Friday, August 21, 2009

Is Buddhism Selfish in Nature?

In a response to an opinion piece on the relation between Christianity and Buddhism, one commenter stated:

Buddhism is filled with selfishness, whether or not its adherents want to admit it. Many of its precepts and practices keep you focused entirely on yourself and your “destiny” and the intent behind many of the precepts is selfishness.

Another commentator put it as:

Beyond all the “good” works, a strict Buddhist is only in it for themselves, when everything said and done, regardless of the outer appearance.

This is not a new claim and, in fact, has been directed to Hinayana and Zen Buddhism by other Buddhists. Here I will bring up many (though certainly not all) of the aspects of Buddhist doctrine and practice explicitly related to cultivating compassion and reducing selfishness.

Compassion in Hinayana Buddhism

Within the Pali textual tradition, Gotama Buddha describes the purpose of a Buddha’s life as one who “has appeared in the world for the benefit & happiness of many, out of sympathy for the world, for the welfare, benefit, & happiness of human & divine beings” (Bhaya-bherava Sutta/Fear & Terror). In the Metta Sutta/Discourse on Lovingkindness, the Buddha describes those who are “skilled in goodness” as having the aspiration:

In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!


Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.

There is also the Brahma-viharas (The Four Immeasurables), three of which deal with compassion and empathy for others. Walpola Rahula, the eminent Hinayana Buddhist scholar, discusses these three as: “(1) extending unlimited, universal love and good-will (metta) to all living beings without any kind of discrimination, ‘just as a mother loves her only child’; (2) compassion (karuna) for all living beings who are suffering, in trouble and affliction; (3) sympathetic joy (mudita) in others’ success, welfare, and happiness” (What the Buddha Taught, p. 75).

The claim of selfishness is usually directed towards Hinayana Buddhism, but the above (which is only a small sampling of a rather extensive canon) demonstrates a strong emphasis on compassion and service. This is not incidental, as the attainment of enlightenment, the realization of Buddahood, is seen as a call to service to the world, which the Buddha exemplified. This, incidentally, is also an answer to the caricature of those who assume that the paradigmatic Buddhist posture is of “a man sitting in tranquil contemplation with his eyes shut to a world he wants to transcend” (Douglas Groothuis, Jesus and Buddha: Two Masters or One?, p. 3). While such an argument has been made against some Buddhist monastic traditions, there is a strong and even pervasive call to engaged compassionate service.

Compassion in Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism

This connection is made even more explicit and central in both Mahayana and Vajrayana/Tantric Buddhism. H.H. the Dalai Lama has explicitly said,

Regardless of its historical origin and its evolution, the Mahayana is without a doubt a path dedicated to the liberation of all beings. When one enters the Mahayana path, one is said to join the family of bodhisattvas. This happens when anyone has, in the course of their spiritual development, gained the realization of genuine compassion.


According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive—it’s not empathy alone—but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering.
Essence of the Heart Sutra, p. 49.

H.H. Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, the late senior instructor of H.H. the Dalai Lama, made a distinction between entering nirvana and becoming a Buddha:

The enlightened attitude, bodhicitta, which has love and compassion as its basis, is the essential seed producing the attainment of buddhahood. Therefore, it is a subject that should be approached with the pure thought, "May I gain enlightenment in order to be of greatest benefit to the world."

"If we want to attain the state of the full enlightenment of buddhahood as opposed to the lesser enlightenment of the arhat, nirvana, our innermost practice must be cultivated by bodhicitta. If meditation on emptiness is our innermost practice, we run the risk of falling into nirvana instead of gaining buddhahood.
“Generating Bodhicitta,” in Teachings from Tibet, p. 53.

The being who embodies this Buddhahood is the Bodhisattva, “a being, who, through wisdom, heroically focuses on the attainment of enlightenment out of compassionate concern for all beings. The word itself [composed of bodhi/enlightenment and sattva/hero] conveys the key qualities of such an infinitely altruistic being” (Dalai Lama, Essence of the Heart Sutra, p. 78). The fundamental aspiration in Mahayana Buddhism is becoming this infinitely compassionate being, a being whose sole raison d’etre (reason for being) is to alleviate the suffering of others. A more noble aspiration is hard to imagine.

So even if we accept the validity of the criticism that Hinayana Buddhism’s arhat entering enlightenment is inherently selfish, the Mahayana tradition posits a further ‘achievement’ (or further ‘letting go’, as the case may be) that is fundamentally grounded in compassionate altruism. In the same text, in a chapter titled “The Foundations of All Good Qualities,” Khunu Lama Rinpoche, himself a recognized Bodhisattva and teacher of the 14th Dalai Lama, called compassion “the main cause of enlightenment” (p. 201) and later saying that “[w]ithout bodhicitta we cannot receive enlightenment” (p. 206). He quotes Tsong-khapa’s The Foundation of All Good Qualities:

Just as I have fallen into the sea of samsara,
So have all mother migratory beings.
Bless me to see this, train in supreme bodhicitta,
And bear the responsibility of freeing migratory beings.

Here are two representative quotes from Shantideva:

In short, wherever I am, whatever I do,
To be continually mindful and alert,
Asking, “What is the state of my mind?”
And accomplishing the good of others is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Thirty-seven Verses of a Bodhisattva

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.
The Way of the Bodhisattva

There is one translation of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (Way of the Bodhisattva) available online for further verses dedicated to relieving the suffering of others.

Meditation Practices for Developing Compassion

Moving beyond the doctrinal basis of compassion in Buddhism, there are a large number of meditation practices intended to cultivate compassion for all beings. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (in his The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness) gives a three-step process for cultivating compassion, one that is echoed in many other Buddhist texts.

Begin With Yourself
First, we must genuinely connect with our own suffering and the form of our own suffering, particularly at the more subtle levels of basic discontent, our desires for permanence, etc. This is one of the purposes of meditation: by calming the mental chatter we can slow down our habitual patterns (karma), allowing us to see how our mind works, how we continually and habitually place ourselves in the cycle of suffering. We also realize our most fundamental desires: (1) to be happy and (2) to be free from suffering. In short, we must come to know our own suffering and desires before we can help relieve the suffering of others. As with most traditional progressions in meditation, this first stage is primarily composed of shamatha meditation, with the primary object (in terms of compassion) being one’s own thoughts, feelings, and body (both in terms of bodily sensations and actions).

Connect to Others
Second, after connecting with our own suffering and desires, we begin to connect with the suffering and desires of others. Mingyur Rinpoche suggests that one begins with a simple body scan, noticing the health and, if present, discomforts we are now feeling. We can then meditate on how fortunate we are to have a healthy body: “How nice it would be if I could always enjoy this sense of well-being and all the causes that lead to feeling happy, peaceful, and good” (p. 179). In order to extend this to others, it is usually suggested that you start with your mother/parent or, if you happen to have a difficult relationship with your parents, someone with whom you feel safe, open, and happy. Then extend this to others: How nice it would be if [my mother, father, grandmother, boyhood pet, etc.] could always enjoy this sense of well-being and all the causes that lead to feeling happy, peaceful, and good. Then do this in relation to bodily discomforts: How nice it would be if I/they could always enjoy relief from this physical discomfort. Mingyur Rinpoche suggests that you take a moments reprise between these meditations: first be mindful of yourself and generate the aspiration, then allow your focus to widen in open awareness, and, finally, extend the same aspiration to the other (with another open awareness meditation after this).

In order to extend this to all beings, the texts then suggest to expand to other categories of people: ourselves, someone towards which we are neutral, someone towards which we have hard feelings, and, finally, towards all beings, without exception. By progressively extending one’s compassion to every being, we strengthen the aspiration that all beings, even those that we might consider enemies, be free from suffering and that we take an active role in relieving their suffering. The exact progression is not important: those, such as myself, who have had a degree of self-loathing might find it harder to extend compassion to ourselves rather than to someone we might consider an enemy such that we would benefit from leaving ourselves till the end. The exact phrase used in this meditation is also open for debate. It is a common practice to use the Four Immeasurables as the text for this practice:

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in the great equanimity free from clinging, aversion,
and ignorance

Using wording that you have personally developed can also strengthen this practice; see what works best for you.

Give and Take
The third practice is called tong-len, literally translated as give-take. The basic practice is, on the inhale, imagine a black smoke/light coming from the intended being, carrying all their negativity, suffering, and destructive habitual patterns into yourself. One common image is absorbing this negativity into your heart, where the energy is purified and reduced to its basic intelligence (rather than grasped, pushed away, or ignored). On the exhale, imagine that light is coming out of you towards the intended being, carrying all your positivity, joy, and skillful capacities to the other person. One of the basic principles is our inexhaustible goodness whereby we can skillfully absorb all negativity and can give all we have without being diminished in any way. In the words of Chogyam Trungpa:

We give as much as we can give, we expand as much as we can expand. We have a lot to expand because we have basic goodness, which is an inexhaustible treasure. Therefore we have nothing at all to lose and we can receive more, also. We can be shock absorbers of other people’s pain all the time... The more we give our best, the more we are able to receive other people’s worst. Isn’t that great?
Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness, p. 29.

Within one tradition, it is suggested that you begin with yourself: begin by taking the other’s negativity before you give what you can. This emphasizes the purpose of the practice: to overcome our selfishness by reversing our usual drive to horde the good for ourselves and leave the bad for others. Instead we cultivate the motivation to give all the good that we posses, without reservation, to others and take all the worst that they have, without reservation, into ourselves. By starting with taking the bad into ourselves, the focus becomes compassionately relieving the others’ suffering rather than giving the good that we have, which could be used egotistically, “I’m so good, I can afford to give it to others,” rather than beginning with an ego-weakening altruistic intention. As with the previous practice, it is suggested that you can begin with a loved being, then a neutral being, a despised being, and then to all beings, human and non-human.


If selfishness is so central to Buddhism, it certainly must be deep seated and hidden because selfishness is contradictory to much of the explicit textual and traditional claims in all three major Buddhist traditions. While it is true that some practicing Buddhists turn the Buddhist Path into a thing of ego—what Chogyam Trungpa called spiritual materialism—this can and does happen in every religious and non-religious tradition. The fact remains that there is no dearth of references to compassion and a strong (practically impregnable) case can be made for the explicit centrality of compassionate altruism to Buddhist thought and practice.

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