Question: I read that we should help ourselves first, and help our family and friends later. Should this be so?
Answer: This is not always true. Most of the time, we can help them as we help ourselves to some extent. We might not be able to help them fully straightaway, but we can still help in ways we can, big or small.
Question: If our family members are uninterested in Buddhism no matter how hard we try to interest them, what can we do?
Answer: The best way to interest them is to be a good Buddhist — who is so good that they notice your great transformation as a child, mother, friend, colleague…. By being a good example, they will appreciate you more and pay attention to your advice. You can then gradually share that your change is due to practising the Buddha’s teachings, and that they can too, to be happier persons if they do the same.
Question: Did the Buddha’s mother ‘automatically’ take rebirth in Tavatimsa heaven after he attained enlightenment (without her doing anything)?
Answer: This is a special case, as Queen Maya was a special being who aspired to give birth to many future Buddhas. In this sense, she is a manifested Bodhisattva. She was born in Tavatimsa by her own great merits (which includes those from birthing Buddha-to-bes) even before the Buddha attained enlightenment. It is true that if we are enlightened, we can more easily guide our family and friends. However, to help them only when we are enlightened might take a long time. As (un)enlightened as we are, we can still help in ways we can. It would be both cruel and ridiculous to refuse to help someone in any way just because one is not enlightened.
Question: The mother of who later became Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva also left hell and became a heavenly being when the daughter aspired to become a Bodhisattva?
Answer: This is also a special case — because the mother also had enough latent good karma to deserve such a filial daughter who was able to create immense merits to share with her to rescue her. If we do not aspire for attain enlightenment for a long time or do not become a Bodhisattva, and if a family member is reborn in a hell for a long time, it would be most unfortunate. As such, one should do one’s best to prevent this person from being born in hell in the first place, and not just think he or she can ‘wait’, if (s)he ends up in hell. (Of course, there are other possible means to help this hell-being, but that is not the point here.) When we study the sutras, we will realise that all great Bodhisattvas start actively helping all beings once they aspire for enlightenment. They do not wait till they are enlightened Bodhisattvas before they help. In fact, the Bodhisattva path comprises of helping others. Not doing this, one cannot become an enlightened Bodhisattva or Buddha.
Question: If we work hard to understand and practise the Dharma well, will our immediate family be able to benefit without having to do anything? Does it apply to the family members of our current life only? How about friends? And how about the family and friends of previous lives?
Answer: Our relations (family and friends) can benefit from our positive karma when we share our merits with them. The greater our merits are and the stronger our karmic affinity with them (including those from past lives is, the wider is our reach of goodness. However, unless we are very well spiritually accomplished, we should not imagine we have much merits to share with them. Of course, we should still share merits with them, but we should also benefit them in person via everyday actions.
Here is an important related article to share on the subject:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/zeph/message/1086 (Should We Help Others Or Ourselves First?)