Selfishness to Selfessness

Recently I conducted a funeral service for a Sacramento member. Because I never knew this person, her family shared with me a photo album that was made for their mother for her 80th birthday. The photo album also had letters from all of her children and grandchildren, which were very touching to read. Throughout the letters from her family, one common theme or quality that they all seemed to mention about her, was describing her as “selfless” as a mother and grandmother. She always lived her life for her family, providing for their needs, cooking for them and raising them. This individual lost her husband at an early age and raised her family as a single mother.

Because of the theme of her being “selfless,” I chose to give her the Buddhist name that means, “selfless.” I explained her Buddhist name to the family in my sermon.

In Buddhism, the goal is to become “selfless,” to go beyond the ego self. Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment can be described as a realization of this “selflessness” in his own life. As his ego-self melted, his heart and mind became one with all of life. His heart and mind became one with all beings.

After Shakyamuni Buddha, various Buddhist traditions have developed practices and methodologies to attain that state of “selflessness.” Over the centuries, unbelievably arduous practices have been devised to attempt to “crush,” to defeat the ego self, and to attain the state of selflessness. Shinran Shonin himself did those kinds of practices for 20 years of his life, but was not able to attain selflessness through those practices.

I think the Shin Buddhist approach to becoming selfless is quite simple. You just live your life for others, instead of for yourself.

Most of us, myself included, live in the world of “selfishness” rather than in the world of “selflessness.” Everything is about my wants, my needs, my way of doing things. However, sometimes we encounter people who live very “selfless” lives. They are constantly helping or doing things for others.

Rev. Gyomay Kubose, in his classic and popular book, Everyday Suchness, has a chapter on “Selflessness.” In it he writes,

The essence or nature of life is self-less. Only when one is in selflessness is there real peace, beauty, and happiness. In selflessness is the true self. When a mother does things for her child, she does everything for the child without reservation. Even when her life is in danger, she does for her child. We say the mother “sacrifices” for her child, but it is not sacrifice. It is really a fulfillment of her life, because mother and child are one. Woman is frail but mother is strong, because a mother becomes selfless when she has a child.
p. 39, Everyday Suchness

I think this describes the woman whose funeral I conducted the other day. I am sure her family would agree that the quotation from Everyday Suchness accurately describes the selflessness of their mother and grandmother.

This applies to more than just mothers as well. When we truly dedicate ourselves to our work, we become one with our work. For example, a teacher who are teachers for their students instead of for themselves, live a selfless life. A nurse who works for the benefit of his or her patients, lives a selfless life. Any career can be like this. Even being a waiter or a waitress is a life of serving others, which can give a person a gratifying feeling, a joy that stems from the selfless life. We have all been served by a waiter or waitress who lives and works this kind of “selfless” life, and it is a joy to see how they work and serve all of their customers. Maybe even those customers request “his or her” section so that they can be served by their favorite waiter or waitress.

Rev. Kubose also writes in that same essay,

Buddha taught selflessness as one of his three basic teachings. It is our mistaken ego selfishness that causes all human troubles and sufferings. We do not realize that we are literally able to live and enjoy life only because of other people and things. If one really understands this truth, he cannot help but become humble and appreciate others. Buddhism is the way of selflessness.
p. 41, Everyday Suchness

When we live a life of me first, then life will rarely go our way. But when we live a life of living for others, serving others, doing for others, then we receive a deeper sense of joy, a deeper sense of fulfillment.

In Shin Buddhism, we don’t have to do the difficult practices like in Zen to try to break through or to crush our ego self. We can simply live our life for others, in whatever manner that we can find, whether it is through our work, or through our volunteer activities. Serving in the various volunteer capacities at OCBC can be like that. Our Sangha is made up of countless people who “selflessly” give of their time to volunteer in various capacities here. We couldn’t function without those volunteers. I hope that they find their time and efforts here are also gratifying and fulfilling, as they receive the joy of living for others. This is life of selflessness.

Namuamidabutsu,
Rev. Marvin Harada