Every Day Should Be A Day of Service

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is not only a time for remembering the life of a courageous man, it is also meant to be a Day of Service. As explained on the mlkday.gov site,

The MLK Day of Service is a way to transform Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. That service may meet a tangible need, or it may meet a need of the spirit. On this day, Americans of every age and background celebrate Dr. King through service projects that strengthen communities, empower individuals, bridge barriers, and create solutions.”

Buddhism teaches that every day should be a day of service. It is not alone in promoting this idea, but I would argue that Buddha-dharma has a unique conception of what service means. And service is the core, the heart and soul, the supreme path of Buddhism, at least in the Mahayana branch.

The ideal that epitomizes the spirit of service is that of the bodhisattva. This means “enlightening being,” a person who helps others, primarily by assisting others to light their inner light – by awkening them. Formally, a bodhisattva vows to liberate all beings without exception from suffering. What’s more, the bodhisattva resolves to remain in this world for “as long as beings remain” and not only liberate them but assume the burden of their sufferings, to take into his or her body the sufferings of all living beings.

For some time now, I’ve been of the opinion that the hidden message of Mahayana Buddhism is that it is more important to be a bodhisattva than it is to become a buddha. The seed of this idea was planted in my mind by something the Dalai Lama said at UCLA in 1997. I’ve posted it before, but a good teaching can’t be repeated too many times. He was talking about a passage in Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland that deals with feeling discouraged over the length of time required to become “enlightened”:

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 to 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 bodhisattvas should adopt.”

In promoting the bodhisattva ideal, the Mahayana Buddhists were rejecting the notion that Nirvana meant extinction. This very world of suffering is Nirvana, they said. Buddhahood is not some supra-mundane state, and this is perhaps why in the Mahayana sutras the Buddha was elevated to a mythological, celestial status, a reality that could not possibly be realized. Bodhisattvahood, on the other hand, is a state of being for this mundane world, and can be realized by everyone. Indeed, most Mahayana schools teach that Buddhahood or enlightenment is possible in this very life, with this very body.  Some teachings put the Buddha and the bodhisattva on the same level. For instance, Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra wrote,

The Buddha and the bodhisattva are one, undivided. It is therefore that the bodhisattva is considered to be the same as the Buddha is.”

Unfortunately, many Buddhist chase after Buddhahood as if it were a prize.  They are so busy trying to realize supra-mundane states, that they neglect the mundane but necessary work of helping others.  They never know the joy of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the starting point of the bodhisattva path.  I can’t help but feel that the path of a solitary buddha must be a lonely one.

Had he been a Buddhist, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have understood all this. Actually, he did understand it, in his own way, on his own terms as a Christian. He knew that every day should be a day of service, which is why he once said,

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”


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