Hillel on Buddhism

by Bob Schwartz

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?
Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers 1:14

Hillel didn’t know the Buddha and probably didn’t know those who followed the Buddha’s philosophy. Jesus didn’t know Hillel, but knew people who knew Hillel or who followed Hillel’s philosophy.

This is one of the most famous of all Hillel’s wise sayings, and contains the essence of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and all religions aimed at assisting human evolution.

One of the seeming divisions in Buddhist thought—a division in the thought of most religions—is whether the primary mission is individualistic or communitarian. Should I be enlightened first so that I can help others be enlightened? Should I be saved first and go the heaven first so that I can help others get there? Or should I work on the community first, and then I might achieve that aspirational state and status.

Or both at the same time? Yes, both at the same time.

Hillel could not be more Buddhist if he was in India, China or Japan rather than Palestine.

It’s not just a matter of one making the other possible. These are not just dependent conditions. Your enlightenment does not exist without the enlightenment of others. Your well-being does not exist without the well-being of others. Simultaneously.

We see those who proudly parade their faith around yet, aside from aggressive proselytizing, leave others to fend for themselves. It is as if they stopped at the first Hillel question and felt justified making it all about themselves. When they skip the second question—“If I am only for myself, who am I?”—the possibility of their enlightenment, salvation, heaven, or whatever prize they seek is a delusion, as distant as the diameter of the universe.

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