Religion walks a delicate line between seeking individual spiritual development and cultivating a selflessness that seeks the welfare of others above one’s own welfare….but even above one’s own spiritual achievement?

I’ve been listening to the audiobook Becoming Enlightened by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I have been particularly enjoying the chapters that discuss cultivating compassion and altruism. Tibetan Buddhists in the Dalai Lama’s tradition believe in reincarnation and karma, the idea that one receives good and/or evil circumstances based on the good or evil that has been done in previous lives. Escaping these rebirths, and suffering of this cyclic existence, is one of the objectives of seeking enlightenment. However, there is a certain paradox at work, because being enlightened means that one has reached such a high level of compassion and altruism that one wishes to actually remain within the realm of cyclic existence in order to help everyone else escape it. In other words, being enlightened does not end in a purely individualistic mystic experience. Instead, the enlightened person becomes completely lost in seeking to relieve the sufferings of others, completely selfless.

“As long as space remains and there are transmigrating beings, may I remain, relieving the sufferings of sentient beings.” (Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, quoted in Becoming Enlightened)

The Dalai Lama discusses generating compassion and suggests meditating on relieving suffering, even if I am the only one to do so. Well, clearly this is beginning to remind me of Christianity. Christ suffered in isolation as an individual whose sacrifice would cleanse the world of sin, i.e., relieve the suffering of the world. “By his wounds you are healed.” And of course, there is the passage from Philippians 2 where the Apostle Paul urges believers to have the same mind as Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (NIV)

The best religious systems and disciplines seek to cultivate both one’s own spiritual development as well as relieving the suffering of others. No easy task, bringing these two concepts together. Without spiritual development, without a focus on self, one cannot have the clarity of heart and mind to seek to relieve suffering. Yet if spiritual development becomes an end in itself, then it can become selfish and narcissistic.

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