An Unselfish Act

“I have never performed an unselfish act.” So stated Shinran Shonin, from whose teachings the Jodo Shinshu lineage of Buddhism arose. Does this mean he never performed any acts of kindness, giving, or compassion? Shinran was simply stating the truth as he saw it; our nature is to do things that give us joy, pleasure or rewards. In Buddhism, Dana is the act of giving in a material or spiritual sense. Although acts of Dana from which we derive tangible or emotional rewards are encouraged, true Dana is those acts from which we derive no personal benefit. A story told of the Buddha illustrates true Dana.

Following the custom of the time, the Buddha and his fellow monks survived entirely upon the food they received on their daily begging rounds. During a time of famine, the Buddha traveled to an especially hard hit town. There he made his rounds begging for food. The leaders of another religious group chastised the Buddha’s followers. “Your leader has gone to an area where people are starving. He begs for food from those who have none to spare.” This greatly distressed his followers. Upon his return they questioned his actions. The Buddha replied, “In a time of famine, people often do terrible things. They fight, steal, even kill to get food. It is important that they be reminded of compassion. My begging for food gives them the opportunity to practice compassion.” Although he knew others might criticize or scorn him, the Buddha felt it was important to give the spiritual gift of compassion.

Think about your own life. How often to you perform acts of true Dana? Most of us support charities or causes in which we believe. Doing so brings us a sense of satisfaction that we are doing something good. However, would we do these things if others perceived our actions as negative? In other religions, and throughout history, there are stories of those whose actions on behalf of humankind caused them physical suffering and death. Overcoming their ego centered desires, they focused solely on benefit to others.

Of course, most of us will never perform acts of Dana that have a historic impact. However, each day presents us with the opportunity to do small acts of Dana. Sometimes, the problems that confront us seem overwhelming. From global conflict, to global warming, to the homeless person in our town, the suffering seems endless. Often, our first response is to try to place blame. Our ego does not want to believe that we are part of the problem. We question why “they” do not solve the problem. The Buddhadharma teaches that all actions, no matter how small, have infinite repercussions. The answer to overcoming suffering is within you. Do not look to others for approval or support. Rather, perform your unselfish act.

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