Oneself, indeed, is one’s own protector.
What other protector could there be?
One gains a protector hard to obtain.
Evil is done by oneself alone;
By oneself is one defiled.
Evil is avoided by oneself;
By oneself alone is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself;
No one can purify another.
Dhammapada, v. 160 and 165, translated by Gil Fronsdal
These verses point to the fact that we can’t blame anyone else for our mistakes, nor give anyone else credit for our restraint, humility or kindness. Each action we undertake belongs entirely to us, along with its results.
It is a common human failing that we can be reluctant to take responsibility for our actions. My own spiritual life was hindered by early attempts to give away responsibility for my choices. Wow, did that not work. With some reluctance I recognized that it was, in fact, not possible for anyone else to take the driver’s seat in my life; for better or worse, it was up to me. Even now there is sometimes the desire to look for a savior. At least these days, when that comes up, I know from experience that I’m my own best friend and worst enemy at the same time.
By the same token, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, we cannot do anyone else’s spiritual work for them. We can say, “Look over here! This is what I’ve discovered.” But people will look or not look, will understand or not understand, depending on their circumstances and their karma. Just as we are the owners of our karma, so it is with everyone, even those we love and wish to protect.
Many primitive religions held that the gods (or fate) could be propitiated through animal, or even human, sacrifice. In ancient India, this was one of the practices that the Buddha actively discouraged, and provided an alternative view for. That’s what these verses are all about. People in his time could call on a priest to say some prescribed words and prepare an animal for sacrifice, complete the killing, and get paid for the service. In that culture and others, many people seemed not to notice that whatever problem they were having didn’t disappear because of the ritual.
There is both comfort and a challenge in the verses above. Of course we lean on our friends and companions, and rely on them to help us see things clearly – but our decisions and their results are our own and no one else’s.