Lam Shenphen Zangpo, kuenselonline.com
Compassion is supposed to be the essence of Buddhism, but many Buddhists just spend their time and money going on pilgrimage tours or making merit for themselves. Isn’t this a contradiction?
That’s a good point. Let’s explore how compassion is linked with undertaking meritorious action, such as going on a pilgrimage, offering butter lamps or hoisting prayer flags. Everyone will agree that action begins in the mind. Even the construction of the world’s tallest building or the invention of the internet began as one single thought. Therefore, transforming the mind is the focus of Buddhist practice. If we are arrogant or proud, for example, how can our activities benefit others. It is no different from expecting healthy crops to grow from polluted or infertile soil. While a farmer will use manure to vitalize the ground, a Buddhist will undertake meritorious action to purify the mind.
As the question states, however, many people practice Dharma activities for personal benefit, not out of compassion. They go to Bodh Gaya or circumambulate a chorten in order to pray for business or examination success. Some even consider a pilgrimage as a feather in their cap, something to boast about to friends. Rather than decreasing attachment to the idea of a separate and permanent self, which is the root of negative action and suffering, a pilgrimage done in this way actually perpetuates the attachment. When we undertake a Dharma activity, therefore, it is absolutely essential that it is done with a pure motivation to benefit others.
While, of course, there will be some worldly advantage in undertaking meritorious action for ourselves, we are still mired in the suffering of birth, sickness, old age and death. Basically, we are still in prison, but have just made our stay a little more comfortable.
Prince Siddhartha understood this when he fled the palace in the middle of the night. Even though he had the potential to be a great ruler and benefit many people, he knew that he did not yet posses the wisdom or skill to help people overcome the root of suffering. Consequently, he renounced his title and began mind training. He did not flee the palace to escape his responsibilities, but in order to benefit all beings on a profound level.
Here’s another example of this attitude. A person lives in a country where sickness pervades. He possesses tremendous courage and compassion, but lacks the medical knowledge to help people on a profound level. As a result, he decides to leave in order to train to become a doctor. The motivation to do this, however, is not for personal benefit, but purely to gain a skill that can increase his ability to assist others. In Buddhism, when we reach the same conclusion, we undertake practice with the aim of liberating all beings from suffering. This is called the mind of bodhicitta.
It is important to emulate this attitude when we embark on a pilgrimage. In fact, before we begin any of meritorious action, we should repeat words such as the following: “I will do this not for myself, but for the benefit of sentient beings”. The act should be concluded by dedicating the merit towards the enlightenment of all beings.
People who doubt that visiting a sacred site can be of value to others, should reflect on the importance of mind. As said earlier, even the the world’s tallest building or major technological breakthroughs began as a single thought in one person’s mind. Therefore, transforming the mind and correcting our view is the basis of benefiting others. Like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples from a positive aspiration can cause far reaching effects. When thousands or millions of aspirational stones are dropped at one place, a tsunami of positive causes and conditions are initiated.
In this respect, it is said that when greed dominates a society, corruption is rampant. When anger clouds our minds, war follows, but when kindness fills our hearts, peace ensues. We should not dismiss the power of collective energy.
In the same way that a visit to Hong Kong offers us an opportunity to do business and create wealth, a trip to Bodh Gaya offers us the chance to purify our minds and create the conditions for peace and stability. Therefore, we can understand that going on a pilgrimage does not contradict the Buddhist ideal of compassion in any way. Instead, it actually generates the causes and conditions that allows it to manifest.