Good Causes

What ‘should’ a Buddhist believe in ?

If you associate ‘Buddhism’ as something good, then it often follows that other causes you think to be ‘good’ should be associated with Buddhism. This grouping is something that the fabulous psychologist George Kelly called a ‘constellation construct’. It can be misleading.

For instance. Einstein had some positive things to say about Buddhism, and yet, why should we take the word of a mathematician seriously when it comes to religion? Because we associate Einstein with being clever, with being brainy, it is assumed that his views on topics other than cosmological mathematics are worthy. Rather like the old joke:

I  found an old painting and an old violin in my attic and it turned  out they are a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. Unfortunately Stradivarius was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made lousy violins.

What good causes should a Buddhist be supporting ? Vegetarianism? Environmental causes? Saving trees, whales, or rare Colombian toads? Left wing politics – should a Buddhist be an Obama voter ? Women’s rights, yoga, dietary awareness in schools, cancer research? Support for old people, young people, homeless people, sick people, Pans People?. Or how about resolving the energy crisis by installing solar panels, water collection/filtration, or a vertical axis wind turbine ? Arts, sports or national heritage?

In fact all the above really are good causes. But they are not the realm of Buddhism. It may well be that a particular Buddhist engages in a good cause – such as Thailand’s Phra Payom engaging in a large number of well run and beneficial social welfare causes. Or other temples engaging in helping AIDS patients or drug addicts. While these are good causes, they are not the aim of Buddhism.

The aim of Buddhism is ultimate enlightenment. Attaining the Summon bonum of existence, which we are assured is real, present, and attainable. Mother Teresa ran an awesome and inspiring Missionaries of Charity foundation that did great work – but it had its eyes set on the relief of illness rather than the Ultimate Good.

It does not have to be all or nothing – Westerners tend to take things to unreal extremes. There is no reason why you cannot incorporate volunteering for the Missionaries of Charity and still practise meditation and Buddhism. You can pursue an interest in wind turbines and compressed-air driven cars. You can engage in social welfare, or save trees etc… But these ‘good causes’ are not Buddhism, and we should not expect Buddhists to undertake or support them necessarily. The real and crucial role of the Sangha is to safeguard and maintain the teaching of Enlightenment, so that people of all following generations know that it is there. Even the Buddha had heard of enlightenment – it was called the Amata or Deathless. On the day of his Enlightenment he declared

I have discovered the Deathless

Had that teaching not been around, he would never have embarked on the Path.

So do not confuse the myriad of good causes with the teachings of Buddhism. These are a good cause, and a worthy cause in and of themselves for those who wish to follow. This is why Thais like to build big stupas or fancy dhamma halls. Why shouldn’t the religion of the society be celebrated? Some people complain the money should have been given to a ‘good cause’, and yet we see buildings all over Bangkok dedicated to perfume manufacturers or pastry schools (Ekamai), banks, cars, video games, cinemas and bars … and any number of other ultimately unenlightening organisations.

5 replies on “Good Causes”

  1. Why do we need to build fences between the Dhamma and good causes? Recognition of the universality of suffering leads to compassion for the suffering of others. It is too easy to fall into the trap of depending on rebirth to solve the problems in this life. I agree that Buddhism is not defined by the good causes Buddhists support, but no Buddhist taking the five precepts can ignore suffering and injustice in this world.

  2. Hi,

    Yes, the aim of Buddhism is Enlightenment. Put another way, enlightenment is to see things for what and how they really are. This will, automatically, give rise to compassion.

    Living in compassion and wisdom, the ‘good cause’ at any given moment will be obvious.

    But, of course, our delusions get in the way. So we need to return, again and again, to Buddhism. Good causes, alone, don’t get you there, Buddhism does.


    PS – and, on a more arguementative streak (!), perhaps here I ought to mention vegetarianism…..! That for me is a clear of example of doing the right thing, and the more I practice, the more I could never again stomach the idea of eating the flesh of another sentient being.

  3. To use Will’s words, is Phra Pandit building a fence between Dhamma and good causes? I would not speak for Phra Pandit but for me what I took from the article was not a fence of separation but an emphasis for Buddhists that “The aim of Buddhism is ultimate enlightenment”.

    This is an issue I have often considered. Before retirement I worked in what could be seen as a “good cause” – teaching. In my later years I was drawn more and more into conflict because I was into the good cause and the institutions were into profiteering and careerism. At the same time the demands of the good cause produced in myself an almost schizophrenic lifestyle of working for the good cause with its stresses and demands and in holidays studying Buddhism. Again using Will’s words, for me the good cause built a fence between it and the Dhamma. Now of course not all good causes are as corrupted as teaching has become, and one could argue that it might be possible for someone in teaching to be emphasising the Buddhist aim – sadly I was never able to.

    Good causes bring with them attachments, the pain of the Aids sufferer etc., and for myself I was never truly able to detach myself from the pain the children suffered within the careerist and profiteering aims that dominated the teaching institutions I worked in. Can the attachments of good causes be a distraction from the “aim of ultimate enlightenment”?

    Reference to Mother Teresa raised questions for me:-

    1) Would Mother Teresa have been able to work for ultimate enlightenment?

    Or perhaps even:-

    2) Was Mother Teresa already an enlightened being because she devoted herself 100% to the caring for others?

    For me this further follows into a difference noted by HH Phakchok Rinpoche, quoting his handout:-


    Hinayana – Renunciation, and the wish to attain freedom from samsara and arhatship for one’s own benefit.

    Vajrayana – Bodhicitta, the wish to attain enlightenment of all sentient beings, and pure perception. ….”

    I want to focus on comparing two phrases “for one’s own benefit” and “for the benefit of all sentient beings”. On the Path is there a difference? I cannot see how someone who has worked towards freeing themselves from samsara possibly not be benefitting all sentient beings. In my own case however, it made me introduce the phrase “for the benefit of all sentient beings” into my approach to avoid a perspective that might be too introspective.

  4. Compassion in Theravada is more about one of the good qualities of mind you develop, along with metta, wisdom, morality etc..

    Compassion in Mahayana soely refers to making the determination not to enter final nibbana, but to keep coming back to the world in successive births until all beings are enlightened. The compassion is leading others to nibbana, since it is the only real solution to suffering.

    Even in the mahayana view then, enlightenment is the goal of this life.

    I actually met Mother Tereas, and she put her hand on my head. After she passed away her diaries showed she had a lot of doubts – which is kind of reassuring. I can’t see in that Christian group any awareness of Enlightenment or the inner path. At the same time I was disappointed in my own reaction of fear and retreat when I witnessed the torment and suffering there.

  5. “The present situation of our world is so full of poverty, distrust, diseases, strife, that there seems to be no end. Hundreds and thousands of great men admired as saints and sages have appeared in the world in the past, and they have devoted their lives for the betterment of the world. Human suffering and unhappiness, however, do not seem to have decreased or ended. Over and over again they repeatedly, thanklessly endeavoured to fill up the well with snow. The true life of Zen is found here, when we all become true Great Fools and calmly and nonchalantly keep on doing our best, realizing well that our efforts will never be rewarded.”

    – From: “A Flower does not Talk”, Zen Essays by Abbot Zenkei Shibayama

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