Faith and Service

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 nibbanaArhats 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.



12 Replies to “Faith and Service”

  1. Seth, another great post. You write: ‘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.’

    This is very interesting. As a one-time diligent Mahayana student I could never quite decide whether I was being encouraged to seek enlightenment to save all beings or to develop the wish to save all beings in order to enable me to become enlightened. Orthodoxy stressed the former but it was always made extremely clear that the only lasting way to help all beings was to bring them into the nirvanic fold. Worldly aid was mere ‘sticking plaster’ — though I noted that those who said this were not averse to partaking of such temporary remedies themselves. Buddhism, like many other religions, doesn’t have seem to have much time for the transient, even though it teaches that this is how all things are. Worldly happiness is actually suffering because it doesn’t last. Worldly acts of compassion are all very well but they won’t get you out of the shit full time.

    Compassion and other Buddhist virtues are bundled under ‘merit’ or ‘method’ practices. The Mahayana practitioner has to build up a massive stock of merit to drive the engine, so to speak. Merit, and hence compassion, thus becomes a means to an end. The Bodhisattva returns life after life to build up merit by such helpful practices as cutting off an arm for arm-hungry tricksters, who then claim they actually wanted the other arm (which is great news for the Bodhisattva who can now practice patience as well as generosity). But in all the many spectacular and supposedly inspirational tales of Bodhisattva deeds that I’ve come across I don’t recall many in which the great beings actually did anything very useful. There was one chap — I forget his name — who picked the maggots from a suppurating dog’s bottom with his lips (so as not to hurt the dog), but even he would have been better leaving the maggots alone to perform their natural wound-cleaning function. The story didn’t explain what became of the dog but then the dog was, I suspect, merely a device for the furtherance of the Bodhisattva. One wasn’t really supposed to be that interested in the dog’s fate because, as always, the emphasis was on the heroism (and egotism?) of the Bodhisattva rather than the welfare of any sentient beings.

    Buddhism held sway over feudal Tibet for centuries without doing anything much to promote social welfare. Presumably all those Bodhisattvas were too busy cutting off their arms to use them to run soup kitchens. But then, as the very first Lam Rim meditation – on the preciousness of human life – makes clear, the only thing worth doing with this life is to become enlightened. All else is time wasting. If, on your way to puja, you find someone run over in the road, by all means scrape them off the dirt if you can. But if it’s going to make you late for puja, perhaps you should calculate whether any merit gained by offering temporary succour outweighs that lost by missing your prayers. After all, you’ll be able to help the poor devil in the road a good deal more as soon as you’re enlightened. Maybe.

    1. Mike,

      I thought you might be interested in the following as it more clearly states what I was told about the bodhisattva and bodhicitta. It was always more ‘present-moment’ oriented and not a lot about building merit:

      “When we practice Bodhicitta, loving kindness, the goal is already here, right here in each of us, in this moment. It does not exist in the future, when we are better practitioners. The goal IS what we are doing right now. Practicing love and kindness is the goal of the practice. When we practice love and compassion for other beings, for ourselves, we are truly enlightened in that moment. There is no other definition of enlightenment apart from having love and compassion. The goal is already actualized in this moment. The goal is the practice itself.

      This is a very Mahayana idea, because normally we think a goal is something we obtain in the future, as the result of the practice of meditation or yoga. But in this way our dharma practice is based on expectations and selfish motivations and lacks the authentic heart-connection needed to free ourselves of delusion. Ironically, the goal is not in the future. The ever-present goal is already here. The path itself is the goal.”

      As for the “chap” and the maggot infested wound, it was Asanga. I’ve read that the dog itself ‘magically’ revealed itself as Maitreya, but here’s what I just found at this site:

      “Asanga licked the maggots out of the dog’s wound and had a direct experience of the Buddha Maitreya. By truly seeing someone’s suffering, in his case the dog that was suffering with a horrible wound, and the maggots that were eating its’ flesh, he was able to completely experience love and compassion.”

      I’m not sure what you mean by the maggots’ “natural wound cleaning function.” That sounds more like leeches, perhaps? My friend’s chicken had to be put down because maggots were eating the flesh of a wound it had through being ‘egg-bound.’

        1. Well! Learn something new everyday! Ironically, it does seem like leaving the maggots would have been the best thing for the dog! How all too often our best intentions go awry! 🙂

      1. Thanks for posting this, Frank! When I first read your comment I found myself wondering to what degree the difference between your experience and Mike’s might have been due to the difference between a Zen-based experience (with its emphasis on “the present moment,” “just this,” and Dogen’s “practice enlightenment”) and a Gelugpa-based experience (with its emphasis on preliminary practices, Atisha’s stages of the path, etc.) — but then I saw that your excellent quote about bodhicitta was from a Vajrayana (albeit Kagyupa) site! I’m left wondering what accounts for such different experiences? My own experience, Frank, is more like yours — but my experience has been mostly within the Insight Meditation and Zen communities, and my exposure to Tibetan practice has been more limited.

        1. Seth, having studied and or practiced with teachers from various traditions (though as you know, the zen traditions have been my main route), I’ve found that while there are “general” differences in approach (as for your example of zen and Gelugpa), I’ve also experienced sometimes vast differences between teachers within the same tradition. Perhaps this is at least a contributing factor to the different experiences we as students have had?

          I sometimes hear from people that they have been turned off buddhadharma completely because they’ve heard something from a teacher that I would NEVER say nor would I expect to hear from any teacher I’ve studied with, and which we would wholeheartedly disagree with as well!

          frank jude

  2. Mike, thanks for another thoughtful, trenchant, beautifully written reply! Your post goes to the very heart of the question of what is Buddhism “really” about — is it about stepping outside of this life — leaving home, societal involvement, and eventually cyclical existence — or about inhabiting it fully, humanely, and meaningfully. Classical interpretations (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana!) lean strongly toward the former, some later re-interpretations (especially some modern Asian and Western reinventions) lean toward the later. Is this reinvention still Buddhism? Let’s argue about it forever.

    Is compassion a means or an end? If at the end of the Bodhisattva path you are no more compassionate than the average person — and by compassionate I mean compassionate in the way ordinary human beings interpret the word — then what good is becoming a Bodhisattva? If the path discourages the ordinary meaning of compassion along the way or only encourages it selfishly as part of the engine of merit, then what good can come from the path? If the world has to wait for beings to become fully enlightened before they are of any use, then the world is screwed.

    As the passage from Shantideva shows, however, there are classical Buddhists who understood the value of compassion within the domain of relative truth. (Whether Shantideva actually every acted compassionately rather than just writing about it, however — who knows?) Unfortunately, Shantideva’s “a slave for all who want a slave” line is more than a little creepy — almost as cringe-worthy as the Jataka Tale about the Bodhisattva Vessantara giving his children away to the beggar Jukaka. Hyperbole can go too far — way too far! A Buddhism that asks us to become inhuman is asking for the wrong sort of thing.

  3. As a Buddhist grounded in the practice and study of the Lotus Sutra observance, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, it is unfortunate to observe people with such sprawling views about what is or is not Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra which itself is widely available today, itself makes clear the Buddha’s ultimate intention and his goal. The Buddha wishes to enable all people who are born into conscious existence to become equal with him in their self knowledge of and as manifestations of the universal Dharma Law. In this regard embracing the Lotus Sutra which is itself the ultimate principle with regard to the universal Dharma law as the object of faith and wisdom opens up a completely different perspective and class of experience with regard to the practice of Buddhism. It affords the practitioner the ability to see the practice of Buddhism from the standpoint of the Buddha’s eyes. From this viewpoint there is no guess work. All the practices, precepts and modes of being and behavior come into full view.
    Many Blessings!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Etoro. For some of us, things are not so simple. Your point of view requires faith — faith that the Lotus Sutra in fact represents the Buddha’s point of view, or that its particular version of the Dharma is definitive. Not all Buddhists accept that — Theravada Buddhists, for example, do not consider it to be Buddhavacana. You might ask yourself what evidence is there for your belief that the Lotus Sutra represents the Buddha’s highest teaching — keeping the Kalama Sutta in mind as you do so. Once you begin questioning the authenticity or authority of a particular text, then following it as it if were the one and only Truth becomes questionable too. My advice is to never abandon Questioning Mind. Questioning Mind is your best ally in discovering truth (with a small “t”). As for Truth with a capital “T,” Don’t Know Mind is best.

  4. I think a great many Buddhists who are unfamiliar with Theravadin suttas are unaware of the numerous examples of the Buddha giving pragmatic advice to laity and monks alike- all leading to lessening of suffering and with the aim liberation from greed/hate/delusion.

    The Mangala Sutta(Part of the Buddhist Tiptika) is just one famous early text that comes to mind when the Buddha offered advice to those around him. He advises those who question him as to what the greatest blessings are-

    ‘To support mother and father, to cherish wife and children, and to be engaged in peaceful occupation — this is the greatest blessing.
    To be generous in giving, to be righteous in conduct, to help one’s relatives, and to be blameless in action — this is the greatest blessing.’
    …..(the full version can be found at the link at the bottom)

    1. Thanks, Mark. The Pali suttas do indeed include the Buddha’s advice to laity and kings, in addition to advice to monks and nuns, and to the followers of other philosophical schools. The advice to the laity does indeed include an emphasis on virtuous conduct — kindly and generous — to those in one’s immediate circle of acquaintance. Suttas like the Metta Sutta also prescribe a more universalist benevolence. What’s lacking is a more general social agenda regarding suffering (hunger, poverty, discrimination) and a more activist role for the sangha in addressing these. The Buddha never developed or preached a more general social agenda; it was not part of his concern, or part of the concern of any of the Indian religions or philosophies of his day. He was concerned with leaving cyclical existence rather than improving it. Additionally, the traditional practice of earning of merit has focused more on generosity to the sangha than on generosity to the downtrodden, the poor and the needy. My own belief is that the teachings of the Buddha, admirable as they are, are incomplete, and that they need to be supplemented by contemporary Buddhist ethical and social theory — fields that are still in their infancy. This is not a critique of the Buddha’s teaching. It is just an acknowledgment that no one person — or path — has a monopoly on the entirety of truth.

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