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Do Buddhists do Good Things to be Rewarded?

Original Chinese text: Cheng Wan Lan Louisa
Translation: Emma Bi Jia

Thanks to the Hong Kong University’s Centre of Buddhist Studies Alumni Association, I had the chance to join a 12-day cultural exchange trip to Turkey. Turkey is different from Hong Kong in many ways: it is predominantly Islamic country while Hong Kong is more pluralistic. The local women hide themselves in Muslim hijabs and robes while ladies in Hong Kong are eager to wear their shorts and vests before the summer. However, the amiable smiles under those thick hijabs are seldom seen in stressful, unhappy Hong Kong.

During this tour, we met local friends, families, academic institutions, media, and charity organizations. It not only strengthened my understanding about the Turkish people, history, culture, religion, and economy, but also gave me a chance to learn about their opinions of Buddhism.

We visited a local Islamic family in Istanbul and received a warm welcome in their home for dinner. The householder asked many questions on Buddhism, probably because half of our group was comprised of Buddhist monks, a rare sight in Turkey.  Through the open and sincere dialogue, the householder and our Masters both shared their views on the religions keenly and borderless. The chat not only let us to understand others’ beliefs, but also deepened our understanding and reflection of our own belief, especially an issue raised up by the householder: “Is there any reward system in Buddhism? Do Buddhists do good deeds for the rewards? ” He also quoted an example that Buddhists used their own time to spread the Dharma.

The dialogue aroused a string of reflections in me: What leads a non-Buddhist to have such an opinions about Buddhists? Is there really any reward system that motivates Buddhists? If the answer is yes, then what is the expected reward? If not, then why does a Buddhist use his or her own time to help others?

My first reflection: are there any rituals of Buddhism; such as the prostration bowsbefore the Buddha, the chanting of the sutras, and the freeing of captive animals etc, make others have such an impression on Buddhists? Or do some Buddhists themselves actually expect the merits and virtues in return? 

For outsiders, they may misunderstand Buddhist rituals if they only focus on the superficial act without learning the reasons behind.  An authentic Buddhist should understand the meaning of the rituals through the principles of Buddhism.  We are not just praying soley for the purpose of praying, not just being a vegetarian solely for the purpose of being vegetarian, not just chanting solely for the purpose of chanting; but instead, the main reasons behind are to cultivate our devotion, compassion and wisdom.

It is imprudent to jump to an immediate answer as to whether the Buddhists do good things for rewards or not, as it all depends on that particular Buddhist’s own mind.  As each Buddhist comes from a different background, age, region, school, and Dharma learning their knowledge of Buddhism principles differs.

Why do we study Buddhism? Master Taixu once said: “Learning from the Buddha is our yardstick only, and our only goal is to become a Buddha.” In short, all of the Buddha’s teachings are aimed at guiding us towards nirvana. Yet there are many expedient practices. In order to adapt to the different capacities of sentient beings, the Buddha used immeasurable teaching methods. For new beginner, the Buddha said that one could gain the reward of rebirth as a human being through practicing the Five Percepts. One could gain the blessings of the heavens through performing the 10 good deeds. The intention of the Buddha was to attract mundane beings with conventional rewards first before guiding them to the profound wisdom of the Dharma. The teaching starts from preventing disciples doing unwholesome acts, before teaching them to cultivate some wholesome seeds on the holy path step by step. 

There is a Buddhist saying: “A person at first starts to learn Buddhism wishing for good results, as their determination is not enough.” Thus, we agree that some beginners, when they start learning Buddhism, may hold a functionalist and instrumentalist approach. Some come to the doors of Buddhism hoping that they can gain merits and virtues, some come for seeking answers from Buddhism when they have encountered some difficulties in their daily lives. However, with a deepened understanding of Buddhism, devotion and bodhicitta, they should have a profound knowledge and goal that Buddhism is not for the self. 

Master Yan Shun illustrated three essences that a Buddhist should cultivate oneself: “Bodhicitta, great compassion (mahakaruna), and realization of empty nature”. Mahayana Buddhism urges us to relieve sentient beings from suffering, which is the highest level of the religious spirit. Buddhist practices are not for the self-interest, but for the interest of all sentient beings. The Buddha hopes that suffering beings can be free from samsara. Thus, the practice of buddhahood is to benefit other sentient beings. Of course, the bodhisattva with the wisdom of emptiness would not cling to any phenomenon, including sentient beings, merits and virtues, for so-called sentient beings, merits, and virtues are empty too. 

Then what are the driving forces for Buddhists to do good without asking for return if everything is emptiness? In fact, any cling to the return of merits and virtues is not the right motivation. The driving forces are the bodhisattva’s practices for the interest of others; and the purpose is to attain bodhi. Thus, the right driving force of a true bodhisattva is to relieve others from suffering not for the benefit of oneself, but for the benefit of all sentient beings.

If a Buddhist cherishes the idea of a self, a person, a living being or a universal self, then that person cannot be said to be an authentic Buddhist. A true Buddhist, in practicing the bodhisattva path and enriching the bodhicitta, should detach herself from the fame, merits, returns, sentient beings… in short, any form or phenomena in his or her mind. Due to the non-attachment, he or she gets the highest wisdom or attainment in return.

The Pure Land and sentient beings are mutually related.  A serene and beautiful Buddha Pure Land comprises the sentient beings; thus the bodhisattva is grateful to sentient beings for giving him/her the chance to practice Buddhahood, so that the sentient being can make offering to the Pure Land eventually. In this subtle relationship, who  is asking for any returns? The bodhisattva or the sentient beings?

The Diamond Sutra best illustrates the Buddhist’s right attitude: “Practicing compassion and charity without attachment is the way to reach the Highest Perfect Wisdom.” Due to no grasping of rewards, one can attain the highest reward. We are not clinging for any phenomenal reward, but at the end, we attain something more profound.  This so-called reward is for sentient beings. In this respect, how can we conclude that Buddhism is a reward system or not? How can we conclude who benefits?

The cityscapes of Istanbul.
Lottery ticket vendors on the street in Istanbul
Shoe vendors on the street in Istanbul
Together under one sky: Turkey’s rural scenery.

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