Pure Action
by Master Sheng-yen
An excerpt from Master Sheng-yen's book, Complete Enlightenment.

Motivation is the key in determining whether desire is pure or defiled. An action is pure when performed solely for the sake of others, without concern for oneself. It is pure even if there is a concept of self behind the action. The actions of parents for their children, for example, can be pure in this sense. On the other hand, if someone helps another in order to win that person's love, the action is not pure. When our actions are motivated by a desire to help others without consideration for personal benefit, desire is transformed into compassion. Although it is not the true compassion of a bodhisattva, it is still good because desire is becoming purified.
Objects of desire may take many forms. We may desire physical things, such as food, clothing, or comfort. We may desire emotional gratification, such as the love of another. We may desire recognition or fame. We may desire good karma in order to ensure better conditions in future lives. There is nothing wrong with having desires. The fulfillment of these examples would not automatically cause one to be reborn in lower realms. But these are not examples of true compassion. If we calculate the benefit we will receive from our actions, it is not compassion. If we practice because we want to transcend samsara and attain Buddhahood, it is not compassion. As long as there are ulterior motives in our minds, no matter how lofty these motives may be, it is not compassion. It is not wrong or bad, but it is self-centered love and desire, not compassion.
We may have passed a wild flower and stopped to admire its beauty and fragrance. The flower may remain in our mind as we walk away. We may even contemplate picking it. In a sense, we have fallen in love with this flower. We may have gone beyond enjoying it. Now we want to possess it so that we can enjoy it continuously. We all have a hunger that makes us want to possess something we don't have, and which drives us to hold on dearly to that which we already have.
Similarly, one may have a good experience while meditating, feeling pure and light. In the future that person will likely desire this experience again, and so will continue to meditate. This is yet another attachment. As long as one is attached to spiritual experiences, self-centered love and desire are still present.
Of all the experiences one can have, none brings more happiness than samadhi. The deeper the samadhi experience, the greater the happiness will be and the longer it will last. People who have experienced deep levels of samadhi may remain peaceful and even-tempered for the remainder of their lives. In comparison, the happiness derived from food and sex is coarse and short-lived. Someone who has reached the highest levels of worldly samadhi may feel liberated, but attachment still exists; the person is still motivated by self-centered love and desire, not compassion. It is still samsara. Again, there is nothing wrong with samadhi, but it isn't liberation, and it isn't compassion.
For enlightened bodhisattvas and Buddhas, the forces of self-centered love and desire are replaced by compassion and vows. Compassion manifests when bodhisattvas and Buddhas help sentient beings. Compassion is the action and vows are the motivating force. Bodhisattvas make vows until they reach the eighth bhumi, or stage, of the Bodhisattva Path -- the position of non-intentionality. At this stage, they help sentient beings spontaneously. Once they attain the eighth bhumi, bodhisattvas no longer need to make vows. Here's an analogy: you may vow to climb a mountain, but you don't have to repeat the vow once you reach the top.
To vow to be liberated from birth and death because of an aversion to samsara is not enough. To vow to free oneself from vexation is not enough. One must take the vows of a bodhisattva, who is not concerned with liberation but rather with helping other sentient beings toward liberation.
Practitioners on the Bodhisattva Path should make vows for the benefit of others, not for themselves. Bodhisattvas do not vow to reach the Pure Land, but if their vows to help others are accomplished, they will also benefit. By the time we are truly capable of helping others, we will already be more evolved. In fact, it is only when we are awakened that we can truly help others. If we learn to swim well enough to help others from drowning, we will also have liberated ourselves from drowning.
We need vows to motivate ourselves to cultivate compassion in order to help others. In contrasting compassion with love, understand that even with the more elementary levels of compassion we are not concerned with our own benefit; the emphasis is on ultimately helping others toward liberation. On the other hand, although there are many levels of love, some more expansive than others, self-centeredness is always involved.
There are three levels of compassion. The first is compassion that arises from a bodhisattva's relationship with sentient beings. The bodhisattva sees people suffering and vows to help them gain liberation. In this case, there is a subject that feels compassionate and an object of that compassion. Also the bodhisattva recognizes differences among sentient beings. This is the compassion of a bodhisattva before the first bhumi. The second level of compassion is compassion that arises from the Dharma. The bodhisattva naturally helps sentient beings without distinction or discrimination, but there is still a subject and an object involved. This applies to a bodhisattva on the first through seventh bhumi. The third and highest level is where the distinction between subject and object is transcended. This is the compassion of great bodhisattvas and Buddhas and is without limit and conditions. Bodhisattvas on the eighth bhumi and above, as well as Buddhas, have the greatest power to help others, but for them there are no ideas of sentient beings or compassion. It is only sentient beings who see it as such.
As ordinary sentient beings, it is a given that we possess love, but true compassion is another matter. Even the first level of compassion is hard to attain. As Buddhists, we vow to help others. These vows put us on the path to achieve the first level of compassion. To reach the Dharma level, we need to start ascending the ten bhumis of bodhisattvahood. To reach the highest level of compassion, we must attain at least the eighth bhumi of the Bodhisattva Path. Bodhisattvas return to the world of samsara to help others by virtue of their vows. They may voluntarily enter the circle of birth and death and live as humans do or they may briefly manifest as transformation bodies and then disappear. However, their appearance is not driven by self-centered love and desire, for if it were so, this love and desire would cloud their minds and obscure their wisdom and they would still be subject to the forces of karma.
Bodhisattvas appear because of the power of their vows. Sentient beings are driven by self-centered love and desire and so are concerned with gain and loss. Therefore we suffer vexations. Love, however, is a necessary part of our lives. We must learn to elevate our love, to transform our love for self and others into compassion, which is without limit and distinction.