Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Our two choices

(5.77) I should perform all actions for others’ happiness.
This good quality is precious and rare,
And through it I shall enjoy the pure happiness and joy
That arises from actions that benefit others.

(5.78) If I do this, I shall suffer no loss in this life
And in future lives I shall experience great happiness;
But, if I do the opposite,
I shall experience misery and pain in life after life.

If we are honest with ourselves, most everything we do is motivated by selfish concerns.  We examine every situation through the lens of “how can I get what I want?”  Even when we are nice to others, a large part of our motivation is still selfish – just a more clever form of it.  Seeing this, though, we can sometimes go too far thinking if we can’t do selfless things for purely selfless reasons we shouldn’t do them at all.  But how is that any better?  It’s true it is better to do selfless things for selfless reasons than selfless things for selfish reasons; but it is surely better to do selfless things for selfish reasons than selfish things for selfish reasons.  The latter is bad, the former is good and the first is best.  Best is better than good, good is better than bad.

Being selfless does not mean becoming a martyr, who makes a big public display of sacrificing themselves for the sake of others.  “OK, since no one else is willing to take out the trash, I’ll do it!”  We often see this kind of behavior in Dharma centers.  In almost every Dharma center, there are usually a few people who do most of the work and everybody else does the minimum they can get away with doing without calling attention to themselves.  This is probably true in most every Dharma center, with very few exceptions.  We’re all human and imperfect, what can we expect?  Sometimes, though, more often than we care to admit, those who do do most of the work can sometimes become bitter about it.  They become resentful about the fact that they have to do everything, and everybody else just comes and “consumes.”  They then will use all sorts of direct and indirect signals to communicate their displeasure with the people who come to the center, making them feel guilty, or worse, trying to use the Dharma to manipulate them into doing more work.  People are not stupid.  They know when they are being made to feel guilty or when they are being manipulated.  At first they might do more work for the center, but they are doing so to avoid the guilt-tripping and manipulation.  As a result, they develop resentment towards the center administrators and at some point tensions begin to arise.  This just fuels the administrator’s resentment towards the people in the center and so it continues in a vicious cycle.

The entire premise of such a dynamic is completely wrong.  Work for the center is not a chore, it is a spiritual gold-mine.  Geshe-la once said, if we understood how valuable the opportunity is, we would gladly pay money to be able to do so.  But if the center administrators relate to it as a chore to be avoided, they will develop resentment and the negative cycle begins.  If the center administrators relate to it as a spiritual gold-mine, they will do everything they can because they want to.  Their enthusiasm and wisdom will inspire others to do the same, naturally and from their own side.  And if it doesn’t inspire others, big deal.  The center will just be smaller and will do less.  So what?  At least people will be happy.  A small, happy center is spiritually larger than a physically large, but spiritually unhappy community.  But don’t we have to spread the Dharma?  Venerable Tharchin explains the real Dharma center is “the inner realizations of the community bound together by our love for one another.”  If there is guilt, there is no joy.  No joy, no effort.  No effort, no realizations.  If there is mutual resentment, there is no love for one another and nothing is bound together.  Being selfish for good causes is still being selfish.

Family life is no different.  In every family, there are usually a few people who do all the work (usually the mother) and everybody else contributes very little.  The members of the family take advantage of the person who does all the work, and then become bitter when their needs are not met in the way they want.  The mother then feels put upon and develops resentment for everybody else.  The workplace is also no different.  Some people do all the work, others just go along for the ride.  Countries work the same way, even the whole world works this way.  Everyone gets wrapped up in this “maker/taker” paradigm.  All of this comes from the same wrong premise – putting others first makes me worse off.

If there is one central point of the Bodhisattva’s path it is a refutation of this wrong view.  It is only by completely and utterly forgetting oneself that we can fulfill our every possible desire.  Imagine what the world would be like if everyone realized the secret to happiness is to put the interests of others first?  But then we say, “nobody else is doing this, so if I am the only one who is, then I become everybody’s sucker.”  No, you become the only happy person in the room.

The question is not what would happen if the whole world did this, the question is what would happen if we were to do as Shantideva advises?  Would we become disappointed or upset if someone did not take our advice?  Would we try even harder and have even more joyful effort?  The help that we usually give is conditional. If it were unconditional, we wouldn’t get upset when our help doesn’t work out the way we want or the other person doesn’t respond the way we want?  No, we would be like a First Ground Bodhisattva who just hearing the word “give” gives rise to extraordinary bliss.

One thought on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Our two choices

  1. What you say is so true. I think it depends on how people see life and relationships. Many people, even at Dharma Centres, believe that selflessness is not a normal part of the human condition, and are wary when someone offers to do something for them. They expect that at some point, they will be expected to “pay back” the favour. They simply don’t believe that anyone would do something nice “just because”. I find that so sad.

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