art by nacrowe
the summer before i moved to japan i was intensely researching mahayana buddhism, which brought me to different stuff by ALAN WATTS, SHUNRYU SUZUKI, HIS HOLINESS THE 14th DALAI LAMA, NAGARJUNA and eventually 8th century indian monk SANTIDEVA and his text BODHICARYĀVATĀRA or translated in english "A GUIDE TO THE BODDHISATTVA'S WAY OF LIFE."
now if you are unfamiliar with buddhism, the fundamental idea is that life is suffering and suffering is rooted in desire. all texts and concepts thereafter are basically defining and extrapolating on those two ideas and how to go about limiting desire to avoid suffering both for you and those around you. escaping desire entirely is a state of grace called NIRVANA that only an enlightened being, or BUDDHA can accomplish.
in the mahayana vehicle of buddhism practiced in nepal, tibet, china, korea and japan the there is a belief that a person can obtain this state of grace in a single lifetime, as there is another core belief in SAMSARA, or a beginning-less cycle of rebirth. having no desire or ego allows one no need to return for another go around as life is kind of a drag with suffering and death guaranteed.
what made this 1200+ year-old text compelling to me was the idea of the boddhisattva, or a being that has reached nirvana but has opted not to recede from the cycle of somsara in order to assist others.
i was raised roman catholic, a religion and moral philosophy i rejected soundly in my teens, and the idea of heaven and retribution always seemed odd to me. why do good if you are only motivated by rewarding yourself by being in the grace of god. or something like that.
always seemed shallow to me to do something for a reward. the idea of someone helping another for no reward BECAUSE it is the right thing to me seemed much more compelling. especially combined with the buddhist concept of sunyata, or emptiness. essentially in this tradition there is no sense of self, ego, personal identity or as we like to say in the west, a soul. if you believe in causality than you can deduce that we are not the end point of all the atoms in our body, but rather part of a fluid continuation of the re-appropriation and reassignment of what CARL SAGAN deemed "star stuff." we are just a part of a larger narrative as told through our physical being and all the building blocks of matter than produce it.
so to do good for others with no reward and no sense of ego (literally) makes the whole idea of charity in the buddhist sense more immediate and tangible and ultimately more compelling in my estimation. thus why i have reread parts of this text several times.