Mud Bodhisattvas [who] cross [the] river,
[of] themselves, [they are] difficult [to] protect.
Should one who aspires for Buddhahood strive to deliver others or oneself from the rounds of rebirth first? Well, these options arise from a false dichotomy. The path to Buddhahood does not wholly consist of helping others. It is also not only about self-liberation. If one does not keep learning and practising to better oneself spiritually, how can others be assisted skilfully? This constant learning and practice is itself the delivering of oneself, that can also be applied to aid others, at more or less the same time for the spiritually mature. Of course, those less learned and practised should steady themselves first, but they can still direct those who need help to others who are already capable.
In a similar vein is this next question. Is seeking of birth in Pure Land counter to the Bodhisattva path of delivering others? Again, these options arise from a false dichotomy. Aspiring to reach Pure Land is part of the Bodhisattva path, to learn how to best deliver all others still trapped in the rounds of rebirth. Even those not ready to give rise to Bodhicitta here will definitely do so in Pure Land. Seeking birth there is likened to enrolling in the most efficient Bodhisattva training school for Buddhahood, for mastering how to help others. Just as it makes perfect sense to school oneself properly to equip oneself for a worldly job, the spiritual task of delivering others needs training too. This is versus countless ‘self-training’ with trials and errors in countless lifetimes, while forgetting past lives’ lessons.
We should differentiate between minor helping versus deliverance. The first is offering some aid, while the latter is to definitely guide towards liberation. Of course we should do what we can to help now, but to deliver is not so easy, unless doing as below, the Pure Land way. As the ‘Vimalakīrti Sūtra’《维摩经》says, ‘[If your] personal sickness [is] not able [to be] relieved, how [moreover, are you] able [to] relieve all sick persons?’ (自疾不能救，而能救诸疾人？) Also, ‘Like [the] Buddha as said, if oneself has bondage, [is one] able [to] liberate others [from] bondage? [This] is without possibility. If oneself [is] without bondage, [then is one] able [to] liberate others [from] bondage. This is with possibility.’ (如佛所说。若自有缚，能解彼缚？无有是处！若自无缚，能解彼缚，斯有是处。)
As taught by Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva (龙树菩萨) in the ‘Perfection Of Wisdom Treatise’《智度论》, ‘For example, [there are] two persons, each having relatives, by waters being drowned. One person, feeling anxious, directly enters [the] water [to] save [them]. Due [to being] without [the] power [of] skilful means, [with] one another, [they] all sink. One [other] person has skilful means, [and] goes [to] get [a] boat. Riding on [it to] receive [and] save, all attain liberation [from the] adversity of [being] drowned [by] water. (譬如二人，各有亲眷，为水所溺。一人情急，直入水救。为无方便力故，彼此俱没。 一人有方便，往取船筏。乘之救接，悉皆得脱水溺之难。)
Newly aspiring Bodhisattvas [are] likewise so, yet [to] attain [the] power [of] patience, [and] not able [to] save sentient beings. Due [to] this, [they] constantly need [to be] near Buddha[s]. After attaining [the] Patience [Of] Non-Birth, then [are they] able [to] save sentient beings, like [the] one [who] attained [the] boat.’ (譬如二人，各有亲眷，为水所溺。一人情急，直入水救。为无方便力故，彼此俱没。 一人有方便，往取船筏。乘之救接，悉皆得脱水溺之难。 新发意菩萨，亦复如是，未得忍力，不能救众生。为此常须近佛。得无生忍已，方能救众生，如得船者。) The easiest way to reach and always be near a Buddha is to reach Amitā[bha] Buddha’s (阿弥陀佛; Āmítuófó) Pure Land, where the Patience Of Non-Birth will definitely be attained. Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva himself personally vowed to reach Āmítuófó’s Pure Land too.
That said, as Master Thich Thiện Tâm wrote, ‘Nevertheless, considering the responsibility and the compassionate mind of the cultivator, we should not completely reject all attempts to save sentient beings in our current life. In truth, however, our present altruistic attempts can only be within the framework of “according to one’s means and conditions.” This is not unlike the case of someone who, having fallen into the river of delusion, tries his best to reach the shore [by the vehicle of Buddha mindfulness], and at the same time shouts out, exhorting others to do likewise.’
The easiest and most skilful way to deliver sentient beings is to guide them to also walk the Pure Land path. Just as the Dharma Door of mindfulness of Buddha is our lifesaver with the ship of Āmítuófó’s great vows, who rescues us from the sea of Saṃsāra, this vehicle can be shared with others now, even while we are in the same sea, urging them to hang on to it, to take refuge and hitch the same ride. In this way, we can become spiritual lifeguards. Although as ordinary beings, through personal connection to Āmítuófó and encouraging of others to connect to him, we can already somewhat semi-‘self-deliver [and] deliver others’ (自度度他) in this splendid way now.
Pure Land Bodhisattvas [who] return [to the] river,
[of] themselves, [they are] already protected.
– Extended Saying
Do Pure Land Aspirants Forsake Other Beings?
How To Have The Ultimately Blissful Reunion
Is Bodhicitta A Must For Birth In Āmítuófó’s Pure Land?
Some Verses Of Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva’s Exhortation To Be Mindful Of Buddha
Is Seeking Birth In Pure Land Cowardly?