In this episode I continue our study of 13th-century Zen master Dogen’s essay, “Bodaisatta Shishobo,” or what I’m calling the “Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings.” I cover “beneficial action,” which means to use skillful means to benefit beings without discriminating among them, considering their near and distant future, and to do so selflessly.
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Quicklinks to Content:
All Classes of Sentient Beings
Benefit in the Distant and Near Future
Beneficial Action Is an Act of Oneness
The Bodhisattva’s Heart
“‘Beneficial action’ is skillfully to benefit all classes of sentient beings; that is, to care about their distant and near future, and to help them by using skillful means. In ancient times, someone helped a caged tortoise; another took care of a sick sparrow. They did not expect a reward; they were moved to do so only for the sake of beneficial action.”
Dogen uses the term RIGYO for beneficial action; RI is helpful or beneficial, and GYO is conduct or action. He says beneficial action involves “skillful means.” “Skillful means” is a concept that originated very early in Mahayana Buddhism, along with suggestion we all aspire to be bodhisattvas. A bodhisattva employs skillful means when they carefully observe the beings they are trying to help, and then choose the most appropriate and effective message and actions for the situation. The goal is to really get through to beings, help relieve their suffering, and guide them toward liberation. You’ll need to communicate and act differently depending on the beings you’re interacting with.
Skillful means, sometimes called expedient means, require compassion, understanding, patience, adaptation, creativity, and a willingness to learn. One of the first places the Buddhist concept of skillful means was described at length was in the Lotus Sutra, which dates from around the 1st century C.E. Stories of such bodhisattva creativity in the sutra include numerous situations where a parent or leader actually deceives their children or followers for a brief time in order to get them to do something they are resisting but will be good for them. For example, a father’s children are playing in a burning house and he needs to get them out, but they’re too preoccupied with their play to heed his warnings. Using expedient means, the father tells his kids there are amazing new playthings awaiting the children outside the house. After they come out, the kids find only one new thing – a cart symbolic of the path of Buddhism – but everyone understands the father did the right thing by saving his kids, even if he might have bent the truth a little.
The point of skillful means isn’t to excuse lying, which is still against the Buddhist precepts. Instead, the emphasis is on compassion; you will do anything you can to help a suffering being. It’s not about what should happen, or what’s right in some objective sense of the word. The father in the Lotus Sutra knew it wouldn’t help to lecture his children about how irresponsible they were being by staying in a burning house. Instead, he appealed to what he knew would motivate them. Similarly, perhaps we know our spouse doesn’t react well to nagging, but sometimes we can get their help using a gentle, polite, open-ended request – without communicating the expectation it has to be met with a “yes.” Maybe we know our employees tend to ignore lengthy communications from on-high, so we ask for volunteers to present a new company process to each other.
When we need to work with other beings in order to bring about something beneficial, we generally need them to meet us at least halfway. But how often, instead, do we simply become attached to our opinions about how things should be done, and repeat them over and over, louder and louder, certain that at some point other people will suddenly see how we’re right and agree with us. How often does that work? It’s much more challenging – but usually more effective – to shift our attention from the message we’re trying to get across, or the outcome we’re pushing for, to the people we’re dealing with. If we really believe our message or outcome would be beneficial for all involved, how can we convince them to hear us out or give our way a try? In the process of getting to know the hearts and minds of the beings we’re trying to help or work with, we may also end up adapting or changing some of our own ideas and agendas for the better.
Given our deeply ingrained habits of simply arguing with other people, or manipulating, pressuring, or forcing them to do what we want, it can be difficult to change tack and consider skillful means instead. When we do, however, an apparently hopeless situation of conflict, obstruction, or inaction can present new possibilities in terms of moving forward in a beneficial way. What will actually get through to someone? What will actually inspire them, or help them feel less defensive? What will actually help? I may sound like I’m suggesting I navigate most of my interactions with people using skillful means, but, sadly, that’s definitely not the case. The skillful means approach runs counter to most of our established ways of interacting in society, so it takes intention and practice to employ it.
All Classes of Sentient Beings
Another aspect I want to point out about this first couple sentences about beneficial action is the part about it including “all classes of sentient beings.” The bodhisattva does not discriminate among beings when embracing them with beneficial action. “All classes” of sentient beings refers to Buddhist cosmology, where the Six Realms of existence were believed to include humans, animals, gods, demigods, ghosts, demons, and more. Within our own modern cosmology, of course, it still makes sense to refer to “all classes” of sentient beings: People we love or esteem, and those we don’t; people we think are worth trying to help, and those we think are beyond saving; people with money, status, intelligence, education, or good looks, and those without; people who are like us in terms of race, culture, or birthplace, and those seem foreign to us. There are people who are happy to accept our help and may even heap praise on us for our bodhisattva activities, but there are also people who will greet our efforts to help with defensiveness, disrespect, or even aggression. As bodhisattvas, we’re asked to embrace them all with beneficial action.
Clearly, sentient beings are not limited to human beings, either. Dogen specifically shares examples of bodhisattva actions toward animals – even small animals we might think of as inconsequential. Dogen says, “In ancient times, someone helped a caged tortoise; another took care of a sick sparrow. They did not expect a reward; they were moved to do so only for the sake of beneficial action.” These are references to two old Chinese stories. According to the translators Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, in the footnotes of their translation of the “Bodaisatta Shishobo,” it was said a man saved a turtle in distress and subsequently was promoted to become a government official later in life, and a boy cared for an injured bird and then his descendants ended up occupying the top three positions in the Chinese government.[i] In other words, these small acts of kindness on behalf of animals ended up having beneficial effects that could not have been foreseen.
In terms of sentient versus insentient beings, there’s an emphasis on sentient beings in Buddhism because those are the beings who obviously are capable of suffering. Therefore, we aim to help liberate them from suffering. However, the distinction between sentient and insentient beings – or entities, if you will – is not so clear in Zen, and particularly in Dogen’s writings. He wrote an essay about mountains and rivers walking, and another one about “teachings of the insentient.” Basically, the emphasis for the bodhisattva is on beneficial action itself, without worrying the nature of the beings or entities being benefitted.
What does this mean for us, as everyday bodhisattvas going about our daily lives? Obviously, we can’t be everything to everyone, or take on responsibility for saving every suffering being we encounter. The classic Buddhist teachings and scriptures don’t give us advice about how to set priorities or be reasonable about our expectations for ourselves, but the whole scenario of vowing to save every last sentient being makes more sense when you remember you are one of those sentient beings, too. Your own capacity, health, and resilience need to be factored in to your bodhisattva activity. It’s tricky navigating the line between too much self-concern on the one hand, and exhausting yourself with too much selfless service on the other. But no one ever said bodhisattva practice was easy.
Benefit in the Distant and Near Future
Before I move on, there’s one final thing I want to discuss about the opening sentences on beneficial action in the “Bodaisatta Shishobo:” In embracing all classes of sentient beings with beneficial action, a bodhisattva “care[s] about their distant and near future.” This is a critical point.
We often think about a bodhisattva, or any being with spiritual aspirations, responding to suffering beings with compassion. In its simplest form, compassion – which means suffering with – involves a spontaneous surge of empathy when we witness another being suffering. Because of our compassion, we feel motivated to help relieve the suffering we see. This kind of basic, simple compassion is very immediate; it concerns suffering we happen to witness, in beings we happen to encounter. We act to alleviate as much suffering as we can right away. We give someone a hug and encouraging words when they’re experiencing grief or shock. We untangle the bird caught in a length of string. We bring a meal to a sick friend. Beautiful and simple acts of compassion like this make the world a much better place.
However, a bodhisattva’s responsibilities don’t end there, in a sentient being’s “near future.” We’re also asked to consider the distant future, and as we all know, this gets a lot more complicated. Giving someone on the street a few dollars may allow them to fend off immediate hunger, but it may also allow them to feed an addiction that keeps them stuck in a desperate situation. Buying our child the object they’re longing for may alleviate their short-term anguish, but may also deprive them of an opportunity to learn how to be satisfied with what they have. Facilitating the opening of new mine in a rural community may help some people feed their families in the short term, but the community may end up polluted and devoid of resources when the mine has run out in a few years.
What’s the most beneficial thing to do in complicated circumstances, considering both short and long term? The answers aren’t easily arrived at, and, in a sense, we can never know ahead of time – or maybe even in retrospect – what the “most” beneficial course of action is. Still, a bodhisattva isn’t let off the hook just because things are complicated. In other words, bodhisattvas are not just those who take obviously generous and compassionate action in response to obvious and immediate suffering. Bodhisattvas are also involved in education, parenting, government, innovation, social change, and a host of other activities that improve our societies and help beings live healthy, happy, sustainable lives.
Beneficial Action Is an Act of Oneness
“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”
I think this passage should be the bodhisattva anthem. Not only does it challenge our natural stinginess and concern for self over others, it points out that in reality we’re interdependent with others and with all Being; there’s no clear boundary where my benefit ends and yours begins. We’ve all experienced this in practice, when we have the opportunity to do something beneficial for someone who is sick or in difficulty. We give, assist, support, or keep company in order to help the other person, ostensibly, but find ourselves equally benefited – if not more so! Our hearts feel open and full. The other person’s joy or ease fills us with joy. The privilege of witnessing their struggles humbles and teaches us, and gives us a sense of intimacy and meaning. It’s common for people who are being praised for how they’ve helped someone else to squirm with embarrassment, and say, “No, it was me who benefitted the most.”
Beneficial action is not only an act through which we can manifest oneness, it’s also an act through which we can realize oneness. In other words, beneficial action isn’t just a good thing generous and kind bodhisattvas do once they’ve awakened to interdependence or no-self, it’s also a practice we deluded, ordinary beings can do in order to awaken to interdependence and no-self. The experience I mentioned above – where you realize you benefit easily as much as someone you’re supposedly “helping” – challenges your ideas about the nature of self, and the idea that happiness and satisfaction is to be found by pursuing self-interest as it’s typically defined. Beneficial action is an act of oneness… even if you don’t perceive “oneness” ahead of time, or consciously set out to do a noble act of “oneness,” a beneficial action performed without ulterior motive can make our oneness manifest and perceptible.
The Bodhisattva’s Heart
Finally, with respect to beneficial action, Dogen says:
“To greet petitioners, a lord of old stopped three times in the middle of his bath to arrange his hair, and three times left his dinner table. He did this solely with the intention of benefiting others. He did not mind instructing even subjects of other lords. Thus, benefit friend and enemy equally. Benefit self and others alike. If you have this heart, even beneficial action for the sake of grass, trees, wind, and water is spontaneous and unremitting. This being so, make a wholehearted effort to help the ignorant.”
The lines about the lord of old refers to another old story, according to Nishijima and Cross, from a Chinese historical text. A king named Shujo was advising his son, recently appointed to a government post, that if guests interrupted his bath or his meal, even multiple times, he would graciously prepare himself and go to meet them. Dogen mentions this lord of old was even willing to make this accommodation for the subjects of other lords, clearly demonstrating a devotion to service few of us would even aspire to.
Imagine this: Getting undressed, settling down into a nice hot bath, getting your hair wet… and there’s a ring on the doorbell. Even though it’s after hours and you’re not technically on call anymore, you dry your hair, get dressed, and go talk at length with the people who showed up to ask for your help or advice for some reason or another. Finally, you get back to your bath, just to have it happen again. Presumably, this lord of old – like any self-respecting bodhisattva – did this without cursing or grumbling, and was careful not to let his guests know they had inconvenienced him in any way. Just contemplate for a moment the selflessness this kind of action requires.
Not only that, Dogen tells us to benefit friend and enemy equally. Clearly, in order to do this wholeheartedly, we have to set aside our preferences, pride, and self-concern. We have to set aside our judgments about others, and any self-serving agenda. This is why the practice of bodhisattva action is a good Buddhist practice – it’s exactly our concern for and preoccupation with “I, me, and mine” that causes suffering for both self and other. For a long time, we may just be pushing ourselves to approximate a bodhisattva’s beneficial action – enacting graciousness while grumbling internally, helping out while feeling resentment, or observing how we just can’t bring ourselves to do something nice for someone we don’t like. The very aspiration to selflessly embrace beings with beneficial action helps us see where we fall short, and therefore reveals to us our lingering self-attachment. From the Buddhist point of view, this is a very good thing.
For a few moments, here and there, we may get into the flow of beneficial action and experience the “heart” Dogen is talking about when he says, “If you have this heart, even beneficial action for the sake of grass, trees, wind, and water is spontaneous and unremitting.” When we get ourselves out of the way, there is only the beautiful flow of beneficial action, benefitting everyone and everything without boundaries. This points to the bodhisattva’s ultimate goal: To move past actions taken with a sense that I am performing beneficial action, or with a concept of the beings who are supposedly helped. As it says in the Diamond Sutra:
“The Buddha said, ‘Subhuti, someone who sets forth on the bodhisattva path should give birth to the thought: “In the realm of complete nirvana, I shall liberate all beings. And while I thus liberate beings, not a single being is liberated.” And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a “bodhisattva.” Neither can someone who creates the perception of a life or even the perception of a soul be called a “bodhisattva.” And why not? Subhuti, there is no such dharma as setting forth on the bodhisattva path.’”[ii]
All of this stuff about “liberating beings but there are no beings” may sound like crazy-making or nihilism, but what these teachings really point to is a lived reality: When we embark upon beneficial action with a strong sense of separation between the one who is helping and the one being helped, we invite all kinds of trouble. We may become proud of our virtue, conscious of our reputation, or afflicted by a martyr complex. We tend to start evaluating outcomes and comparing them to how much time and energy we have given, and then start losing interest if we aren’t achieving a high enough cost-benefit ratio. We may expect acknowledgment, thanks, or reciprocity from the recipient of our beneficial action, and if we don’t receive it in sufficient measure, we may form an intention to be stingier in the future.
How do we engage in beneficial action without creating a perception of a being, a life, a soul, or even a bodhisattva path? Thoughts are always going to be crossing through our minds: Self and other, good and bad, lots of benefit versus not-so-much-benefit. Preferences will arise. However, the ideal of the bodhisattva points to how we can let thoughts and feelings come and go without attaching to them. We don’t have to become a saint or a mindless zombie in order to do bodhisattva practice, we just have to enact beneficial action as wholeheartedly as we can, whenever we can. Despite our thoughts and feelings, perform an act of oneness, and that act will have its own power.
[i] Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994
[ii] Pine, Red. The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint Press, 2001.