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As I see it, service-oriented actions must be an integral part of our gradual transformation. In Buddhist mythology, there are stories of the many lifetimes of compassionate service the Buddha experienced prior to his birth as Siddhartha and his final awakening. In one life, he was a generous king, in another a compassionate animal. Sometimes he incarnated in hell realms, sometimes in heaven realms, but his progression from lifetime to lifetime was always motivated by an altruistic intention. Because we know that we have the ability, on some level or another, to help each other alleviate suffering, part of Buddhist practice is to bring that intention into the forefront of all our endeavors. We do this by developing a sincere and altruistic motivation, as expressed by the repeated intentions of the bodhisattva:

“May my life’s energy be of benefit to all beings. May I be of service. I commit my life’s energy to compassionate work.”

The Buddha talks about having this kind of intention as a prerequisite to enlightenment when he includes our livelihood as a part of the eightfold path. Not only do we have to use our livelihood—our life’s energy—in a way that is non-harming in order to become truly free, but we have to take it an extra step and do something positive, to add something and help each other along the way. This doesn’t mean we have to stop our chosen careers and become social workers, or dedicate ourselves to feeding the starving masses, although those are both good options. For many of us, it may just be a very simple shift in our motivation in whatever we are doing, wherever we are in our lives. We can bring the intention to respond to each person we meet with more caring, kindness, and understanding—to be more compassionate and wise with our life’s energy.

Although our motivation to help others may be very sincere, it is important to acknowledge that it may not always be one-hundred-percent altruistic. We often serve with mixed motivation. Sometimes it feels like we have to do this in order to forgive ourselves for the harm we’ve caused and the negativity we’ve created. We could be motivated by guilt, or just a healthy sense of regret and a commitment to karmic purification. At other times, we may be motivated to serve out of a desire to look good, or to appear altruistic and gain praise.

A drive to use all of one’s life energy to serve may arise, and this is a very understandable desire, but it is essential to be clear about the mixed motivation we have at times. Serving feels good. We like the experience of getting out of our self-centered thoughts and feelings by focusing our attention on doing good for others. We gain love and respect from those we help. But we must constantly be reminded that, as the Buddha has been rumored to have said, “You could search the whole world and never find another being more worthy of your love than yourself.” The truest altruism, then, includes oneself at all times—to make sure that our intention is to serve all beings, not just others.

The transformation from the selfish spiritual desire (I need to do this for myself) to a more altruistic desire (I dedicate my life’s energy to the benefit of all beings) is quite gradual for most of us. Yet when that motivation changes, it is natural to have the spontaneous aspiration arise to have all beings benefit from our life’s energy, because this is, in fact, the natural response of the awakened heart.

Our mindfulness meditation practice, our formal and informal training, develops wisdom—insight into the impermanence of everything, the absence of a solid self, and the way our actions create suffering. This wisdom is liberating, but it is only one wing of freedom. The other wing is compassion. Without caring and compassion, all the wisdom in the world is dry, lifeless. It takes caring and understanding for a fully awakened heart to soar to freedom.

Just like the original community formed by the Buddha, the Buddhist communities in Asia have had a great impact and influence on creating less violent and more ethical societies. It is my hope and prayer that Buddhism will have an equally powerful impact on the Western world. May we walk together the path of creating positive change in this world.


From the March 2009 issue of the Shambhala Sun.

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