A student asks:
Because I invest in and identify with other people’s suffering, I question whether my actions are pure? Are my good actions meritorious at all or are they driven by pathological needs and not at all altruistic ones?
Lama Shenpen replies:
Impurity would mean you were seeking some benefit for yourself while pretending to be working for the benefit of others. That doesn’t mean a bit of impurity mixed into your actions is either avoidable or harmful. Gradually as we realise the true meaning of emptiness our actions become spontaneous and truly selfless.
The chances are that your actions are mixed with some elements that could be purer but if we had to be pure before we could accumulate punya how would any of us purify ourselves? Good actions that are directed at benefitting others always bring punya (often translated as merit) – i.e. good karmic results. Any tinge of egocentricity brings a bit of a negative effect but that is going to happen, the practice is for gradually reducing that more and more.
Am I just trying to deal with my own distress or am I genuinely relating to that of others?
Both. You will not be truly able to help others until you have truly helped yourself. That is why it makes sense to set time aside to meditate and devote to contemplative practice – this is how we accumulate the wisdom needed to truly help ourselves and hence truly help others. The suffering is due to taking things to be real in a way they are not – realising the truth of emptiness will release all the energy bound up in the trauma so that it becomes compassionate joyful energy that truly benefits others – all beings and forever. That is what enlightenment is.
Am I craving the approval of others through my good actions? And if it is the case, does it invalidate my charitable actions? It would help put my mind at rest to be able to determine whether I am a fraud!
It is possible to be doing charitable actions from a pure motive while still craving approval. The point is: does the secondary motive interfere with the first? If I love helping people even if they do not thank me or show their appreciation or approval then there is no problem. You will have to look and see what is true for you. The martyr type is always trying to get other people to recognise and approve of all the sacrifices they make – that is when other people feel your generosity is not genuine or heart-felt. If others are not finding this the case, why worry about your motivation?
Practising Dharma is all about discovering what is true and thus what is false about us and the way we think. It is good to recognise that – our fraudulent side is really rather funny, we have to learn to notice and be able to laugh at ourselves – we are all up to it one way or another!
If your intentions are clear, so will be the ensuing actions – if your intentions are good, so will be the results.
Samsara is traumatic, it is not surprising you find life traumatic and that it has affected you in the way it has. Now use that to motivate yourself to strive to go beyond samsara.