you love yourself.
Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone
If for company you cannot find a wise and prudent friend who leads a good life, then, like a king who leaves behind a conquered kingdom, or like a lone elephant in the elephant forest, you should go your way alone.