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Taking Care of Others

August 17, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Each week, Shambhala Publications sends me a “dharma quote” from one of their books.  A few days ago, I read a couple of paragraphs that had been written by the Tibetan nun, Thubten Chodron, who is a student of my first Buddhist teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche.  Over the years she has written several very good books on Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice as well as a few general books on Buddhism.  I have found her detailed guides to visualization meditation very helpful, especially for beginners.  The following quote is from Buddhism for Beginners.


Taking care of others can be done with two very different motivations. With one, we care for others in an unhealthy way, seemingly sacrificing ourselves, but really acting out of fear or attachment. People who are attached to praise, reputation, relationships, and so forth and who fear losing these may seemingly neglect their own needs to take care of others. But in fact, they are protecting themselves in an unproductive way. Their care comes not from genuine love, but from a self-centered attempt to be happy that is actually making them more unhappy.

The other way of taking care of others is motivated by genuine affection, and this is what the Buddha encouraged. This kind of affection and respect for others doesn’t seek or expect something in return. It is rooted in the knowledge that all other beings want to be happy and to avoid pain just as much as we do.

After reading Chodron’s statements, I tried to take a closer look at my motivations for the “good” things that I did during the day. Doing so, I saw that my actions resulted from both kinds of motivations.  I also had the surprising, even shocking, impression that I didn’t know why I was doing some of the things that I was doing.  This impression caused me to look even deeper into what was going on.  After a few days I began to consider whether the best motivation for doing good things is not a matter of thinking correct thoughts as much as it is a matter of making contact with something in ourselves that always knows what to do, instinctively.

While the second kind of motivation is clearly more altruistic than the first, it still is dualistic.  A person with this kind of motivation wants to help others, because she has genuine affection and good will toward them, but she still experiences some degree of separation between herself and others.  She does things for others. This kind of practice is often referred to as “relative” as it works on the more immediate and changeable part of the self: the psyche.  Tibetan Buddhism offers many practices that work on this relative level—what the Dalai Lama calls “coarse” states.  These practices include different types of meditation, mantra recitations, and prostrations, designed to train the mind.  During my years of Tibetan practice I have found them all to be very useful.

I think that we need to go even further. No matter how good our intentions may be, they will always be subject to external causes and conditions unless we have a complete change of being.  We need to go to the very heart of the problem, which is the illusion that we are separate beings living in a world of separation.  As Mahayana Buddhists we need to have compassion , and we need to experience emptiness.  These chief features of the bodhisattva path are two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, you can’t have one without the other, because they are really the same thing.

At the beginning of the Diamond Sutra, Subhuti asks the Buddha how a bodhisattva  should stand, walk, and control his thoughts. The Buddha responds that a bodhisattva needs to motivate her life with a simple thought: “I will save all beings.”  He goes on to say that all beings will be saved, and yet no being at all will be saved. What’s going on here?  Bodhisattvas have no perception of a self, no perception of a being, and no perception of a person and so there really is no being to be saved, and no being to save them.

On the one hand, we vow to save the numberless beings of the universe, but on the other hand, we recognize that we are not we think they are, and that “saving” is not what we think it is. Without experiencing the non existence of a separate self, all moral directives appear to be standards by which we judge ourselves.  From the point of the bodhisattva path, morals are not directives but expressions of what we are.  A Buddha acts out of compassion, not because she is trying to change, but because she is who she is.  That is, there is no separation between compassion and her.  There is only compassion.

So, the bodhisattva path is not so much a matter of memorizing and following the sixteen bodhisattva precepts, although that is a helpful “relative” practice, as it is making contact with our original nature.  When we do this, everything that we think and do is an expression of the life force of the universe without any modifications.  We do “good” in the world, not so much because we choose to do so, but because it is a natural expression of what we are.  “Doing good” is not so much a subjective decision as an objective expression of our original nature. It is an “effortless” effort, a “motivation-less” motivation.



From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. This is so profound, so true, so important. When we act without dualistic thought, in our moment, centered and present, the “good” that we do, as you so eloquently put it, “is a natural expression of what we are.”

    So much wisdom here- a blessing.


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