As Long As There is a Self, Altruism is the Ideal Practice

When we realize the fruition of spiritual practice, we will no longer identify with the false self. Knowing the great value of all of life, and being inseparably connected to all others, we will then spontaneously engage in helpful action…


As the Zen monk Dawu said, kindness and compassion will  be, ‘Like a person in the middle of the night, reaching in search of a pillow…’  It will be like DT Suzuki said, when asked about the liberating teachings, But what about others?, and replied, ‘There are no others.’

When I was about 14, my sister, who was in a room down the hall in our family home, cried out in the middle of the night, and I remember flying down the hall like I was being energetically pulled by my midsection to be with her, and comfort her. That’s simply the way it is when you are connected with someone you care for. Our response to give whatever is needed is immediate, powerful, and beyond words.

They say however that the liberating teachings may take us ages to embody fully, and so, until then, we can make use of all the practices that are relative to what is conventionally called a self. As long as there is a self, what we call altruism or self-less-ness is an outlook and practice that brings us more and more into alignment with our true nature. This goes by different names, in different traditions, but the meaning is the same.

In Christianity, it can be called ‘self-effacement’, the humility that allows for the Divine to flow through us. This is a gesture that says, Thy Will be done…It is also called kenosis, or ‘self-emptying’, which is taking the lowest place.

In Tibetan Buddhism, this corresponds to verses in the Eight Points of Training the Mind that teach putting others first:

With a determination to accomplish the greatest good for all others,
more precious that a wish fulfilling jewel,
may I learn to hold them all dear


When among others, I will think of myself as lowest among all,
and will hold others to be supreme, from the depths of my heart…

This same teaching later encourages us to let go of the Eight Worldly Concerns – about material gain and loss, physical pain and pleasure, praise and criticism, and having a good or bad reputation. This practice reduces the ego, and helps us to see things more clearly.

I will engage these practices undiminished by the eight worldly preoccupations,
and by knowing the appearances to be like illusion,
I will be without the limitations that accompany ego-grasping…

While we are on the path, the relative practices are not themselves the ultimate truth, but they bring us to the point where it can most easily be known.

Lama Lodro Rinpoche said that if we practice great loving kindness and compassion for all beings, it will lead us right up to the view, which is the wisdom that, without grasping or clinging to anything at all, directly sees the wondrous, luminous, profound nature of ourselves and all others. At that point, Buddha Activity happens in a way that is entirely unscripted, as the effortless expression of our true nature.

Most of the time, our compassionate action will be a combination of these two – borne of knowing our connection to others, and the practice of subduing the motivations of the false ego.

In Buddhism it’s taught that we have suffered personally and collectively because of ego grasping and the afflictive emotions. We have seized on wrong concepts, that only seemed to separate us from our depths, our biological and spiritual ancestry, one another and our beautiful natural world. We have not fully known our own preciousness, or that of others, and how the way we engage this world inevitably effects our very own lives. At its root, all of this has been obscured for us because of our habitually attaching to an ego, which is a fabricated, false sense of self.

To counter this ego grasping, with it’s selfishness, we can begin to intentionally cultivate the feeling of other’s suffering and concerns as one’s own, and of all other’s happiness and freedom as inseparable from the purpose of our own lives here on earth.

Such altruism, giving up the small self, I have to say, is the easiest, most comfortable, and blissful way to live in this world. Loving, and giving, and serving others more and more is in fact a joy we can know the very moment set our mind in that direction. As the practice of a self, it makes the utmost sense, bringing harmony, and reducing ego attachment as we go through our lives.

In this life, we can approach the development of wisdom in more than one way. We can understand what harmony and concern, kindness and compassion feel like, and what they reveal through our intuition and embodied sense. We can also understand both ourselves and others using our keen, rational discernment. We find we will need both of these aspects of our spiritual nature to mature and come to fruition: Feeling knowledge without sharp critical awareness can become mired in the sense world, reacting endlessly, and the discriminating aspect also can be functional, but cold and incomplete if it doesn’t have heart-knowledge as well.

In every Tradition, our practice of altruism beautifully fulfills both the responsive and the discerning aspects of our path. Over time it removes both the emotional and the conceptual obscurations together with their seeds, revealing the light of our true nature, to be shared with all.

The Prayer of Saint Francis makes reference to both of these meanings of the term self-lessness, first, that of putting others before ourselves, saying:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love…

and then, going beyond ego, teaching that:

… it is in dying to self
that we are born to eternal life.

Altruism awakens all of a person’s best virtues, of patience, humility, warmth, gentleness, generosity, and conscientiousness, and it leads us onward. It brings with it perspective and inner strength, courage and creativity, and serenity.

For some, practicing in the framework of a self for entire lives, altruism can be fulfillment and joy itself, and for those who would see the end of both suffering and its cause, it leads to knowing our fundamental connection to all of life, to understanding our inner, profound nature, transcending concepts, and to the flourishing of our beneficial nature.