Examining the Central Question of “Why”

As I did the reading for this week, one of the things which surprised me about the reading took place in “Vigilance Regarding the Awakened Mind” where Santideva examines a few of his motivations for choosing to uphold his promise to liberate all beings in the universe.

In my blog post last week, I talked about how it must require such great strength and compassion for a Bodhisattva to affirm that they will continue to undergo seemingly endless cycles of reincarnation in order to help alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings in the universe. This reading, however, while not necessarily contradicting that idea, appeared to bring about some particularly negative reasons for why Santideva is choosing to carry through with his promise. For example, the idea that if he were to break his promise, he would attain bad rebirths and be sent to the lower levels of hell. To me, this does not appear to be an honorable motivation for continuing to uphold a vow as serious as the one he took, and it seems to reveal the ways in which the idea of multiple rebirths with higher/lower stages can corrupt the principles of Buddhist teachings. Rather than acting out of a mode of compassion and appreciation for all sentient beings, it seems like Santideva is at least partly carrying out his task out of the fear of the consequences in not doing it.

This makes me reflect on myself and my own motivations for acting in a non-Buddhist context. Is the reason that I go to school truly for the sake of knowledge and to work towards something I am truly passionate about or is it because I fear the consequences of not getting a formal education and not having a good job in the future? Do I volunteer in order to genuinely help others or is it a way for me to make myself feel good? Do I love the people around me because I genuinely enjoy their presence or is it because I am afraid that if they leave me then I will be left completely alone?

Obviously these issues are not so black and white as to allow for a yes/no response, as it is probably a combination of both motivations which hit at the real reason that I act in certain ways, but maybe one of the most refreshing parts about this reading is that Santideva comes off as a little more “human” than the writings in the other Buddhist texts that we have read. I can identify with what Santideva is saying and recognize these things as real motivations for acting rather than someone speaking from a perspective of pure nobility, compassion, and understanding.

One thought on “Examining the Central Question of “Why””

  1. Great reflections, Akash! Yes, I think Śāntideva does seem a little more human here. He’s trying to get himself motivated to take on a huge task, and he’s using some fear tactics to get himself going. That’s not so bad, as long as fear is not the primary motivation! I think in this text we see the author talking himself into taking on the bodhisattva path. It’s actually a pretty huge commitment to put others before oneself not only for a moment but for always. Having said that, I think it is important to recognize that for Buddhists the bodhisattva path is not meant to entail neglecting one’s own interests or harming oneself. Rather, there is a recognition that one’s own well being is tied to that of others, and that by putting others first one will actually come out better off in the end. It is, as the Dalai Lama likes to phrase it, a matter of “enlightened self interest.” In other words prioritizing others is the one sure way to my own happiness.

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