Ch'an Newsletter - No. 102, August 1994

Egotism and Altruism
Lecture given by master Sheng-yen on May 9, 1993
Edited by Douglas Sipp

Egotism, as rendered in Chinese, means concern about oneself. It is not simply selfishness. In fact, in Buddhism a certain amount of egotism is necessary, for only by taking care of themselves will people be able to care for others.

When we talk about taking care of the self, we must first ask, "What is the self?" If you do not know what the self is, how can you take care of it? If you don't fully understand the nature of the self and how to care for it, you may inadvertently do yourself harm. It follows that if you don't understand the correct way to care for yourself, you may find it difficult to help others, even if you are truly concerned about them.

Many people have good intentions and try to help others only to be dismayed by the outcome of their efforts. This is because they do not understand the fundamental principles and methods of helping themselves. Therefore, they cannot understand how to care for others.

Many people are particularly unclear about ideas of the self when they first encounter Buddhism. There are two categories of misunderstanding. The first involves thinking that there is no self -- that there should be no self-centeredness at all. Such people refuse to recognize the existence of the self and the efforts it makes even in the phenomenal world. This results in a negative attitude toward life. A person who makes this mistake will see no value in doing anything and will fail to take care of himself or anyone else.

The other misunderstanding occurs when someone has the proper idea that we should not be selfish and that we should indeed take care of others, but does not really know how to do it. Such a person starts off enthusiastically trying to impress those around him with his ideas of what is good or helpful, but ends up trying to force others to accept his opinions and advice whether they like it or not. This may start with his family or friends and then eventually spread to everyone he associates with. Finally, he may cause more harm than good.

Neither of these views and their resulting behavior exhibit a correct understanding of Buddhadharma. People who hold these views do not understand the nature of the self, are unable to take care of themselves, unable to help others, and often cause suffering. They may be good people with good intentions, but their actions are often detrimental to others. This is not the way of the bodhisattva. If anything, it is the way of a demon.

Many religious leaders, politicians, revolutionaries, and people with high ideals want to save the world, but they end up bringing strife, discord, and the sufferings of hell. They lack true understanding of the self. They fail to understand that there are differences as well as similarities between people. With this realization we can follow the Buddha in understanding that different sentient beings have different needs, different dispositions, different levels of attainment, and therefore each sentient being requires an appropriate method in order to be helped. Avalokitesvara is sometimes represented with a thousand eyes and a thousand arms. The thousand eyes help the bodhisattva understand a variety of sentient beings, and the thousand arms allow her to provide what is necessary in different situations.

What is the self? There are seven stages or concepts of self. The first view is that of the body, which is the fundamental substance or entity that symbolizes and gives us a sense of self.

Next, there is the knowledge of the body, a sense of existence that we call the mind. The body taken together with the mind is what we commonly call the self

Third, the environment in which the self exists is called the world. The world itself exists within a certain physical dimension (space), and a historical context and continuity (time).

Fourth, we have the whole of space and time, which with the world and the universe taken together constitute ourselves.

If we restrict our concept of self to the physical body alone, we have only a narrow view of thinking and identity. When we extend the concept to include the mind within the body, then the idea of self broadens, and if we expand it even further, we may include the universe, all space and time. But even at this level of conception, the idea of self is still limited to the material world.

With concepts no deeper than the material world, we will be unable to enter the fifth level, the realm of the religious or spiritual idea of the self. According to Buddhism, sentient beings are not restricted to a single lifetime. Rather, all sentient beings pass through a series of lives prior to and succeeding this one.

What engenders these succeeding lifetimes? It's what we call karmic force, or the causes and consequences of our thoughts and actions. This includes all actions of our bodies, speech and thought. It is these actions and their consequences that continue through different lifetimes as karmic force. This is the Buddhist conception of the self, and it can give one a sense of an eternal self. If we restrict the self to a single lifetime, a sense of an eternal self would be impossible.

To the understanding of successive lives, we must add an understanding of the essence of Dharma. Buddhadharma teaches that it is important for each of us to liberate ourselves from our karma and to help liberate others as well, because self and other are not really separate. Therefore the liberation of self and all others is really the same thing.

We must make vows to apply ourselves to that end if we would realize true liberation. Such vows determine the value and meaning of our lives. Thus it is that we talk about a sixth level of self, where we vow to liberate ourselves and others.

But this is still not the ultimate level of Buddhadharma. The final stage is selflessness or "formlessness." When we say that the ultimate stage of Buddhadharma is selfless, we do not mean that the individual self is completely gone. We mean that the person is free of vexations, liberated from karmic attachments. He or she is liberated from self-centeredness, but the function of wisdom and the results of compassion continue. For such people, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, the self has no existence. Ordinary sentient beings may regard liberation in and of itself as the "self" associated with Buddhas and bodhisatvas. We can still pray to the Buddhas and gain benefit from them, but in their perspectives, there is no self whatsoever.

The six previous levels cannot be regarded as having ultimate truth or existence, because in becoming liberated it is necessary to make vows to break through these levels. Buddhas no longer need to make vows. There is no such thing as karma for them, and so it's not necessary to speak of the existence of self -- these terms are meaningless. But we sentient beings can still derive great benefit from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Returning once again to the first two views of self, those of body and mind, in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, we read, "When the four elements combine, the body appears, and the conditioning of the shadows of the six sense objects constitutes the appearance of the mind." What does this mean? The four elements refers to earth, water, fire and wind. They are considered to constitute all matter. The first part of this statement, then, says that the body is formed when matter comes together in a certain way. But there is really nothing that originally constitutes the body. It is only a combination of the four material elements that we call "the body."

The "conditioning" of the next line refers to attachment and discrimination in relation to sense objects, feeling, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and thinking. Sense objects are not as substantial as material objects, they are merely the shadows of matter. Thus the mind appears through attachment to and the discrimination of the shadows of material things. This also indicates that originally there is no such thing as the mind. It is only the interactions of the six sense objects, which are themselves products of interactions, that we call "mind."

The next and third level of the self, what we call the world, is the immediate environment for the activities of the body and mind. We should not think of it simply as the planet Earth. Rather, we should understand that each of us has his or her own world. This not only applies to people living in different parts of the Earth, but even to members of the same family. A teenager with a room full of movie stars' and singers' posters might live next to his sister whose walls are covered with pictures of Jesus and Mary; their brother down the hall might have posters of famous athletes or maybe even the picture of a Dharma master. There is a Chinese saying, "Even a couple sleeping in the same bed will have different dreams."

Thus under the same roof there may be people who feel like they are living in the Western Paradise while others feel like they're living in Hell. This is what we find in my temple in Taiwan. Some people seem like they're living in the Pure Land, while others seem to suffer the vexations of Hell. This shows the broadness of perspective and acceptance in Buddhism. It is enormously encompassing because it recognizes that sentient beings are so different, with different characteristics and dispositions.

What we called the "universe," the fourth level, incorporates both space and time. In terms of space alone, all of us are connected. The Chinese used to say that when Mao-tse Tung coughed, the world worried, because he had so much power. But it is really true that when anyone on the planet coughs, everyone else in the world is affected. It's only a matter of degree. If I cough, you might only think, "I'd better be careful. I could catch something." We all live on the same planet and breathe the same atmosphere, so it is true to some extent that what happens to one of us affects us all. Look at the problems with the environment that we have had recently.

Like space, time connects us all. Life did not begin when your mother gave birth to you. Your parents also had their parents before them, and so on, all the way back to the first appearance of life on Earth. And many of you will have children and descendants for generations to come. I will not have children to come after me, but I have my disciples. And all of our culture and civilization was passed down to us from previous generations and will continue after we are gone. Whether we are famous or not is irrelevant, our participation and impact on the world cannot be denied.

We see that our personal lives and the whole of the universe cannot be separated. If you understand this, then when you think about being selfish you should ask, "Selfish for what?" and "Selfish for whom?" The self, body and mind, are inseparably linked to the entire universe, space and time. Selfish? Time and space are too wide. If you wish to be selfish include the entire world in your thoughts.

If we go on to the fifth level, the spiritual self, the Buddhist teachings make it clear that throughout all of our successive lifetimes there is an unbroken thread of self, known as karma.

Karma dictates that if we do good things, then we will experience joy and peace in return. Bad actions we will bring suffering and vexation. By good things, we mean concern for and helpfulness toward others. Even from a selfish viewpoint, it makes sense to do more good than bad just for your own benefit. You may believe you gain at another's expense, but the law of karma will ensure that you pay back what you owe. Taking advantage of or harming others is analogous to borrowing money. Not only will you have to pay back the amount borrowed, but there is high interest to pay as well. Thus even for purely selfish reasons, you don't want to hurt others. You only want to do virtuous things. In Buddhism, the most important element of the self is the karma it has accumulated. With the logic of karma, then, the only way to be selfish is to care for others.

This understanding of karma brings us to the sixth level where concern broadens beyond simply the redemption of one's own karma. At this point you adopt the bodhisattva spirit and make vows to dedicate your life to the benefit and salvation of all sentient beings. Your sole concern is others. Through the power of these vows, you dwell among sentient beings offering them all of your wisdom and strength. This is truly "saving the world" and "helping sentient beings"; it is only possible for someone firmly grounded in and deeply committed to Dharma.

Most people are not ready to work only for others with no thought of gain. But if you truly understood karma, you would act in this way. Then rather than be run by karma, your own vows would be the motivation and driving force of your life. This is a much better and safer path. This is the difference between the power of karma and the power of vows -- the power of karma derives from the previous level, the basic teachings of Buddha and the three lifetimes. Karma is self-centered, vows are other-centered. If you can truly perform compassionate acts without thought of your own benefit, you gain a much greater reward than if you had been thinking of yourself in the first place. But making vows and persisting with them is not so easy.

Many people make great vows when they first begin to study Dharma. Sometimes I'll see one of these people a few years later and ask, "Are you working on your vows?" I often hear, "Maybe I'll fulfill those vows next lifetime. There's too much karmic obstruction now." Or I may hear, "The vow I made was unrealistic. I couldn't live a normal life and keep such a vow. I feel like a hypocrite now."

Even if your vows are unrealistic or less than sincere, it is still important that you make them. It is important to continue and persist in making vows even if you fail in them ninety percent of the time. That is still better than making no vows at all. When you make them, you can tell Buddha, "These vows I'm making are phony, but I'm saying the words anyway." It's better making phony vows than to be out committing crimes. Make no vows and you increase the chances that you will do wrong. By the same token, the simple act of making vows increases the chances that you will be virtuous. Without vows, our lives are like aimless leaves floating on a river. A person without vows floats in an ocean of samsara, of birth and death. But once we make vows, we have direction. It might not be smooth sailing at first, but at least we know where we are going. When a baby begins to walk, he may begin slowly, but little by little he gets stronger until the time when he leaps and runs. Nobody is born a marathon runner. Likewise first vows are difficult to keep. That may seem obvious, but it's important to remember. You should not worry that breaking the vows and precepts might add to your bad karma. It is still important to make vows. If you break the vow later, acknowledge what you did was wrong, repent, and make sure you don't do it again. Then make the vow again.

We have been talking about making vows, but what kind of vows should we make? I'd like everyone to make vows to help others, including vows to come to the Ch'an Center to do volunteer work. Even if your vows are not genuine, that's fine. Essentially, we should vow to let go of our self-centeredness and to assume responsibility for the welfare of other sentient beings. Only when you can truly put down self-centeredness through the power of your vows will you reach liberation, the seventh stage of self. Many people are unwilling to let go of their self-centeredness, yet they want to be liberated. That is impossible. So I do hope that you all will make vows.

Ten years ago there was a girl who made a very great vow after sitting a few retreats. She vowed that lifetime after lifetime she would follow me to deliver sentient beings. That is a wonderful vow. I was quite pleased and thought, "Here is somebody to succeed me."

A few years later she married and never came to the temple again. One day I saw her. When she saw me she tried to run away, but I cornered her and said, "What happened to your vow to help me deliver all sentient beings?" She said, "Well I've already delivered one. Isn't my husband a sentient being? I tried to deliver him, and that's why I got married." "What are you doing now?" I said. "You never come to the temple." She answered that, "I'm not done helping my husband yet. When he is ready and willing, I'll bring him to the temple."

It's already many years since the last time I saw her, and I have no idea how well she is doing delivering sentient beings. But if I see her again, I'll tell her not to give up and to keep making vows. The fact that you are married in this lifetime is irrelevant. You must continue making vows lifetime after lifetime to help all sentient beings. Married or not, male or female -- it's not important. What is important is to make vows.

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