Once upon a time, many aeons before he took birth as a prince, Shakyamuni was an ordinary being born into a hot hell realm, where he was forced to pull a chariot through the fires. Distressed over the struggles of his feeble companion, great compassion welled up in the future Buddha’s heart. This, it is said, was the first time bodhichitta dawned in his mind, and it marked the beginning of his lives-long journey toward ultimate awakening—the compassion that arose while he was in hell.
This rather astonishing story exemplifies when and how we must generate motivation for the benefit of others. We’re more familiar with the Buddha’s later life story: he was handsome, intelligent, wealthy, privileged, skilled in sports, and highly educated. Of course, such an ideal person, a buddha, should and could help others. But the Jataka tales of the Buddha’s past lives inform us that such an ideal life was not where he began. Indeed, it is always the case that our highest aspirations must be launched from right in the midst of our afflictions, wherever we happen to find ourselves in this life stream—even if it is in hell.
What gives a hell being the right to help others? Every Tibetan Buddhist practice includes the bodhisattva vow to work for the benefit of others. However, the tradition is also full of assertions that we cannot benefit others unless we are wise and enlightened, lest our good intentions be misguided. So when, exactly, are we wise enough to help others? We all want to be better versions of ourselves, but when are we “better enough” to step up and act on a bodhisattva’s heroic intent?
The mind-set of samsara is that we can only be happy if we are someone other than our present self. Someday, somewhere, somehow—different. Oh, the things we would do if we were smarter, richer, thinner, if we had more knowledge or better opportunities. This is the clinging to a self that generates dukkha, or pervasive unsatisfactoriness. Dukkha often manifests in negative self-images and accompanying fantasies of a better me. Buddhism, by offering an alternate focal point, can shift our primary focus from this futile pursuit of our ideal selves. Instead of trying to be perfect, we focus on purifying our underlying motivations so that we can wake up, show up, and act with enlightened intention—right here, right now, just as we are…excerpt from You’re Ready Enough BY PEMA KHANDRO RINPOCHE