I represented Buddhism at an interfaith dialogue on Faith and Service at the University of Connecticut earlier this month. The event was an opportunity to think through the role service plays in Buddhism — and how it might be different from the role of service in other faiths.
One obvious difference is the role of duty, obligation, and commandment in other religions. In Judaism, “charitable giving” and “not standing idly by when someone is endangered” are two of six hundred-and-thirteen mitzvot, commandments from God. In Hinduism, Swami Nirliptananda writes:
“Interdependence is when each of us fulfills our duties as a father, a mother, a daughter, a son, and so on, as a part of society…. When we perform duties with the attitude of not thinking of any selfish rewards, but as an obligation, as a contribution to life — that spirit will develop an inner detachment.”
In Confucianism, rulers and ruled, parents and children, spouses, siblings, and friends are linked together by a web of mutual duties and obligations in order to promote social harmony.
In Christianity, ethics are based on the Bible as an infalible source of revelation, on believers’ personal relationships with Christ, and on human understanding through reason of God’s Eternal Law.
In Islam, ethics are based on the Qur’an as an infalible source of revelation, and believers have a duty to submit to God’s will.
In comparison, Buddhism seems relatively free of deontological rules that stress duty and obligation. The Five Lay Precepts, for example, are not divine commandments, but commitments freely undertaken for the sake of progress on the path and as fields of investigation. One may also chose to commit to the Vinaya rules or take Bodhisattva vows or tantric oaths as part of one’s path. Those commitments are “skillful” and “wholesome,” but are only obligatory after one has voluntarily assumed them. Buddhism has no Deity who ordains the rules we ought to follow or punishes us for failure to follow them.
In Theravada Buddhism one may withdraw to the forest and meditate and, as long as one acts harmlessly towards others, one can reach nibbana. Arhats abstain from causing harm and are filled (one imagines!) with benevolent and compassionate mind states — but there seems to be no obligation for Arhats to actually do something to relieve the suffering of others or change the systemic social, political, and economic causes of suffering.
Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, has a Bodhisattva vow to “save all beings.” While some might interpret “saving beings” narrowly to mean “bringing beings to an enlightened state,” others might interpret it more broadly to include all compassionate acts to relieve suffering. Shantideva certainly interpreted it that way when he wrote:
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.
May a rain of food and drink descend
To clear away the pain of thirst and hunger
And during the aeon of famine
May I myself change into food and drink.
May I become an inexhaustible treasure
For those who are poor and destitute;
May I turn into all things they could need
And may these be placed close beside them….
May I be protector for those without one,
A guide for all travelers on the way;
May I be a bridge, a boat and a ship
For all who wish to cross the water.
May I be an island for those who seek one,
And a lamp for those desiring light,
May I be a bed for all who wish to rest
And a slave for all who want a slave.
(Bodhisattvacharyavatara, Stephen Batchelor, trans.)
In Buddhism, compassion is both an effect and a cause. It’s an “effect” because the more clearly we see the reality of interbeing and the more we free ourselves from the power of avarice and aversion, the more naturally and spontaneously compassion arises in response to suffering. In addition, the more we free ourselves from delusion, the greater awareness we have of the suffering of others. But it’s a “cause” as well because the more we practice acts of compassion, the more we become aware of the feelings of well-being and the beneficial states of affairs that flow as consequences. Compassionate acts are recursive: they initiate positive feedback loops that reinforce their reoccurrence.
Compassion has many faces — giving loved ones our time and attention, teaching the Dharma, donating to charity, volunteering in civic organizations, working in soup kitchens, caring for the sick, and working to change the political, economic, and social conditions that give rise to suffering. The “right way” will be different for each of us, depending on the situations we find ourselves in, our unique talents and dispositions, and our stage of life.
Acts of service are natural expressions of awakening that spring from our perception of what’s needed and our aspiration to reduce suffering. There are no hard-and-fast rules about how much service is enough or what’s the proper balance between giving and self-care. Instead, there is moment-to-moment living with an open question: “What’s possible right now?” We bring all our wisdom and compassion to each moment — and live at the shifting edge of possibility. We are responsible for all of our choices, and the most meaningful choices are ones that express care and concern for whatever falls into the small circles of our lives.