Self-Centered Motivation

An excerpt from The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kōdō


Doing good can be bad. Some people do good to make themselves look good.

Suppose someone visits people in long-term care with gifts, saying, “I’d like to help you receive medical care and recuperate as comfortably as possible.” Then he runs for political office and during his campaign he says, “Nice to meet you! I’m a supporter of patients throughout the country. If I win, I’ll work to construct better facilities for you.” He wins and becomes a politician. While he works to establish facilities for patients, he takes kickbacks and lines his own pockets. Is he a supporter of the patients or does he prey on them? This is a very delicate question. I regret that this is often the way of society. We should judge ourselves by ourselves, as if we were standing alone before God on Judgment Day.

In Japan right now, we’re disappointed with the government because there’s hardly anyone who devotes their wealth to politics, as in the Meiji and early Taisho eras. Now most politicians use their political activities to increase their personal holdings. Religion’s the same.

Depending whether we believe in religion for personal profit or let go of this gaining mind for the sake of faith, the meaning of our practice changes completely. The former is a heretic who exploits God or Buddha, while the latter is a truly religious person. When someone prostrates before God or Buddha and prays devoutly, it’s impossible to tell from the outside whether his faith is true or false. It depends whether we’re seeking benefit for ourselves, others, or Buddha. Even a holy person respected by many could be driven by a subtly selfish motive.

We must all reflect on our motivations with eyes wide open. Somehow before we know it, we’re playing to the gallery, anxious about our popularity like an entertainer. If our practice is a performance for an audience, it cannot be Buddhadharma.

This chapter again addresses defilement in the deepest layer of the mind.

Intentionally or not, we may create unwholesome karma even when doing good. We must carefully examine our motivations. Identifying twisted karma is easier when we take unwholesome actions that disturb others than when we’re trying to help; even if we fail to recognize our bad behavior at the time, other people will let us know through their advice, blame, anger, or dislike. But when we create twisted karma with our good deeds, people are usually happy and praise us, and we in turn are proud of our actions. In these cases, perceiving the deep and subtle self-centeredness within our benevolence can be very difficult. This is why our practice of zazen as repentance is significant. In zazen, we cannot hide from ourselves. As the Kanfugenbosatsugyohokyo says, “If you wish to make repentance, sit upright and be mindful of the true reality.”

For a few years in my thirties, I supported my practice by begging. I lived at a small temple as a caretaker, sat zazen, and had a five-day sesshin each month with a few people. I also worked on translating Dogen Zenji’s and Uchiyama Roshi’s books from Japanese to English. I begged a few times a month, raising barely enough to pay for health insurance, utilities, telephone, and food.

While begging, I sometimes felt guilty. People donated without knowing who I was or what I was doing. They simply trusted my Buddhist robes. The source of my guilt was that I couldn’t do anything in return for those who supported my life and practice. My zazen and translation didn’t contribute anything to their lives. Japanese people don’t need to read English translations of Buddhist texts.

Once when I was begging, a boy about ten said to me, “You want money, don’t you?” This question became my koan. I couldn’t say no because when I begged I hoped to receive money to support my life and practice. But if money were what I really wanted, I wouldn’t beg; I knew more efficient and easier ways to make money.

I believed I was doing zazen and translation for the sake of Dharma, not for my personal benefit, but I didn’t know whether anyone would want to read Zen texts translated into English by a Japanese practitioner who was neither a scholar nor a professional translator. I had to examine my motivation. Was this way of life truly for the Dharma or merely to support activities based on my personal preferences?

Now, thirty years later, some people appreciate my work, so I can say that what I was doing back then had some benefit, but at the time I couldn’t know. Actually my motives were mixed: I hoped my work would benefit people, and I also liked it. The important point is to keep investigating one’s motivations. Judging oneself is very difficult; we easily believe our motives are good, and we can even become intoxicated with our good intentions. But in zazen we let go of that belief too—that we’re good. We just do what we’re doing for its own sake.

© 2014 Shohaku Okumura. All rights reserved

Image: “Outstretched Hand” by Sarah Joy. Chalk & charcoal on cardboard [CC-BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

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