Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Second Step

The second step along the Eight-Fold Path is “Right Intentions.” The principle of selflessness among religious traditions is virtually universal but has special significance within Buddhism given the central focus on the non-self/Self paradigm arising from interdependent origination. Throughout Buddhist sutras there is a continuous thread contrasting manifestations of the ego with acts of charity arising from the purity of unobstructed manifestations from the Self/Buddha-Nature.

Defilements, delusions and obscurations are seen as impediments to the free-flow of charity. It is one thing to imagine doing good works from a perspective of moral correctness. It is a very different thing to act in charity through interdependence. In the first case one functions as “keeper” of one’s brother. In the second case one functions “as one’s brother.” The ego takes great pride in performing for the crowd and expects a responsive reward. A purely selfless act has a built-in reward.

The difference between these two views was expressed by the eighth-century Buddhist monk Shantideva, author of A Guide to the Bodhisattava’s Way of Life—a nine-hundred-verse poem which was credited to Nagarjuna. He said:

“When I act for the sake of others,
No amazement or conceit arises.
Just like feeding myself,
I hope for nothing in return.”

This view was echoed by the Golden Rule spoken by Jesus in the 7th chapter of Matthew, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you...” The distinction lies in the perspective that there is a difference between oneself and others, which is disputed in Buddhism.

When Bodhidharma went from India to China he was welcomed by the Emperor Liang. The emperor asked him, “What merit have I gained since I built so many temples, erected so many pagodas, made so many offerings to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and did numerous other virtuous deed?” Bodhidharma’s reply greatly disappointed Emperor Liang. Bodhidharma said, “Your Majesty, there is none whatsoever. You have gained no merit. What you have done produces only worldly rewards, that is, good fortune, great power, or great wealth in your future lives, but you will still be wandering around in samsara.”

On the other side of the world another such teaching was established—“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” This second teaching was of course conveyed by Jesus and is found in the 6th chapter of Matthew. The message is the same—True charity is selfless.

Phony charity, on the other hand expects a return or some gain to accrue from works and this is a subtle form of attachment linking action with results which keeps the giver locked in the vise of karma which, like everything else, has no intrinsic nature. It too must link to action and action in turn is linked to one who acts. When there is no “one/self,” nor “other/self,” action has no meaning, thus no karma. A Buddha has no self and is thus free from all karmic attachments in which case “selfless charity” becomes a completely pure expression of giving and receiving. At the level of our True Nature, we are all Buddhas.
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