Rabindranath Tagore remarked that way of the Buddha was “the elimination of all limits of love, the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself.”
Love is not a word used very often in Buddhism, and Tagore was not a Buddhist, but he understood the essential purpose of Buddhist practice. Others have too, in a different way. It may sound corny, but when the Beatles sang “Love is all there is,” they were right.
How deeply they got that, I don’t know. But anyone who can grasp this thought beyond a superficial level can get that enlightenment is not the ultimate goal, and understand why bodhisattvas forfeit Nirvana. The removal of suffering is not the goal either, because sufferings are Nirvana. Mere happiness, peace of mind, or improving one’s chances for a more favorable birth in the next life, seen in this light, are likewise. These are the tools, not the purpose.
I once heard the Dalai Lama give the following guidance:
If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that the bodhisattva should adopt.
I’ve shared this many times. One person told me it sounded like a prescription for co-dependency. I agreed. It is, but not in the way that she meant. The clinical term “co-dependency” refers to a condition that is not based on selflessness but rather on selfishness. It is an ego-driven condition. From a Buddhist point of view, we are all co-dependent, in the sense of dependent arising (pratiya-samutpada). We are all linked together, dependent upon one another, just as in the case of the proverbial two bundles of reeds which support each other – remove one, and the other falls down.
The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to transform the extreme self-centeredness which neglects others. To be interested in one’s own welfare and want happiness is natural. What we’re struggling against are the negative aspects of mind that prevent us from developing deep compassion, a sense of closeness to all sentient beings, and having a real empathy with them.
The motivation for most persons to practice Buddhism is the need to feel connected to their true nature. I have never heard anyone say that they became a Buddhist because they wanted to be of benefit to others, although I’m sure someone has. Bodhicitta, the aspiration to liberate sentient beings is the motivation for those who follow the bodhisattva path.
When bodhicitta arises, all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva. This is not different from Dogen when he says that practice of meditation is not of an ordinary human beings trying to be Buddhas, but a Buddhas expressing themselves as ordinary persons.
The bodhisattva eventually cultivates maha-karuna-citta, or great compassionate mind: a big mind and a boundless heart. This great loving heart-mind is the essential nature of the bodhisattva, or better yet the subject of the path, and all living beings constitute the object. The purpose then is to transcend the duality.
And once we accomplish that, we see something that we saw before but didn’t deeply get – that the duality never existed. This is not a case where a cognizing subject can never penetrate an object, being nothing more than a “finger pointing to the moon.” Dependent arising tells us that subject and object have always penetrated each other, existing interlinked in a chain of causes and conditions. Self and other are two but not two.
We have only to realize this all the way, and then, as the Karaniya Metta Sutta states, “Cultivate for the world a boundless heart of loving-kindness.” It’s a big job.