In the Senaka Sutta, there is a story about a bamboo acrobat (similar to a wire walker) and his assistant. The acrobat told his assistant that they should look after each other so that they could both be safe. The assistant disagreed. She said each person should look after himself or herself so that each of them could be safe. In essence, this represents two opposite positions. Seeing this argument, the Buddha said:
Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
This makes tremendous sense in the midst of the current pandemic. We have to be mindful of our health. By taking precautions and taking care of our own health, we are in effect taking care of the health of the people around us. Otherwise, if we get sick, we may be spreading the disease to others.
The converse is also true. If we take care of others, we are in effect taking care of ourselves. Why? Good health is a public good. We now live in a society with vast inequality between the rich and the poor. But if we don’t take care of the health of those who live at the margin of society, they may get sick and we may become infected too. It is for this reason that a universal healthcare system is a good idea. Paid sick leave is also a good idea for every worker. The human society is a system. The strength of this system is only as good as its weakest link.
In essence, this is the middle way — we need both individual responsibility and collective action.
The same logic also applies to environmental protection. We all live on the same planet. It is our common home. First, we do our part in protecting our environment and minimizing waste. But even if we do our part, we will still have a pollution problem if other people are polluting. It is for this reason that we should care about what other people, corporations and countries are doing. We should be involved in arousing environmental awareness and educating others about the importance of protecting our environment. We should be socially engaged and participate in political and legislative actions.
Buddha is right. By looking after ourselves, we are looking after others. The converse is also true. This is because we are interdependent and interconnected. We live in the same ecosystem. We are interbeings.