A Buddhist friend posted yesterday a very interesting question. He asked, “If we are going to expend our time and effort into a (spiritual) practice, surely we must intend to receive something in return?”
I would refer to this as an investment mindset. It is no different from investing in stocks or in real estate. You put money, effort, and capital into a project. For most people, it is natural and reasonable that they should demand a return. In fact, those who don’t demand a return are often considered as “stupid” or “irrational.”
This question reminds me of an anecdote in the history of Ch’an Buddhism. When Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Ch’an, first arrived in China, the emperor summoned him to his court. The emperor asked, “Throughout my life, I have always supported the cause of Buddhism. I have built temples and monasteries. I have made numerous charitable contributions to the Sangha. I have sponsored Buddhist events. Given all that I have done, what kind of merit should I receive?” Bodhidharma’s reply to him was rather blunt. He said, “None.” I would hate to imagine the emperor’s facial expression when he heard that answer.
Real spirituality is not a trade. It is not about doing certain things and expecting that the universe will reward you. That kind of thinking is like comparing God to a vending machine. You put in some change and you expect some goodies to come out of the machine. Some of you might have watched a popular TV show called The Good Place. In the show, Eleanor and several others are trapped in hell. They are desperate to get out. So, Eleanor develops some plans to earn her way out by doing good deeds. But her friend, Chidi, is a professor in moral philosophy. Chidi tells Eleanor that the system does not work that way. In both Western moral philosophy and in the Buddhist notion of karma, the moral value of an action depends on one’s motivation for doing it. If you are doing good in order to get something in return, you are not really doing good. You are just looking out for Number 1. Chidi tells Eleanor that acting out of self-interest or selfishness is not a virtue. It is not the way to earn moral points in the Good Place. So, Eleanor earns no credit, just as the emperor earned no merit.
I have been a Zen practitioner for decades. I think it is reasonable for anyone to ask me why I am practicing Zen. What is it in there for me?
My answer to that question is very simple. I don’t practice Zen as a means to something else. Rather, I find the practice of Zen an enjoyment in itself. Besides being a Zen practitioner, I am also a writer. What do I get out of writing? To be honest, even though most of my writings are published on Medium, I hardly earn anything. My income from Medium is no more than $10 each month. So, why do I do it? Very simple. Writing is my hobby. I write for my own enjoyment. I learn so much in the writing process. I also get to exercise my brain and my thinking ability. For me, writing is not a means to something. It is a reward in itself.
Whether you are a Buddhist, a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim, the scriptures encourage you to help other people. There may be heaven (or a state of Nirvana), or there may not be one. But I encourage you to treat helping others as an end in itself. Don’t treat doing good deeds as some kind of hard labor that you are forced to do in order to end up in the Good Place. Treat it like a hobby that you can derive much pleasure and joy from. That way, you can always get your reward. For the reward is in the deed itself.