How should one react when other people behave impossibly?

Lama Ole’s answer:

The first thing is to check whether it’s your issue or not. With us, the big judge is named cause and effect. As a Buddhist, one does not have to interfere in things for the sake of morals or justice. People do negative things if they are stupid, and they themselves will also suffer through what they do.

But if one feels responsible for the situation and has a connection to the person who is making trouble, then it is all right to do something. One can say, “Hey, you idiot, do you see what you’re doing there?” But there should not be any anger in it. If anger is involved, then it always looks stupid. People take it personally and one destroys good connections.

It is good to stop someone who is doing something negative, but if disturbing emotions are there, then it is better to watch out and hold oneself back. In general, it is better to give advice than to tell people pointblank that they shouldn’t do this or that, because if they continue to do it, the connection is damaged and one can’t help anymore.

Over time, you learn to deal with situations like this. You become totally non-moralistic and understand that it is only about the greatest possible human happiness. It is about benefiting beings as well as possible and seeing that everyone is as good as he can be.

You don’t judge but rather try to see if a behavior fits in a given structure. And there you often have to hammer a few bent nails into a piece of wood which itself doesn’t quite fit. That’s just life. You deal with things in a way that brings as little suffering as possible and that—if possible—everyone learns from what happens. Everything is the art of the possible; this means flowing with and being open to all possibilities.

It is like a huge card game, like super bridge. One has half the cards up one’s sleeve the whole time. One sees what the others play, checks it out, and reacts, but the point of the game is that the others win. That is the special game of the lamas: the others should win. And it is best when they think they have figured it out themselves; otherwise, they may easily become proud or angry.

One should always see the best in people. But if they really make trouble, what then?

Lama Ole’s answer:

You should think that they are buddhas who don’t know it themselves. And then you grab them and tell them off so that they can better get to where they can recognize their buddha nature. If people didn’t have buddha nature, there would be no reason to work with them. That said, even if a teacher has thirty little geniuses sitting in the classroom, he still has to exert some pressure sometimes and say, “Stay in your chair! Stop chewing your pencil! Don’t pull her hair!”—things like that. But it is meaningful because you see that something can come out of it.

On the one hand, you must keep an eye on the relative level or else you won’t know what has to be done. But if you don’t see the absolute level, which is above the relative level, then you’ll make mistakes.

If someone always causes problems and we think we should intervene, what is the best way to do that?

Lama Ole’s answer:

In situations like this, there are two kinds of people: those who know they have a problem and are ready to change, and those who must be convinced that they have a problem and should change. If a person has already discovered that they have a difficult character and that things are not going so well for them, then we can work with them. We have a responsibility to them, and we try to keep them out of difficult situations.

That is what I always say when someone comes to me with relationship problems and says, “I give all the time and I get so little in return.” Usually, they are women. And I tell them, “Look, it is great to be able to give, but does he know what he is getting and does he also wish to give something?” If he does, then it doesn’t matter how closed off the boy is; when he gets good things for long enough, he will also give—because he is full of good impressions. So, if we work with people who are open, it is easy.

But if you work with people who disturb others and don’t admit it, then stop them so they see that the world does not agree with their trip. If they become reasonable at that point and want to learn something, then you can help them. And if they don’t want to understand anything and the ego keeps coming up again and again and becomes disturbing, then leave them outside for a while. Work around them or past them and protect others from them until, at some point, they discover that it was better before—that the ego might not be worth it. Then they are ready to learn.

As long as you are not angry, the method you choose will be right. If your own attitude is good, then what happens is the karma of the others. Then they have good karma if they meet you on one of their reasonable days and bad karma if they meet you on a difficult day. Whoever always does his best will have no difficulties.

Should we intervene if we witness a fight?

Lama Ole’s answer:

That depends on how many of them there are, how serious it is, and what one can do oneself. But in a brawl, under no circumstances should one judge who the good guys and bad guys are, even if a couple of brutes are running off with an old lady’s purse. Of course you should try to stop them and give the lady her purse back. But you cannot judge because the old lady certainly did something to them earlier. Everything is cause and effect.

What you can do is try to calm the situation down and bring in your abilities where you can. Look at the situation: Are a couple of drunks beating each other? Are they about the same size and strength, and does neither have a knife? Then you don’t necessarily need to throw yourself in between them.

But if one of them is clearly at a disadvantage and the other is a brutal sort, or if there are weapons involved—then call the police as quickly as possible. You pay taxes so that help comes in such cases. Whoever is strong enough can pull the people apart himself and push them up against the wall a few times until they calm down. If there is no anger involved, then people become like wax in your hands. You will be amazed. Even the most brutal guys will give in if you act without anger. They know that it is a higher power and they disappear. And you don’t only help the weaker person through intervening; the stronger one also won’t be happy if he flattens the weaker one.

By the way, as a woman one can always stand nearby and scream really loudly. That helps surprisingly well.

How can we help a friend who has gotten himself into big trouble? He is not aware of what he is doing and rejects any good advice anyone offers.

Lama Ole’s answer:

There are direct and indirect ways to work with this. We may tell people directly, “Listen, do you know what you are doing to yourself?” We assert ourselves as well as possible. Apart from that, we make wishes to the buddhas and say, “Please, before all his capital is used up, just give him a good one on the nose, fast and hard so that he realizes that it was not a good idea and can get out of it.” We have good experiences with Tara in this type of situation, the female buddha principle. She can help in a motherly way. Mahakala may be a bit rough there, but we can use him too.

I would make wishes that they get into difficulties quickly so that they can stop quickly, instead of torturing themselves for a long time. Because the longer they keep on, the more strength they lose and the deeper they get into trouble. If people want to run head on into the wall, it is important that those who would usually hold a pillow in front of them pull it away from time to time and say, “Olé!”—because when it hurts, people may start to think. They really should be confronted with their actions.

My brother worked with people in withdrawal. He was very tough with them and provoked their pride. He really treated them like dirt, always pointing to their situation and saying, “Look at what you are now. Look at what you’ve done to yourself!” And in many cases, he was able to find a shred of pride and could then say, “Come on, now show me how you can do it differently.” He got them out like that, but it is difficult. Bad company is like honey—it sticks to your fingers.

How can one help without seeming patronizing?

Lama Ole’s answer:

Don’t make your compassion into a thing! Don’t go around saying, “Here is my compassion” or “I am humbler than you!” like some Buddhists from other schools do. Do what is in front of your nose and stay cool as you do it! Act in the moment that compassion is there. If you let go as soon as the task is finished, then you always have clean hands. Then you are like the wind that simply blows the dust out the window; then, when the window is closed, the room is warm again.

If you make a big deal out of compassion, it becomes sticky. You act and do what you can because humans are basically nice. Afterwards, forget about it and move on happily.
There is a nice story about this: Two monks from a wild sect, who were not allowed to have anything to do with women, came to a river which a lady also wanted to cross. One of the monks carried her across, set her down on the other side, and went on. The other monk swallowed his tonsils five times and was completely mixed up. After three days, he finally managed to ask, “How could you touch her?” The first monk replied, “I set her down already, but you are still carrying her!”
It is mentally healthy to act in the moment. A truly right action is like drawing on water: Before there was nothing; afterwards there is nothing; and in the moment everything fits! There is nothing sticky—no expectations, no fears, no yesterday or tomorrow. That is the level of the Diamond Way, the level of Mahamudra.

I am often unsure whether I should take action in a certain situation or whether I should keep out of it. Can you give me some advice?

Lama Ole’s answer:

This is a question of type. I am an action type; I jump into everything. It is natural for me to take part in everything that is happening around me, in one way or another. If it is about growth or the direction of the lineage—things that are beyond personal—then I act immediately. That is my responsibility. Karmapa gave me that responsibility and I take action immediately in those situations. But if people want to ram their heads through the wall and need to find out for themselves that this doesn’t work, then I keep out of it. On the level of personal growth, I only intervene if people want that—if they come to me and say, “Lama, I have a problem.” Of course I always give signs, but if they are not interested and want to do something else, then I don’t push it on them.

This way one can see that we are not a cult, because cults keep their people in line. If they haven’t been there for a few weeks, then first they get a letter, a few weeks later a telephone call, and two weeks after that the visits start. We don’t do that at all. People can come and go as they wish. It is fine if they stay away while they’re going through something difficult and come back when they are open again. With us everything works on the level of independence. Of course we are friends and help when we know that someone is sick. But when someone needs a bit of time without Buddhism, we don’t run after them.

We have to develop an instinct for recognizing for the situations we’d like to get into. We get a sense for whether a comedy or a tragedy is taking shape—something helpful or something harmful—and then we take two roles in the comedy and let the tragedy go by. Depending on our function and inner attitude, we’ll notice whether we should take drastic measures to protect beings or not. If something really disturbing is happening, it is good to intervene—for example, if a big guy is hitting an old lady. You can interfere if there is no doubt that whatever you’re stopping is wrong and would bring lasting negative results. However, at the same time one should try not to judge the situation, because the old lady might have let the guy starve to death in the last life or have done something else to him.

If the situation lasts longer—harassment on the job or difficulties between people—then try to see whether you’re caught in it yourself, and whether you have fixed ideas of like and dislike. If you have these then keep some distance, because otherwise you’ll make mistakes. But if you are not caught up in it, then do what will help people learn the most in the long run. That way you are a mirror for the people, and you direct their attention to their possibilities and qualities. If someone in the office is behaving impossibly, you can confront him and say, “Don’t try that with me!” Everyone will see it; he has taken a knock and you can counter him better in the future. Or you can try to work with his power and make a joke out of his behavior.

We all have many different qualities and abilities. Some people are rather pacifying. They always feel the need to calm everything down and produce a jovial atmosphere. Others think, “Everyone is just sitting around doing nothing!” They bring in the increasing, enriching qualities. With these first two kinds of activity, one can hardly make mistakes. When you pacify, just make sure that people don’t fall asleep. If you show what is possible, try to not give too much too fast.

If people have accomplished something and are sitting there with surplus and feeling good, then comes the third, fascinating or inspiring activity. Here, people fall in love and feel enamored; they experience something wonderful and make the people around them feel rich. When working with inspiration, the teacher must watch out because he runs a very high risk of becoming proud. The more he works with inspiration and direct openness, the more he must make sure that he is still able to act like anyone else, that he is not playing any games and is completely normal when he steps down from the throne or is finished with his work. He has to check that others can truly count on him.

If we can inspire and awaken people without creating stickiness, then we can stand there with a mirror and say, “Actually, you only see your own face. Actually, you can only see something beautiful in me because you have it in yourself!” If as a teacher one steps aside like that and shows people their own abilities, then one can work with the inspiring activity.

The fourth activity is when we take drastic action and protect powerfully when we simply know that something cannot be allowed to continue. This is the most difficult but often the most important function—to stop things that are going wrong. For those with this protective instinct, you must be careful that you’re not angry while following it.

Sometimes we help others, but when we need help ourselves nothing comes back. What should we think about that?

Lama Ole’s answer:

That is a question of style. You must simply decide whether you are in kindergarten or among adults. If people act so childishly, they are emotionally immature and should not be taken seriously. Or perhaps you only believe that you helped, just like the people who believe that they are helping their lama by doing the opposite of what he told them because they think they are smarter than he is. Perhaps people are not thankful because you acted based on your own ideas and not based on their situation. There is often too much ego involved in helping. One comes in with a box full of ideas, and that makes everything really complicated.

In my experience, people who you help without an ulterior motive will be thankful and develop good qualities. At the beginning, they want to see if you’re trying to make them dependent. But if you shine on them like the sun, again and again; if you are kind no matter what they do, in the end they’ll also give you something back. It’s also very difficult to help with money. I myself do not lend money; rather I give money if people need some. But I would never bring them into a relationship of dependency.

There are people who always want to help but aren’t really very helpful. Can you say something about this kind of helper syndrome?

Lama Ole’s answer:

If people want to help, without having helped themselves first, they are usually pushed away. No one likes these attempts to help that are sticky and too personal. Many people have a good sense of what is unhealthy—when the helpers want to hide from their own problems and throw themselves onto others instead. Other people might not do so much, but they stand there broad-shouldered and everybody wants a share of their vibrations. These people are more helpful than you might think.

This is also a reason why people laugh at the many relief organizations and religious institutions, even though they’re helpful. The drunks go there as long as they are hungry, and get a cup of soup and a sermon. But as soon as they’re doing a bit better, they go a little farther down the road to get the soup without the sermon. We can indeed sense what is healthy and what is unhealthy. Even dogs sense why they are being petted—whether a person really likes them or is just trying not to get bitten.

When is it right to tell someone that you don’t want to help them any longer?

Lama Ole’s answer:

When you think that they are no longer working with their situation and progressing. As long as you feel that they are really engaged and doing what they can, helping is good. But as soon as they make themselves into victims and only expect something, then leave them alone, because in that case they’re not moving forward.

This may sound harsh, and it doesn’t follow the style of the sixties—when our new humanism took shape—but one has to truly think of the person’s wellbeing. The social and psychiatric institutions in Western Europe are now very good. Many of my students work in such places, and I am sure that they do very good work and that others are doing the same. You don’t have to have a bad conscience when you leave someone to the professionals.

We should also not be too soft on people who want to commit suicide. If the candidate starts to get evasive, if he no longer wants to explain or prove anything and says everything sweetly with a fine little smile—from that moment on, you cannot save him anymore. As soon as he has fallen in love with the idea of suicide, there is nothing more you can do. But as long as there is a bit of resistance, as long as there is an inner struggle, you can shock him and say, “You will certainly be reborn in a war zone in Africa!” If the person is a bit intelligent and knows what’s going on in the world, then you can say, “Think about the Hutus and the Tutsis and what’s going on between them!” If they have seen what’s happening there on TV, you might be able to shock them out of their trip.

If we’re just nice all the time, then they fall even more in love with the idea of suicide since everyone is taking it so seriously. Then they commit suicide because of the others and not because of themselves. In the end, they have talked about it so much that they have to do it.

How much can we give without making people dependent on our help?

Lama Ole’s answer:

Modern psychology has many ideas on the subject, but for me it is much simpler: you help as long as it is practical and as long as people don’t become opportunistic. Help them as long as there is a natural exchange. If they become dependent or don’t achieve anything themselves, you can happily sit out a round and say, “I’ve given you my idea, and if you don’t like it then go somewhere else.”

For example, if I were to give good lectures only when rich people who might donate something were there, and bad lectures when just a few old hippies were listening, then I would be neither a good teacher nor an honest man. I have to give everything I can in every situation. Then, if something doesn’t come across the right way, it is the karma of the people.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to measure out one’s love. I would rather give it all: in love, full throttle and hug whoever gets close—and if someone keeps his distance that’s also OK. But go through with all the strength you have and give what you can. That’s my formula. If people can receive everything, then they get one hundred percent, and if they only have the karma for five percent, then that doesn’t mean we give any less.

What should we do with friends who constantly get themselves into difficult situations but are not open to being helped?

Lama Ole’s answer:

If someone really needs to hit his head against the wall, you shouldn’t always be there to hold up a pillow. Act like a bullfighter instead, who shouts “Olé” and lets the bull run into the wall! Before bad habits become too deeply rooted, people should quickly feel that the consequences really hurt—that they hurt so much that the ego can’t sugarcoat things anymore. Perhaps this way they’ll get the idea to change something.

Of course there are a few things that must not happen: for example, one must do everything possible to make sure a person doesn’t get or spread AIDS. We must not let anyone seriously harm the health of others, but it is completely OK for people to get a bloody nose on a personal level! Often it has to really hurt before the ego is ready to give up territory.

Buddha’s teachings are something very, very precious. One should not run after people with them! You let them know that you have the teachings, and they can run around until they discover that they need them. Then you can share what you have. But no one can expect you to run after them.

How can one help people who always complain—who are always dissatisfied but don’t really want to do anything about their problems?

Lama Ole’s answer:

Let them see that such behavior doesn’t interest you. Don’t respond to them! When you call people’s attention to their wealth, they become rich. If they pay attention to their weaknesses and mistakes, they become poor. Basically, highest truth is highest joy.

It is also good to show people what is going on in the world to put their problems in perspective. That also helps them a great deal.

How can we help someone who is always depressed?

Lama Ole’s answer:

First, show him that his trip is not interesting. Show him that you put up with it because you’re friends, but that he doesn’t win anything with it and that it doesn’t make him more interesting. Then maybe you can mentally tickle him—if you can’t tickle him any other way. Simply be stubbornly friendly and only respond to positive things. I do that myself. I know that I sometimes get on your nerves with that. You come to me and think you have a big problem, but actually the point is to recognize the mirror behind all the reflections that appear in it.

While you only see the many images in the mirror and the black wash water flowing from it, I see that more and more of the mirror itself is beginning to shine. That is what interests me. The veils and hindrances pass by and change all the time. Who takes that seriously anyway? It’s not important.

The important thing is the buddha nature behind the veils. That is what’s true. That becomes stronger and is what you will see and experience more and more. I’m not teasing you or being superficial when I say, “You look good!” Actually, you look better the longer you are in the dharma—you really learn something and develop.

What advice can we give non-Buddhist friends when we notice that they are hanging on to their disturbing emotions too much?

Lama Ole’s answer:

There is an old Person saying to remember in such situations: “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” You can remind them that a great many people have it much, much worse than they do. They may not like you afterwards; you might get rid of some difficult people this way. But when things are going better for them, they’ll come back and like you again. Then they might even appreciate your honesty.