When the heart awakens
No matter what one’s spiritual path, I believe there comes a time when when one’s heart so expands in love and compassion that helping alleviate the suffering of others becomes just as much an aspiration as the alleviation of one’s own suffering.
Of course, sometimes we may need a lot of heart healing ourselves before our gaze turns outward to help others in a big way. But even at the beginning of our spiritual awakening, even when our own suffering dominates our experience, something in us still naturally responds to the suffering of others.
However infrequent, spontaneous acts of kindness, unselfish giving to others, words of sympathy and compassion—all of these indicate something wonderful becoming manifest in us. This wonderful “something” has been given many names in many traditions—Buddha nature, bodhicitta, Christ-consciousness, the inner light—but by whatever name it’s called, this unselfish love has the power to carry us all the way to complete freedom.
Liberating love appears in different ways
In some people, the appearance of liberating love seems to manifest most naturally as a big heart for others—for people, for good causes, for animals, or maybe as a love of nature. In other people, this love shows itself in a healthy self-appreciation and self-expression—in joy in one’s talents, or in one’s ability to create useful and beautiful things. Neither of these paths is “better” than the other, although many spiritual teachings lay the most emphasis on love of God, or love of others, as the highest good.
I think this emphasis on loving others, and on putting the welfare of others above our own, can be a skillful means that leads to skillful practice. But taken as a principle or “highest” goal, I think it’s only a half truth, at best, and reflects an inherent dualism in the view of self and other.
A radical cure for a fatal disease
The reason spiritual teachings put so much emphasis on selflessness and unselfish love and actions is because all of us we are indeed way too wrapped up in ourselves. Indeed, according to the Buddha, and most other spiritual teachers, we have a disease—the disease of a deluded sense of “Me” and “Mine.” This disease runs deep, all the way to the bottom, actually, of who and what we think we are.
The radical cure offered by the Buddha, and again, by most spiritual teachings, is to look deeply into our deluded sense of self and learn how to let go it so we can, paradoxically, truly be ourselves without suffering and finally, without limitations. One of the skillful means for accomplishing this transformation is to begin loving and cherishing others, at the expense of our own selfishness and grasping need to be the center and focus of our private little universe.
The problem is, the human mind takes this skillful teaching and turns it into a metaphysical absolute or theory. If love for others is the highest good, then, love for myself must always be selfish, inferior, and evidence of ignorance, or in some traditions, original sin. This illustrates the dangers of getting caught up in views, even right views.
Right views can be wrong views!
In Thundering Silence-Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake, my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, talks about how the Buddha compares apprehending his teaching to catching a poisonous snake. We have to know how to handle the teaching so it doesn’t “bite” us. Thay (as he is affectionately known by his students) notes that “there are probably not many teachers who would compare their own teaching to a poisonous snake.” He then writes:
“The Buddha never said that his teachings were absolute truth. He called them skillful means to guide us in the practice. The way to make use of these teachings is with our own intelligence and skill….if we do not know how to use these teaching skillfully, we will be enslaved by them. Instead of helping us, they will cause us harm.”
In fact, this point is so important that the Second Mindfulness Training that Thay teaches is Non-attachment to Views:
Aware of suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, I am determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. I will learn and practise non-attachment from views in order to be open to othersnsights and experiences. I am aware that the knowledge I presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life and I will observe life within and around me in every moment, ready to learn throughout my life.
Loving others—a skillful means, not a principle
If we take the Buddha’s teachings as metaphysical principles, we may fall into all the kinds of problems that absolutism engender. If loving others more than ourselves is a principle, then in every situation, not matter what the human circumstance, we will think it is always right to do what the other person wants or needs. We will even do things that are harmful to our own well-being and spiritual progress in the name of self-sacrifice and putting others above ourselves. Thinking that everyone we meet is higher and better than ourselves is not enlightenment or genuine bodhicitta. To be blunt, it’s a kind of mental illness that only increases our own suffering and that doesn’t really help or bless others.
Yes, but didn’t the Buddha (or Jesus, or Mohammed, or this lama or that guru) say do this and not that, believe this and not that? Yes, he (and they) did; but if we take these commands as absolutes and not as skillful means to a good end, then we are mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.
The problem is, the view that others are intrinsically better than us is simply the flip side of the view that we are intrinsically better than others. The view that we only exist to serve others is simply the flip side of the view that others live to serve us. The view that we only exist for the good of others is simply the flip side of the view that others only exist for the good of us.
How dualism distorts a right view of loving others
The human mind, being inherently dualistic, can’t see that the teaching that we should live for the good of others is a skillful means to break our inveterate selfishness, not a metaphysical absolute. It’s designed as a prod, even a goad, to have us look at every situation and see if we are being selfish and self-centered, harming ourselves and others. It’s a reminder to realize that the apparent difference between our own good and the good of another is largely a delusion fostered by our own myopic views of good as some personal possession we can grasp and keep to ourselves. But, if as a principle, we always see others as better and higher than ourselves, then we are caught up in a wrong and inherently dualistic view of self and others.
What one finds in meditation, and in metta practice, is that the difference between self and other is simply a mental construct—a helpful and indeed necessary one in our daily lives—but one which has no meaning when we look deeply into things and let go of all sense of “me” and “mine” and just are what we are. In that enlightened state, “self” is neither the same, nor different, than “other,” and vice versa. I think Jesus is closer to the truth than some Buddhists when he taught that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, not more or better than ourselves.
The truth of this is not discovered by theoretical argument, but in practice. As I explained in Listening with the Heart of a Buddha: “…love for ourselves enables love for others, and that love for others, helps us love ourselves. At the deepest level, there’s no difference between the two—love of self is love of others; love of others really is love of oneself. Listening deeply to our own hearts is listening to the cries of the world; hearing the cries of the world is listening to our own hearts.”
When two Bodhisattvas have a Love-down
I’ve often envisioned what happens when two dharma students meet who are caught up in the idea that other people are inherently, from their own side, better and higher than we are. Once one tries to do something good for the other, I can hear the argument begin:
#1 “I appreciate your generosity, but since I am not better than you, you really should keep your gift for your own happiness.”
#2 “No, wait, that’s not right! You must take my gift. It’s how I prove I prefer you over me. Also, how can you think you are less good than me! I have to see myself as less good than you; that’s the only way I can be a bodhisattva”
#1 “Same for me! I have to see you as better than me! That’s what bodhisattvas do! If you really loved me, you’d let me think you are better than I am, instead of saying I am better than you!”
(moment of stunned silence)
#2 “But, but….if we both see each other as better than the other at the same time, won’t we sort of cancel each other out? Who really is better? We can’t be both less than, and better than, at the same time, can we?
(long moment of stunned silence)
Now there’s a koan to ponder!
Good for self and good for others—no separation
In the ultimate sense, we really can’t separate another’ good from our own, or our own good from the good of others. But in day to day living, we have to use all our wisdom and love to see what is truly good for others and what is truly good for ourselves. There will be compromises, and mistakes, We will hurt others by our selfishness, and others will hurt us by their selfishness. Not always having the objectivity of mindfulness and love, we will suffer from our mistakes. Not being Buddhas, this is to be expected! Just remember that making mistakes and learning from them what brings us true happiness and what doesn’t is how we learn and grow.
What we call “the good of others” and what we call “our own good” inter-are. We can’t fully love others if we don’t love ourselves, and we can’t fully love ourselves if we don’t love others. Our koan is this: we are not to love others more than ourselves, or less than ourselves, nor the same as ourselves. We are just to BE love itself without distinction between concepts of self or other, and yet with wisdom and mindfulness that does what is skillful.
Again, as sincere bodhisattva wannabes, this doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to do everything for the good of others, to live a truly selfless life. This is a sign of an awakening heart. Just don’t get caught up in views, even right views. The aspiration to live unselfed love does not mean we cannot also live so as to bring more and more good out in our own lives and self-expression. After all, isn’t this exactly what those who love us would wish upon us, from their side as our bodhisattvas?