illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
A classic piece of wisdom is "What can you do to change another? Nothing! You can only change yourself, you can only control your own mind and body!"
While there is some virtue in paths of self-cultivation (the buddhist "eightfold path" being one possible path among others) and some truth in the acceptance that we don't control others, this is also an excuse designed to shirk responsibility…
If nothing is intrinsically isolated (i.e. nothing can fundamentally be separate from its context), of course one can hope that self-cultivation will indeed also support others.
Many monks, and even remote ascetics in forests, see their "participation in the world" this way: they see themselves as acting as "sources of inspiration" for others even in the absence of any other 'direct' contact.
There is some validity in this view; but is this enough?
Historically, the answer to this question is why Mahāyāna Buddhism calls Hīnayāna, or "smaller vehicle", the schools centred on self-cultivation. The assessment is that "providing the inspiration for a wholesome life" is very useful, but is not enough if your circumstances allow you to do more.
This is about using "(truly) doing your best" as what's "good enough", instead of setting some formal criteria (which easily lead to complacency if you meet them, or dissatisfaction with expectations if you fail to meet them).
What can you do (intrinsically, i.e. independently of the context) to change another? Nothing!
There is some truth in this, but is this the right question?
What can you do (intrinsically, and independently of the context) to change yourself? Nothing!
It might seem that "choose or act differently" is a possible answer to the latter (rather than "nothing"), but it is rarely true: it merely is either rewriting history —because the initial choice is no longer available,— or fabricating a 'future' in one's head.
The possibility of choice only really exists "here and now", in the present, with a present context…
Moreover, we can choose, but the choice is out of conceptualisation (which is not the same as out of consciousness): as soon as we tell a story about the choice (justification, affirmation, public announcement…), this narrative itself will bias the perception, and will change the context —usually to a caricatural simplified version— hence will trigger a feedback loop and alter the (context-dependent) outcome!
However, if we now factor the context in the question, then…
What can you do (in collaboration with other factors) to change another? Teach; share; inspire; help… i.e. far from 'nothing'!
What can you do (in collaboration with other factors) to change yourself? Learn, teach; appreciate, share; listen, inspire; accept, help…
There's more you can do on yourself than on others, because some of the circumstances and conditions simply are more easily accessible or alterable, but not because your 'sphere' is separate from your wider context: it is merely a 'distance' effect. You and 'others' share the context, share the world!
If you understand buddhist 'selflessness', these 'others' you're considering are only impermanent manifestations and responses to their conditions and circumstances… They don't have an intrinsic 'self', so actually you can help them, you can do something, you can act on the conditions and circumstances from which they co-dependently arise!
You cannot walk out of the responsibility simply because "what can you do to change another? Nothing!" seems true when framed in inherent, intrinsic, independent terms.
One basis of Buddhism is causality: if you remove the 'causes' of an unwholesome behaviour in someone, anyone, yourself or other, the behaviour will cease… To change another, it is enough to change the circumstances met by that person.
If all this seems very theoretical, the vision that you can change another is the very foundation supporting non-violent protest. A few individuals (like Gandhi) changed History this way: they took the responsibility of mindfully changing others, by changing their context (including its 'moral' considerations) and letting them develop a new appropriate response!
Just like you can choose a path of self-cultivation thus change your own conditions, you can choose to change the conditions of others and allow them to grow harmoniously and develop wholesomely. The key to change others is your generosity. Generosity takes many forms… and the more, the better: generosity is one of the pāramitās.
Dāna pāramitā is often presented as an act of selfless giving, free of self-interest (i.e. free from any expectation of return or reciprocity)… It is not easy to practice. But is saying "it is not easy" enough not to give it a wholehearted try?
"In fact, the true act of dāna pāramitā involves giving up what we cherish the most —ultimately our ego self. I know a Dharma-school teacher who encourages the practice of dāna in children by setting an example. Once he took the students to give fruits to the homeless. In doing so, he purchased the most expensive fruits at the grocery store. When one mother complained that the homeless did not deserve such extravagance, he explained two important things about true giving. First, it requires some sacrifice on the part of the giver. To give away something that one doesn't need is not dāna. Second, the act must not be condescending but must show respect to the one who receives the gift. In fact, one is grateful to the recipient who makes the act of giving possible."
— Taitetsu Unno, Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold
What can you do to change another? You can take ownership and responsibility for truly improving their conditions, because their circumstances merely arise as part of a context you participate to create ('they' participate too, but that doesn't make you any less responsible, it is the same web of causality).
In the above quote, it is worth stressing "giving up what we cherish the most —ultimately our ego self."
For maybe it can be very generous to give up bad habits we have, notably our certainties, views and opinions (thought habits). Giving up what we think we're 'entitled' to might significantly reduce pollution (e.g. because we insist on owning "new" rather than "second-hand"), waste (e.g. because we insist on having a long shower of drinkable water every day), slavery in emerging economies (e.g. because we insist on cheap products (so we can buy more?)), domestic violence (because we insist it is not for us to take a stand about others)…
Dāna pāramitā is far from limited to giving money or time to support charitable causes (this is very useful! but is it enough?).
So, to come back to the initial point, maybe the question is not about 'changing' (others or ourselves)! Impermanence and change are upon us anyway… Maybe the question (of life!) is about "giving up" ourselves, about experiencing selflessness (the root of fearlessness)!
'Relinquishing' the self is not the same as "getting lost" (i.e. a 'self' assuming it should have a particular place, but not feeling the connection with that place…). If you feel lost, use mindfulness: pay attention to your breath, to sounds, to sensations, etc: you're here and now! Your anchor is the present, no other 'place' arbitrarily claimed 'yours'! 'You' are the engagement happening here and now!
When you engage creatively rather than automatically, you embody freedom. If you also understand causality, the "creative engagement" which does not deny constraints but 'plays' with them becomes "freedom from ignorance" i.e. nirvāṇa… 'Freedom' is not found in being free from responsibility, it is in being free from ignorance (and from its consequences of lust, aversion and automatic reactions).
Prior to the encounter with greek travellers (used to sculptures of gods, goddesses, but also human leaders and 'examples'), the Buddha was traditionally represented by an absence: footprints, empty throne… Maybe we should reconsider the selflessness such representations entail.
(photo: Buddhapada (footprints of the Buddha), carved limestone,
Amaravati, India. Each footprint bears a dharmacakra (wheel of law)
© British Museum)