Buddhist Altruism

Buddhaghosa defines compassion as – “When there is suffering (in others), it causes good people to be moved (anukampā), thus it is Karuṇā (Visuddhimagga, tr. Ñanamoli, p. 345).”  
The Buddha admonishes: Let one first establish oneself in what is proper and then instruct others (Dhammapada, verse 158).”  

One cannot help others unless one knows how to help oneself through what is proper.  It is hard to expect man who is deluded with speculation (prapañca) to lead another towards proper understanding (sammā-diṭṭhi). This idea is nicely elaborated in Sallekha Sutta [of Majjhima Nikāya, I.40-46]:  “This situation does not occur, Cunda: when one sunk into mud will by himself pull out another who is sunk into mud. But this situation occurs, Cunda:  when one not sunk into mud will by himself pull out another who is sunk into mud. But this situation occurs, Cunda: when one who is tamed, trained, utterly quenched, will by himself tame, train, makes another utterly quenched.”  In this sense one cannot guide another morally and spiritually very much, unless one knows himself the method that directs one to achieve Nibbāna.  One, therefore, has to develop confidence in himself first in order to be able to benefit others.  Dhammapada [verse 160] says: “Atta hi attano nātho ko hi nātho parosiya – One is one’s own protector, what other protector can there be?”  Self realization can be achieved only through one one’s own striving.  Therefore one should first try to improve oneself before working for the general good.  Does that mean one must do nothing at all before one has perfected oneself? 

However, in a close look towards early Buddhist practice, one in fact never fails to cultivate altruistic virtues, because promoting one’s own welfare is not possible without cultivating altruistic attitude towards others.  In early Buddhism, therefore, moral goodness is identical with altruism.  And that’s why six perfections in early Buddhist doctrine play important roles as tools for attaining arhat-ship.  The Buddha, in the Chavalata sutta [of Aṅguttara Nikāya, II, 95], out of four types of people praises the person who works for the benefit of both oneself and others (attahitāya ca patipanno parahitāya ca).  From the Buddhist perspective of altruism, a man is not a separate but part of a society, and he is dependent on the rest of the universe.  Therefore, he has to respect and have concern for others by morally being good through self-restraint. Elsewhere, the Buddha states: “by warding oneself, monks, one wards others.  By warding another, one wards himselfattānāṃ bhikkhave rakkhanto paraṃ rakkhati, paraṃ rakkhanto attānāṃ rakkhati.”  According to the Anumāna Sutta [of Majjhima Nikāya, I, 97], altruistic action is based on one’s volitional state of mind that functions in two ways: 1) thinking of oneself in term of others, and 2) thinking of others in terms of oneself.  The sutta states, “The person who is of evil desires and who is in the thrall of evil desires, the person is displeasing and disagreeable to me; and similarly, if I were of evil desires and in the thrall of evil desires, I would be displeasing and disagreeable to others.”  Buddhism always admonishes to see or to do something based on self criterion (attūpama). It is just like a mother who looks after her one and only son as her own life.  In the same way, Buddhism emphasizes cultivation of universal love and compassion for the whole universe and beyond just as one would do for oneself.  In this sutta the Buddha further goes on saying, “Now am I of evil desire in the thrall of evil desire?  If so, that monk should strive to get rid of those evil, unskilled states.  In this way, he controls his action, and that not only benefits himself but also has effects on others.” 
Dhammapada palm leaf manuscript in Sinhalese

Finally, from what I have learned from RYI, Compassion in Mahāyāna is not self negating, but rather for oneself and others.  As the Dhammapada [verse 166] states: “for the sake of others’ welfare however great, let not one neglect one’s own welfare.

an Anonymous Student

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