In The Lotus of the Buddha, Christ and Tao, there is a correction of responsibility that we undertake. The Way is a self-contained venture for the most part: it's something you do yourself. The path and its fruit, which is enlightenment, occur on an individual basis. If someone becomes enlightened, the person next to them doesn't become enlightened. Their friends don't become enlightened. Their family doesn't become enlightened. The town doesn't become enlightened. The world is not saved. Only the individual becomes enlightened.
The masters teach that bodhisattvas vow to liberate all beings. People often are perplexed, though, about how the Buddha taught that in the Diamond Sutra Chapter 3 in terms of no beings are liberated.
Only you can awaken yourself to your own enlightenment. Of course, this enlightenment experience is a potential in all beings. Every single person has that possibility. However, grasping onto helping beings is a hindrance to awakening.
If you were from a good background, had a good capacity to understand and aspired to be a bodhisattva, you would want to think, "I will liberate all beings, every single being in this world. And even though I liberate every single being without even leaving one behind, in actuality nobody is really liberated."
If you are going to become enlightened and enter what Jesus Christ called the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ you are not going to do it because of your parents. You are not going to do it by virtue of society. You are not going to become enlightened by fate—it would be nihilism to think it's just going to happen. It's not going to occur because your employer treats you well. Ultimately it’s not even because of your spiritual teacher and sangha that you are going to attain enlightenment: it is through accomplishing your innate potential.
It would be useful to admit that sometimes when we say, "May all beings attain enlightenment," it can be somewhat of an emotional platitude. We need to return to self-responsibility or come to it for the first time. Don’t wait for other people to do anything because they are probably not going to go first. You need to bring yourself into integrity. That is the teaching of The Lotus: it’s what the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Lao Tzu all taught.
If you ask a question about the Diamond Sutra and the answer is given perfectly, does that mean you understand it? Not necessarily. If a thousand people understand the Diamond Sutra, does that mean you understand it because they do? It does not. And if there are ten billion people, none of whom understand the Sutra, does that mean you don't understand the Sutra? Of course not.
If enlightenment is an individual responsibility, then why should someone who wishes to attain bodhisattvahood think, "I shall liberate every single being"? They should do so because they recognize how happy they are becoming and they want other people to have that happiness as well. They think, "I want my daughter, my son, my wife, my relatives, and all the people I've met to have that, too. Really, I'd like everyone to have it."
Bodhisattvas want all beings to become liberated because they love them. In actuality, however, all those beings aren't really beings.
The truth of the matter is you don't really have the right to liberate other beings because you can only liberate yourself. Trying to liberate other beings is an ego trip. Get over your ego about saving everyone: that's called ‘saving beings.’ What would happen if you gave up your ego about saving beings? The point is that you, a one of actual compassion, would be liberated.
Beings who are foolish are not liberated. The Buddha is a meta-genius of understanding and wisdom, fully enlightened and awake. The fact that billions of beings are ignorant and roaming on and on through samsara does not ruin the Buddha's enlightenment. It can't really be argued that enlightenment is indeed an individual endeavor. When you individually become enlightened, that will be a wonderful day.
One way to define what is meant by ‘all beings’ is a conglomeration of all illusory individuals. We should have compassion for every one of these beings, knowing that each has a potential for enlightenment. If one person can become enlightened, maybe a Carol, a Bob or a Jane can become enlightened. Essentially, all beings have the potential to become enlightened, otherwise buddhas wouldn't teach. Would buddhas think, "These people are hopeless. They couldn't possibly attain enlightenment, but we'll teach them anyway"? Rather, buddhas teach because we can do it.
If a person focuses on helping every being, maybe then they will become liberated. The Lotus Sutra elucidates the various skillful means employed by the Buddha and masters of wisdom to help people of differing capacities. Some people are very self-absorbed. Wouldn't it be good to teach them about benefiting beings?
If you do what the masters say and follow the directions, then you will receive the soup, the flavor, the nutrition and the enlightenment. If Joe does that, will that give Mike the enlightenment? Of course not. And if Mike does it, will that give Joe the enlightenment? Mike can become fully enlightened, while everybody else remains in samsara.
Just because someone becomes enlightened doesn't mean everyone else does: if that were the case, no one would need to strive for enlightenment. Even the masters can't make you become enlightened because it is your capacity as a buddha that made yourself unenlightened. You have to undo your creative unenlightenment. If you realize the significance of self-responsibility, your path will shrink to a fragment of the size it was before.