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