ENLIGHTENED SELF-INTEREST TO ENLIGHTENED SELFLESSNESS

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

What’s in it for me is not the question a bodhisattva-in-training asks before taking action. Actions to promote human flourishing are meant to be taken without any expectations of reward. No atta-boys, pats on the back, raise on your paycheck, or new car. The ideals of nirvana and enlightenment are dangled as possibilities, not as rewards but as destinations that may, or may not be at the finish line. There is a commitment to putting in a lot of selfless effort to be a better human being without any expectation of how that will benefit you.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a notion of enlightened self-interest in the choices one makes. Not enlightened as in the Buddhist philosophical sense of the term, but in the Western view of performing acts with the understanding and knowledge that personal gain of some sort will be one effect. There is a wide difference between expecting something in return and the knowledge gained through experience that there are selfish reasons to be a better human being. The Buddha knew that the Noble Path, given the effort and commitment needed to walk it, would initially be walked for reasons of self development, of self betterment, of enlightened self-interest. He accepted this dharma and so should we all.

It takes commitment to walk the path of a bodhisattva-in-training. Whether it is walked as a lay person or as a monk there is a lot to be mindful of, and a lot of practices to be mindful of as the causal world is engaged. However many people are on the planet . . . you vow to lead them all to liberation through the example you set with your own life. However many delusions you hold about yourself and the world around you . . . you vow to extinguish, to make fall away each and every one of them. However many Dharma teachings there are . . . and there a bunch . . . you vow to learn about them and practice them . . . all. However far the Noble Path stretches . . . you vow to walk it to the end. It is a huge commitment. And, to top it all off you are supposed to commit to it without any expectation . . . at least once Buddhist practice and knowledge of causal consequences matures.

In the Saddha Sutra the Buddha taught that there were rewards for the committed practitioner. There were five rewards that truly good people would “give”. The sutra was originally written for the monastic disciples to spark their self-interest so that they would pursue positive self-transformation. The Buddha knew from his own experience that through time and mindfulness that self-interest would fall away and selfless loving-kindness would arise in its place.

Saddha Sutra

NOTE: Know that I’ve taken the liberty to put this sutra into contemporary language and have used the buzz-words of the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition. Venerable David and myself have often discussed if any of sutras re-worded (or creatively re-described) in such a way could offer the same intent as the those translated directly from the Pali, and holding to the symbology and textual references of that time 2600 years ago. In this instance I’ve replaced monk (bhikkhu) with lay person so that lay practitioners can gain the appropriate view that this teachings is of equal value to them. The sutra re-described was initially translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – “Saddha Sutta: Conviction” (AN 5.38), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.038.than.html .

“For a lay person, there are these five rewards of commitment. Which five?

When the truly good people in the world show compassion, they will naturally first show compassion to people of commitment, and not to people without commitment.

When visiting, they naturally first visit people of commitment, and not people without commitment.

When accepting gifts, they will naturally first accept those from people with commitment, and not from people without commitment.

When teaching the Dhamma, they will naturally first teach those with commitment, and not those without commitment.

A person of commitment, on death, will leave behind a legacy of positive thought and action. For a lay person, these are the five rewards of commitment.

Just as a large banyan tree, on level ground where four roads meet, is a haven for the birds all around, even so a lay person of commitment is a haven for many people: monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers.”

The commitment spoken of in the sutra is the commitment to ideals like the Three Pure Precepts: cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. The karmic causal process of the universe clearly reveals that a person looking to do good is more apt to offer their skills, gifts and practice to those people striving to do good themselves. So, in the name of enlightened self-interest it is better to be seen as doing good so positive causal effects can be experienced.

When the truly good people in the world show compassion, they will naturally first show compassion to people of commitment, and not to people without commitment.

It is not an expectation that because you act with compassion that others will show you compassion; it is knowledge that can be experientially verified through your own actions. You freely offer compassion to a person volunteering their time and skills in a nursing home. You naturally find it more difficult to offer that same compassion to a child molester.

When visiting, they naturally first visit people of commitment, and not people without commitment.

It is in a person’s self-interest to first visit someone with whom they have a shared commitment, or at least a parallel commitment. It is with those people that positive personal development will strengthen. Later, when visiting those without commitment that gained strength can be put to use building new commitments.

When accepting gifts, they will naturally first accept those from people with commitment, and not from people without commitment.

A bodhisattva-in-training must practice skillful generosity. Offering skills, gifts and practices to those people and organizations that will pass along that generosity doesn’t take a lot of conscious thinking. Offering the same to those who may not appreciate or acknowledge it is a more difficult practice. Engaging with those with similar commitments allows one to experience the feelings of acceptance and gratitude that future acts of generosity may not generate.

When teaching the Dharma, they will naturally first teach those with commitment, and not those without commitment.

There is an ideal in Buddhism that the student will come to the teacher. The teacher commits to teaching someone is showed the commitment to find a teacher. A layperson offers the dharma through their actions, so someone already committed, at some level to becoming a better human being is more likely to aware of the lesson and mindful of its value.

A person of commitment, on death, will leave behind a legacy of positive thought and action. For a lay person, these are the five rewards of commitment.

Many people regret their actions as they lay dying. They winge and complain about what they could have, or should have done with their lives. They regret not committing to something positive. This is part of the foundation for the traditional Buddhist philosophy behind rebirth and karma. There are many people who come to practice Buddhism as a way of expunging their past negative choices (stealing, sexual misconduct, killing, etc.) or past negative experiences (loss, illness, pain, depression) in order to pave the path for a better next life. This is an ultimate form of enlightened self-interest. In Engaged Dharma there is a more pragmatic, and selfless way of viewing this. A person committed to, and acting with the knowledge that what they do matters now, and after they die, will endeavor to always cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. In this way they live a life of enlightened self-interest that is also enlightened selflessness.

Just as a large banyan tree, on level ground where four roads meet, is a haven for the birds all around, even so a lay person of commitment is a haven for many people: monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers.”

The actions of a sincere and committed bodhisattva-in-training are clearly evident to those people with, or seeking the same commitment to human flourishing, and to positive personal transformation. Siddhartha is our example of the reality of this phenomena of karmic causality. Others, of all castes, were drawn toward the cool abiding shade of his wisdom and compassion. Enlightened self-interest arose as a need to figure out the human condition. After his awakening he questioned whether he should, or could offer what he discovered about the realities of human existence, and choose to allow enlightened self-interest to transform into enlightened selflessness.

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