Prosperity has raised people's standard of living, improved their diet, and lengthened their life spans. Moreover, prosperity and increased leisure are inspiring in people the wish to make their lives more fulfilling.
Growing numbers of people are finding spiritual fulfillment and meaning in life by participating in volunteer activities related to welfare, culture, education, and the environment. In this trend I sense both the modern unwillingness to find full satisfaction in material wealth alone and the basic human tendency to build communal happiness through mutual caring and assistance.
Serving others sincerely--in Buddhist terms, practicing benevolence, compassion, joy, and impartiality--reveals a purity of heart that seeks no reward. Deep down, everyone has the will to serve others and experiences profound joy and pride when that will is acted on.
Although the spirit of service was perfectly ordinary in the past, as we have grown more affluent and society has become increasingly urbanized, that spirit has tended to fade and emotional bonds between people have been weakened. In these circumstances, charitable volunteer activities are important expressions of all that is good in human nature. Moreover, they not only contribute to the well-being of other people and of society in general but also significantly raise the level of one's own inner life.
Activities in the service of others have far-reaching effects. Children seeing their parents enthusiastically participating in such activities learn about an important part of human life. In this way, the whole family begins to want to serve others. When the number of such families in a community increases, the whole community grows warmer and more harmonious.
True joy and pride arise from serving others actively and voluntarily. Increasing numbers of young people who were raised in material comfort and never experienced serious hardship are now serving as volunteers in developing countries. There they discover worthy human values flourishing despite poverty.
These young people find joy and meaning in their return to fundamental human values. The emotional rewards they reap double their enthusiasm for further service. Indeed, the primary impetus behind service activities is the profound happiness that is the participants' reward, a rich emotion comprehensible only to people who have experienced it.
There are other kinds of joy that are understandable only to people who have experienced them. For instance, a Hindu pilgrim from Calcutta walked for twelve years to reach Mount Kailas in Tibet. Asked why he had undertaken so long a journey, he replied, "So that I'll be happy in the next life." As he spoke, his eyes glowed with the supreme joy of having reached the holy mountain. His was an emotion beyond the comprehension of people who have not experienced it.
As I have said, service brings a similar joy. Allowing young people to participate in volunteer activities instills in them the desire to serve and makes constructive use of their energy. In the present age, in which we strive to emphasize spiritual values and create true abundance in life and society, people of religious faith should take the initiative in cultivating the spirit of service and should begin with practical work close to home.
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All of us depend on the support, assistance, and goodness of others. Even people who think they are completely self-sufficient live only because of the strength and activities of many people of whom they are unaware. Thus, we do not simply live: we are given life. The Buddhist teaching that nothing has a persisting, independent self means that all beings depend on all others. For this reason, we should humbly recognize our mutual indebtedness, try to be of use to others, and cooperate with one another as we walk along the path leading to true happiness.
There is an old Japanese saying to the effect that kindness is never lost. Though a kindness may seem to have been done for another's sake, it will inevitably stimulate a kindness in return. It is natural to be grateful for a kindness and to want to repay it. Thus it is equally natural to expect that one's good deeds will eventually come home.
But a good deed performed solely in the expectation of receiving repayment is a calculated transaction, not genuine kindness. Those who are not sincere in what they do come to feel bad about themselves and fail to make a good impression on the people they try to help. It is noble to devote one's all to the good of others, but we must always carefully examine our motives to be sure that we expect no repayment for our kindnesses.
True generosity, motivated by the delight of bringing happiness to those we help, is its own reward. Though this motivation seems to deny the self, it is the best means of true self-expression. Sincere service to others revitalizes the server.
Learning to be generous and sympathetic is difficult; it means ridding yourself of selfishness and understanding others' sufferings. Therefore it is very important to experience suffering. If you have never been cold, it is impossible for you to know the pain felt by a person out in the cold. Consequently, those who suffer should avoid becoming obsessed with immediate phenomena--thus losing sight of their larger selves--and should remember that their pain is an important lesson to be faced and mastered. Many people of broad experience have found enlightenment and learned how to live up to the best in human nature through suffering.
We learn from the experiences of our predecessors. Young people should be especially aware that the foundation of their present existence has been passed down to them from others, and they should humbly and earnestly accept and learn what those of greater experience have to teach them.
We should look at our predecessors' experience with renewed respect, for much of what they suffered is unknowable to us today. Being aware of suffering that we ourselves cannot experience is true gratitude.
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Every Buddhist should strive to be the kind of person who performs charitable acts gladly. The charitable way of life is consonant with the best in human nature. If each person would make a sincere effort to live in this way, the world would be much more pleasant. Making it so is one of the goals of a Buddhist's daily religious activities.
Absorbed in the issues of the moment, many people today tend to be calculating and thus find it hard to be charitable in spirit. When a calculating attitude prevails, warm interpersonal relations break down, and human relations on the job, at home, and in the neighborhood cannot be expected to remain untroubled.
The selfless person who understands the true nature of existence realizes that we all depend on one another and is therefore grateful to everyone. Furthermore, never obsessed by circumstances, such a person responds flexibly to the world's constant change and lives a tranquil, enjoyable life. When able to see still further into truth, such a person senses the wonderful true nature found even in people who seem unpleasant. The daily life of a person who achieves this insight improves steadily. Anyone who rejoices in performing charitable acts for others can attain such insight.
Although the monetary and material giving that comes to mind at the mention of charity is noble and useful to individuals and society, it is not the whole of charity. Easing people's pain by advising them on the path they should follow in life is a form of charity, as is devoting one's physical strength to work that increases others' happiness. Both these kinds of charity are valuable, as are a gentle demeanor and mild speech.
Charity arises from the wish to use one's possessions to bring happiness to others. Anyone can practice charity. Being charitable does not mean abandoning desire. Instead, it means expanding the small self into the greater self. It means not negating but affirming the self.
A youth seated in a subway train, realizing that the elderly person standing before him or her would be as glad of the seat as the youth is, rises so the elderly person can sit. The elderly person's smile makes the youth feel happy and satisfied. In giving the elderly person a seat, the youth has learned to rejoice in another's happiness.
Repeated experience of both the joy of performing every charitable act we can and the thankfulness for opportunities to perform such acts leads us along a path of gradual improvement. In this way, charity gives meaning to life. We should all strive to experience the emotions that a charitable state of mind kindles.