In today’s society, there are many virtuous people who are contributing good deeds to make a more harmonious and wonderful world for all of us. Some kind-heartedly help needy students； some offer a cup of warm porridge in the morning to rushed passers-by as a token of loving care; others extend a saving hand regardless of danger at the critical moment to people in peril. All such acts of “Goodness,” on the whole, beautify the world as they move our hearts.
In Buddhism, good deeds usually involve two scenarios, one of which is self-interested and the other altruistic. Acting in self-interest means benefiting oneself; the benefit derives from good results produced by hard work and is based on one’s own merits. In Buddhism, self-interest is attained primarily as part of a methodical process of relying on precepts to regulate behavior; by such a process we improve our conduct and elevate the condition of life with good karma both delivered and perceived, bringing ourselves ever closer to pure goodness. Altruism, as the term implies, is concern for the happiness and welfare of other people rather than for ourselves. Such devotion to beneficent doings to relieve all sentient beings encourages more people to carry out good deeds and, in the process, keeps them far from suffering and, ultimately, gains them peace and happiness.
However, altruism needs to be managed by wisdom, not just kindness. If not, the result may be the opposite of that desired. The story of the farmer saving a snake illustrates this. A farmer mistakenly thought that a snake was frozen with cold, so he held it close to his bosom to warm it. But the snake was so startled that it bit the farmer out of instinct for self-defense, leaving the farmer fatally injured.
In addition to wisdom, we need will power to be truly helpful to others. In the Tang Dynasty, Master Xuanzang determined to set out for India from Chang’an City to seek the true sutra because he found that the Buddhist scriptures of the Han people were not complete and the teachings of various traditions were not unified. He marched west toward the land of Buddha with the vow, “I’d rather die going west, even by taking just one step, than to live by going east, not even after half a step.” Master Xuanzang, after having experienced all kinds of hardship and survived all kinds of ordeals on his 17-year journey, brought back more than 600 sutras from India. As soon as he was back, rather than stop and rest he mustered disciples to translate the sutras. From then to now, all of these translated sutras, such as the 600 volumes of “the Sutra on the Great Perfection of Wisdom” and the 100 volumes of the “Treatise on the Stages of Yogic Practice,” have had a profound impact on many people.
Altruism is truly self-interested and the best kind of beneficence. All kinds of beneficence produce various benefits. According to Buddhist karma, beneficence rendered on the basis of self-interest can receive bountiful returns, but the joy is transient and falls short of what it could be. In contrast, altruistic beneficence can earn marvelous karma, followed by delight, happiness and the improved common environment. First, altruism helps to make us more and more virtuous and then, starting from ourselves, gathers around many people’s kind hearts and good deeds in ever-increasing fashion for a greater impact. Only when the flame of goodness is lit in our hearts, will there be, all around us, nothing but brightness.
Then where is goodness? The Buddha has been guiding his followers’ conducts through precepts for further steps toward the internally pure goodness with all the sentient beings as his teaching object. Observing the Buddha’s canon yields good dharma as well as fortune and wisdom. As long as we act with fullest attention, altruistic devotion and strong will like Master Xuanzang’s, we will surely find where goodness is in the end.
Published on Life Times. Written by Ven. Master Xuecheng, translated by Beijing Longquan Monastery Translation Center.