QUESTION: Can you tell something more on the verse “Bring help and happiness to all other beings, and secretly take upon myself, all their harm and suffering” (The eight verses off Geshe Langri Thangpa in the Nien Fo book off Amida order): People say to me: I don’t want to take the harm and suffering off others on me, I can not bear this, it is not healthy to do this.
SHORT ANSWER: Buddhism is not about personal health.
LONG ANSWER: Of course, most people do not want to take on the suffering of others: most people are not bodhisattvas. Amida Buddha would happily take on our suffering if it would relieve us of it. When one loves somebody deeply and that beloved person is suffering, one naturally feels, "I wish I could take it upon myself and relieve them of it." To some extent we do all do this - we suffer with somebody and thereby give them some relief rather than leaving them to suffer alone. We do things that cost us time, money, health, energy and so on in order to help those we love. If a friend is in desperate straits, perhaps we give them some money - now they have what they need and we are worse off so we have taken some of their suffering onto ourselves. We might even arrange for them to get the money without them knowing where it came from. When one listens to another person talking about their distress, one takes some of it upon oneself and thus eases their burden. One could, of course, have just said "I don't want to hear about your problems - it is not good for me," but we don't. In the long run it is best for everybody that one is compassionate.
There is a story about a Buddhist hermit who was well regarded by everybody. One day a young woman in the village became pregnant. She did not want to say who the real father was, so she told people that it was the hermit who had seduced her. People went to see the hermit and told him what the woman had said. All the the hermit said was "Is that so?" The hermit's reputation was ruined. When the baby was born the parents of the girl brought the baby to the hermit and said, "This is your baby." The hermit said, "Is that so?" They left the baby with the hermit and the hermit looked after it. Eventually the girl could keep up the pretense no more and confessed the truth of the matter. The parents came to the hermit and apologised and said that he was not the father of the child. The hermit just said, "Is that so?" They took the baby away and the hermit got on with his life and practice. The story is probably apocryphal, but it illustrates an important principle. Sometimes good things befall us and sometimes bad ones. Sometimes we are understood and sometimes misunderstood. Sometimes other people dump their troubles upon us. Sometimes they take them away again. The bodhisattva does not defend himself at the expense of others. By taking on their suffering he brings peace into the world. This may not be apparent in the short run and he may be misunderstood, but he is not in it for himself. By doing so secretly, he does not take credit to himself.
The Eight Verses are not a text from the Pureland tradition. They are an important text in Tibetan Buddhism. There is a related practice called tonglen. Traditionally this is a practice of great compassion for others. As with almost every aspect of Buddhism, in the modern world many teachers have introduced a distortion into the practice by making compassion for oneself primary, but this was not the original form. The modern world is a culture of self-care and self-concern, but traditionally the bodhisattva ideal is one in which one abandons or renounces self and lives in the service of others. This is a challenging ideal. The most thorough text on this is the Guide To The Bodhisattva's Way of Life by Shantideva. It is a prayer to be able to be whatever it is that others really need. It is the ultimate in unselfishness.
In Pureland, we acknowledge these ideals, yet at the same time also acknowledge that as ordinary beings we often lack the courage, will power, compassion or understanding to fulfil them. We might like to be bodhisattvas, but we find that all too often we are primarily concerned with ourselves. We do not want to undertake anything that might be disadvantageous to ourselves or unhealthy for ourselves. Materialist and consumerist ideas have made selfishness into a virtue to such an extent that many people nowadays are completely blind to any other option and find teachings like these a shock. To the modern person it seems self evident not only that people do put themselves first but that they should do so. From the Buddhist perspective, however, this is a major mistake.
One of the big problems in the world at the moment, for instance, is the fact that people from rich countries do not want to help people from poor countries and do not want them to come into the rich countries because if they do the people in the rich country will have to take on some of the suffering of the poor immigrants. This is understandable, but it is not Buddhism.