Saturday, December 23, 2006

a question from a friend

recently a good friend asked me in email whether or not altruism is an appropriate desire.

i think this represents a misunderstanding of Buddhism, coming out of the simplistic way the Dharma is often presented. This is not confined to westerners, but i do think that an emphasis on a very old Pali textual tradition of Buddhism that likes to present itself as the original teachings of the Buddha, without historical change or "corruption," that has been overemphasized by those that write on "pure Buddhist philosophy" without the degradation of guru worship/Buddha image worship/belief in spirits/etc.

Therefore, we often hear the classical maxim, a restatement of the 4 Noble Truths uttered by the Buddha in Sarnath that "since suffering comes from desire, by eliminating desire we eliminate suffering, which leads to nirvana." this summer a Chicago man I met in Dharamsala at my hotel replied that he wasn't going to attend the teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama that were going on a short walk away because he found that if you had heard one teaching on Buddhism you had heard them all, since Buddhism is really just telling us to give up all pleasures.

What, really?


"the roads of excess lead to the palaces of wisdom" -william blake

from an orthodox vajrayana buddhist point of view (a historical and philosophical development, emphasizing the effectiveness of ritual, that is most commonly represented by Tibetan Buddhism), it is absolutely
essential to have many different kinds of desire to quickly reach
enlightenment. these include the desire [the tibetan word 'dod pa
means wish/want/desire, the word for the negative kind of desire is
'dod chags, which connotates a clinging or attachment to that which is
desired] that all beings may have happiness and its causes, the desire
that all beings may be divorced from suffering and its causes, the
desire for enlightenment, the desire to make your own mind like that
of the enlightened guru's, etc.

"How can we repay the kindness of the sentient beings? Through showing them immaculate love and compassion. Immaculate love is the thought, 'May they have happiness and its causes.' Compassion is the wish, 'May they be free of suffering and its causes.' Because to obtain happiness and to avoid suffering are the two most primordial, inborn instincts of all that live, to give love and compassion is the supreme gift." - His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from "The Path to Enlightenment."

in this way, desire is part of the raft that carries us over to the
other shore beyond the oceanlike suffering of our neurotic mind, and
that raft should be abandoned once we land the raft.

however, we're still on the raft.

there is a misperception that all desire is bad. some desire can be a
shortcut to understanding. especially if you can look into your mind
on the occasions when you are really attached to something or having
lots of desirous feelings. examine where they come from and where
they go, whether they remain and what they are based on. you may see
that they are really just a composition of thoughts and feelings, many
of which are irrational or baseless and that there is nothing substantial to really
point at.

Calm Abiding meditation helps with this. I am saddened to see people that engage in meditation beating themselves up over their negative emotions, lack of clarity, and inability to concentrate, all of which become more apparent when sitting back and examining the mind. These things naturally come up, over and over again. However, they will gradually subside, and we may not even notice that we are less attached to getting our own preferences, and less inclined to react angrily. We may even have the occasional genuine thought like "Well, he's a nice guy, and although I like this girl that we've both been dancing with, if she decides to go out with him, that's alright," or something similar.

it is said that wisdom and the altruistic desire for all beings
to be enlightened (bodhicitta) are like the opposite sides of the same
coin, or two wings of a bird. wisdom, being the realization that
there is no intrinsically real self, is expressed spontaneously through altruistic
activity. although suffering may ultimately be an illusion, since we
interact with it as if it were real, it is real to our minds, and
therefore important to adress. and those who act with a great amount
of altruism will naturally begin to understand what selflessness is
all about. in our culture, we call this "wise."

in a nutshell, some desires are good, and all desires can be skillfully used with the correct training to understand the wisdom of selflessness. so don't feel bad if you find yourself desiring in a destructive way, you are a person afterall, and you aren't a monk, so relax and take some breaths, and see what happens.


Anonymous said...

my bro, merry christ-mas. and nice post.

here is a question, based on my misunderstanding:

i agree with you and those 3000yr old dudes that desire is not so immediately avoidable, and that in fact it is often a necessary vehicle to get to the other side of the river.

my issue is that when altruism is your desire, then what matters is your definition of altruism. so, then you can assign a percentage of your efforts and time to "altruistic actions", which is never ever 100%, until the desire is satisfied. then, you can move on to other desires, which is often self-satisfaction. not to say that there's anything wrong with satisfying oneself, but it is still a desire just like altruism.

i guess my problem is that altruism is a feeling, open to interpretation. a similar issue comes up in public health: money is certainly allocated to endeavors to help communities or other nations or sufferers, but that is not where it should end. the test is not if there is a committment (feeling/desire) to do-good, it is if things have gotten better, if justice has increased. because you can't prevent suffering, nor is that the point. but suffering is unequally distributed, and that's what kills people (literally). and suffering is not some inevitable bad luck, it is caused by the same system of reality that has blessed some (like me) to be able to even think about suffering instead of constantly enduring it.

what i've been waiting to see in a religious philosophy is justice. i try to think 'which religion emphasizes justice the most?', but they all obscure any idea in that behind a whole lot of bullshit. except something i've heard/read about: "liberation theology"... i just know about it from this book i read about paul farmer, which i'll mail to you soon. basically, it's like a church where the psalms are written and sung by rage against the machine and bob marley.

take care,
britney bin ladin

michael smith said...

first, we are definately not just talking about a river here, but a vast ocean, as expansive as the possibilities for suffering created by the neurotic mind.

regarding altruist intentions, in my opinion it is just the wish to help others without recieving any reward. i believe that as humans we can have this wish, and that there is not always some sort of alterior desire for heaven/fame/sex/feeling good/seratonin etc.

it is a good point, though, that you raise. although we have this desire to help others, are we actually able to? are we fooling ourselves? is the money i give to beggars actually in the end what they need? there is a vast economy of health and environment and education development here in Nepal, and do they actually help anyone, or are they just getting paid and living well here, making themselves feel good that they are able to spend other peoples money to help their asian friends? and then in the end after people get cars and motorcycles, computers and roads, pollution and forget their traditions, and everything continues to get more expensive, and families are broken so kids can go abroad to school, or husbands can work, are they happier in the end?

i've seen beggars laughing and businessmen crying, but i don't know.

Tom said...

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