I’m not arguing for or against altruistic action in particular here. Personally I would like to take the fastest route to enlightenment and during this time help others as much as possible. Here I explore the implications of two points. Firstly, how the ‘hinayana’ and ‘mahayana’ goals are in fact different. Secondly, and in connection with this, what it means that we can gain enlightenment without having been of much, if any, use to others.
It’s important first that I clarify my terminology, so you know where I’m coming from. Otherwise it could seem like I’m using different words for the same thing, i.e. enlightenment, which I am not. This could lead to the feeling that ‘it’s all just words’, which it is not.
I’m limiting myself to a comparison of ‘hinayana’ with early ‘mahayana’, rather than later developments. For what I mean by early mahayana please refer to Jan Nattier’s book, ‘a few good men’. When I say goal of the mahayana I mean the goal of becoming a full buddha, or Samyaksambuddha. By this I mean someone who has gained enlightenment without first hearing the teaching, and then was able to successfully communicate this to others, etc. I am using ‘bodhicitta’ in the sense of establishment on, or dedication to, this path to becoming a full buddha, or at least towards that direction. By the hinayana goal of ‘arahant’, or ‘sravaka’, I mean the goal of full enlightenment, where greed, hatred and delusion have gone, but without the special abilities of a buddha, as described above. If you examine the inconstancy in the use of these terms - with enlightenment and buddhahood being used interchangeably – you may find it contains a subtle downplaying of the goal of early Buddhism, and of the Theravada.
I ask whether we have to be of much use to others in order to gain enlightenment? May the attempt to help others sometimes get in the way of our path to enlightenment? How could altruism be problematic, since isn’t compassion part of the goal? To understand all this we need to look carefully at distinctions within our ideas of altruism.
From the Buddhist records we have examples of people having much or little ability to actually benefit others alongside their enlightenment. For example, the buddha being of great help to others and some of his enlightened disciples being of little help, perhaps some not even being able to teach effectively.
In the story of Angulimala the buddha did not advise him to get a job to raise money for the families of those affected by his killing; the least he could have done we might think. But this may have been for a good reason – as it may have hindered him from gaining enlightenment. In contrast to this Anathapindika, the chief lay disciple of the Buddha who was known as the "foremost disciple in generosity" and a great benefactor of Buddhism (even though he had great reverence for the Buddha) still seems to have been unable to gain full enlightenment himself. Results won’t be the same for everyone, but perhaps this gives us a clue that we can over-do altruistic activity.
Since we’d naturally like to respond to the many needs of others, whether or not this forms part of our path to enlightenment, the question becomes - what limits if any should we put on our altruistic activity if we do not want to delay our enlightenment? Could the attempt to help others get in the way of our path to enlightenment? Is any amount of altruistic action by us also what we need for our own liberation?
Then we have to consider whether we are talking about altruistic action before enlightenment as a part of our path, or after enlightenment as a result of our path, I think we can tend to mix these up. We have to consider that the even the Buddha wasn’t of much use to anyone before he was enlightened. We could even say that the Buddha actively just walked out on people during his approach to enlightenment; for example his family, his first teachers, and his first spiritual companions. If he’d put others’ needs first, like staying to care for his family, maybe he wouldn’t have gained enlightenment at all.
I think it is vital that as Buddhism in the West grows we have a clear understanding of the place of altruistic activity, if we are to reduce the danger of becoming a group of social workers who never quite deepen meditation enough. I think examples of people suffering ‘burn out’ which we have seen are symptoms which merely reveal the tip of this iceberg; they may well arise from a misunderstanding of the place of altruistic action.
It seems to be clear now that the mahayana did not start as a mere re-emphasis based on polemic. This understanding, described in the work of Jan Nattier, is now becoming common knowledge. At some point we will need to integrate the understanding of this, and its implications.
I suggest that the main principle involved, which exists whether or not one talks of traditional Buddhism, is that one can gain full enlightenment alongside much or little ability to benefit others and after having benefited others much or little. This means the path of Buddhism contains a full spectrum of possible altruistic activity and the goal of Buddhism contains a full spectrum of possible altruistic activity.
So in traditional Buddhist terms two possibilities of ‘much or little ability’ could mean becoming a full buddha or a mere sravaka (or arahant) respectively. These two goals I suggest represent two possible extremes on a spectrum of how much one is of actual benefit to others alongside one’s liberation. I.e. someone who has fully developed the ability to help others alongside their enlightenment and is of much help to others, and someone who has only just managed to get themselves enlightened and may not be of much use to others.
Bahiya of the Bark Garment would be an example of an arahant who did not benefit others much before his enlightenment. After his enlightenment he didn’t have much of a chance to be, though he could have been more useful if he’d been able to keep himself alive. He certainly did not pass on his insight to others before he died. However, the mahayana is about actually helping people in the end; effective altruistic action, and learning how to be useful to others. Altruistic activity may not be the direct path to enlightenment in the early mahayana because it is not meant to be; but rather it is a path which involves more preparation so at the point of enlightenment one is more useful to others and this means it could take longer. The original mahayana goal of buddhahood means gaining enlightenment without hearing the dharma and then successfully passing that on to others, which involves far more than just getting yourself enlightened. So becoming a buddha (like our buddha Gautama) is more challenging to achieve.
I wonder if some of the misunderstanding around what the place of altruistic action is could come from using the word altruism in too many ways. The Oxford dictionary says for ‘altruism’; ‘disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others’, which talks about a concern rather than an action, and follows with; ‘some may choose to work with vulnerable elderly people out of altruism’. So here it is described as a concern on which an action can be based. This is ideally how we should be using these terms. However we can often talk about altruism itself as action– in this way we can conflate these two aspects (people in general might not think of the possibility of solitary meditation retreat being suitable for developing altruism, but this seems to represent the original mahayana approach). For example we may tend to consider the Bodhicaryavatara more as a guide to action than meditation, which I think is not the case. Would we even have heard of Santideva if he’d done all his day time work duties and dropped his idea of night time meditation?
If we think that altruism not quickly manifesting in action is a contradiction in terms, we should then reflect on whether this really fits with the teachings of Pratitya Samutpada. We also need to consider that altruism and selflessness are actually not the same thing. Selflessness, altruism and altruistic action must be distinguished. If we confuse these we may think someone who is fully enlightened (i.e. fully selfless) is also going to be well developed in altruistic action; displaying much usefulness to others. But no one said getting enlightened guarantees you any special powers or skills. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to run a business, or even pass a GCSE in English. Everything arises from conditions; it is the same with this.
The mahayana goal of buddhahood involves altruistic action which actually benefits others, not merely altruism as intention or an attempt to benefit others, and actually benefiting others can be extremely difficult. I think this is why it involves action or effort which goes beyond what is necessary just for gaining enlightenment. If this were not the case all who gained enlightenment would also be buddhas with the ability to communicate enlightenment to others, which obviously hasn’t been the case; since we have not seen an exponential growth in buddhas in the world. It follows that we have choice about which goals we choose ourselves. Misunderstanding originating in our views about altruistic activity will also affect the choices we make.
The main problem which comes from a failure to distinguish the goals may be that it leads us to confuse the conditions needed for full buddhahood with the conditions needed merely for our liberation, which has historically been called arahantship (i.e. enlightenment without necessarily much usefulness). Not clearly distinguishing between effort which is necessary for progress to enlightenment and effort which is more than needed for this could mean that we end up, because of our busy lives, becoming useful to others but not becoming enlightened. I have no problem with people choosing this. I do have a problem with people choosing this without any understanding of the distinction involved, and I have a problem with the path to enlightenment turning into the path to social work.
It seems to me that someone who is enlightened cannot be more selfless than someone else who is enlightened, because otherwise we introduce a duality into what is non-dual. The difference is not in the ‘transcendental’ realm but in the mundane realm, and mundane abilities which go along with it. This is one reason why there is such a distinction between the two goals of enlightenment (arahant) and enlightenment plus abilities to help others (buddha). It seems to me a clear mistake to use the terms enlightenment and buddhahood interchangeably.
Most importantly, our failure to distinguish this may mean we train in much altruistic activity thinking we are doing just what is needed for our enlightenment when it is not the case. In fact we may be extending our path to enlightenment or just putting off our enlightenment because we are not getting away from the world enough. We may certainly not be on the direct path to enlightenment. This might particularly be a problem view for us modern people living in the west, where success comes through doing. The question isn’t doing or not doing, it’s not black or white. It’s about how much you do. Success in enlightenment does not come in the way we are used to it in the modern world.
It occurred to me that Buddhist tradition tended to stick to negative formulations of the path and goal for a good reason. We can start to think of the path too much as ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’, as an addition rather than a reduction. This is where the problem comes in. How generous should we be? Is it ungenerous to spend a year in secluded retreat when millions of children are starving in Africa? Is it ungenerous to spend a whole hour meditating at home when you could be spending time with your children or grandchildren? Of course it’s ungenerous. If we did not understand why the buddha to be had to leave his family, it may be because we didn’t understand this point. Framing the precepts as ‘doing’ rather than as ‘reducing’ is subtly problematic because it leaves us open to doing too much.
It seems to me that the real principle underlying the distinction between the two traditional goals, of early buddhism (sravaka or arahant) and early mahayana (buddha), is that they can represent two extreme ends of a spectrum. It is a spectrum of how much actual ability to benefit others we have developed by the time we gain enlightenment; enlightenment without, and enlightenment with, much ability and usefulness to others. This has a precedent in the Kitagiri sutta, as shown below.
It seems to follow that there will be a dividing line between altruistic training needed for our liberation and altruistic training which is more than needed for this. I think this line can be said to divide the ‘hinayana’ from the ‘mahayana’ approach. This line will change for each specific person because of the needs of that individual. Psychology, and even how much (as in Milarepa’s case) one needs to work to counteract one’s karma, will play a part in this. However, below this line includes all altruistic action which also provides what one needs for one’s own liberation; i.e. altruistic activity which helps us build the conditions necessary for our enlightenment. It is not essentially about how much we have helped others but the conditions in our own mind, and these factors are not always easy to separate. Sometimes the ‘mahayana’, whether knowingly or not, may just be being used for the purpose of the ‘hinayana’ goal, for example when we say that someone needs to work for others for the sake of their own spiritual progress, as we can tend to do. As I’ve said earlier the original mahayana meant doing more than just getting yourself enlightened.
One implication of this awareness in terms of the path is that it shows us the boundary between altruistic action which moves us towards enlightenment (towards the ‘hinayana’ goal), and altruistic action by us which is more than we need merely for our own enlightenment (towards the mahayana goal). Adding more means our path to enlightenment can get longer. For example, the recommendation for a bodhisattva to train in languages, medicine or the arts, and other things useful to others. These are more than we need for our path to enlightenment. It is in fact not necessary to master any of the arts or sciences in order to gain enlightenment. Most importantly, this activity is not intended to speed bodhisattvas to their enlightenment, the mahayana means adding to the path. It seems that this was what the early mahayana was all about; not re-establishing the goal of enlightenment. I think of it as ‘enlightenment plus’.
I think this could be described as one path with any amount of ‘additionally’ involved activity. This would lead to somewhere between two ends of the spectrum I have described. It would make sense that the path simply to one’s liberation (at one extreme) is likely to take less time than the path to full buddhahood (at the other extreme). However, it is unlikely we will be completely useless to others at the point of our enlightenment. We are likely to be somewhat useful even if we are not a full buddha, we may fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. We could call this spectrum the 'bodhisattva spectrum' or ‘spectrum of usefulness’. I think this may be the true distinction between hinayana and early mahayana. If so it will be the correct basis for integrating the two approaches.
This sheds light on something perhaps not many of us have hear of; ‘One who is liberated in both ways is an arahat who has completely destroyed the defilements and possesses the immaterial attainments. The commentaries explain the name ‘liberated in both ways’ as meaning ‘through the immaterial attainment he is liberated from the material body and through the path (of arahatship) he is liberated from the mental body’ (MA.ii,131)’
Analayo discuses this in his book Satipatthana in the section on calm and insight pg 88 – 91, where he also mentions that in the Susima Sutta some monks declare themselves to be merely liberated by wisdom. This doesn’t mean that there are two separate kinds of liberation goal. Monks were liberated alongside various levels of mundane ability: the immaterial attainment being one such mundane ability.
This could be an early example, found in the Kitagiri Sutta, of the underlying principle I talk about here. It’s basically a distinction between enlightenment without and enlightenment with certain abilities; here involving the ability to access the formless dhyanas and siddhis. Mentioned in the Sutra S.II. 124-8, where the buddha is asked why not all enlightened disciples had special abilities. We find that the second of seven types of noble persons, who are arahant but not liberated in both ways, ‘have none of the first five of the six ‘higher knowledges’. These are the higher knowledges which a buddha might employ in order to help others.
It’s interesting that the early distinction of seven noble persons exclude the specific abilities of a buddha, which are rediscovering the path and re-turning the wheel of the dharma. It seems to me that this was corrected later by the new mahayana approach. It does seem to be an early attempt to explore distinctions in the path and goal. In any case it shows the basic underlying principle I want to make clear: a distinction between enlightenment with much usefulness and enlightenment without much usefulness.
Enlightenment is not dependent on how much, or how many, people we actually benefit. Awareness of ‘the spectrum’ means having the power to choose. Without this awareness the choice of whether or not to lengthen our path becomes blurred, and will be influenced by our unconscious or cultural assumptions. The main problem is that doing lots of altruistic activity can get in the way when it leads us to be busy, pushing out other elements of the path we need when we’re still unenlightened.
The ‘spectrum of usefulness’ or ‘bodhisattva spectrum’ represents a natural possibility in the universe, rather than something artificial. It may explain the hinayana/mahayana distinction. It may be that the lack of this understanding has contributed a subtle hindrance to enlightenment within Triratna. If this is the case it is a very serious issue for Triratna and should be investigated further to avoid that possibility in the future.
What makes effort necessary or not depends upon the goal we want to achieve.