Rewards of Spirituality

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Rewards of Spirituality

One of the dilemmas I have long considered is the impact of promising huge rewards (eternal bliss) and punishments (eternal damnation) to promote good behavior. It sounds like a generally good idea, but, if accepted as fact, it eliminates the possibility of being good and moral, doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. If I do an otherwise good deed for a fee or reward, then is it really a good deed or just some action done under contract which happened to have some beneficial effect?

This dilemma is most apparent in Islam1, Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism. It is also present in Hinduism and Buddhism with the common concept of karma.2. I have a particular concern because, to a certain extent, these claims seem to be false.

Separate or Connected

My own conclusion is that anything which causes me to focus on my separate existence (getting stuff or events for my personal benefit) causes misery and suffering while anything which causes me to focus on my connections to those around me, brings peace and satisfaction, eliminating misery and suffering.

While there are strong indications that we each exist as separate and independent entities, the truth is that we are constantly changing and totally dependent on life around us. Most of the atoms which make up my body today were not part of my body ten years ago and, given the truly vast numbers of atoms in my body, my body is actually a composite of virtually every other living thing that weighed more than ten pounds more than ten years ago. Everything I eat was previously some other living thing and every breath I take contains oxygen which comes from countless plants through the ages. My every breath also feeds countless plants in the ages to come (providing them with carbon dioxide). Further, this body of mine is sure to die at some time and then all of it will return to the cycles of life on Earth.

The problem with focussing on my separate existence is that everything related to my separate existence is temporary and transient due to the temporary nature of my separate existence. Thinking of myself as separate and independent leads to me wanting certain things or events which can only lead to frustration if they don't happen or fear if I get them but then must insure their continued existence, a truly hopeless battle as every separate thing is transient.

The reverse is true if my focus is on myself as a part of something greater. I no longer need to be concerned with my personal transient nature as all that is me is timeless and eternal. There is no need to worry about what comes to me or leaves me as it is all a timeless flow that has gone on without cease for ages. I can instead focus on just being the kind of person I want to be in the moment. There is no source of fear or suffering as I can always be the sort of person I want to be, that is completely under my control with no external dependencies.

So, to restate the original problem in these terms, if you treat the people around you well for the sake of the peace and satisfaction you expect as a reward, then you are still focussing on your own separate existence, you are acting to decrease your own misery and suffering, rather than developing your connection to the people around you. Of course, it is likely that if you really try to help the people around you, you will likely find that it does feel very good to be an honorable and responsible preson, treating others with respect and compassion.

One reason for that is that in reality we always have multiple motives for every action we take. I might take good care of my children because I want to be a good parent (it is the right thing to do), but also because I want the neighbors to think well of me and because I fear what would happen if I didn't (public disgrace of having social welfare agencies take my children). So, if I am initially motivated to do the right thing for questionable motives (seeking eternal bliss), there will always be a part of me which also wants to do the right thing just because that is my true nature; I want to be able to like and respect myself and I can only do that by doing the right thing.

I imagine that the promises of 'eternal bliss' were made in the hope that if people gave up their deluded pursuit of transient pleasures and focussing on their separate existence, but instead were kinder, more loving, and more compassionate, then they would discover that transient pleasures really aren't worth pursuing, that transient pleasures really bring only misery and suffering (creating our own hell), while loving acts of kindness brings us bliss which truly is eternal. It is not the acts themselves which bring damnation or bliss, but rather our motives, but until we reform our actions there is little hope of us discovering the real value of love and compassion.

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche in 'Rest for the Fortunate' said "How can we maintain a sense of selflessness in doing the ... practice without some sort of ego-clinging to the benefits?
The type of selfishness we give rise to when we consider the benefits of a practice ... is not considered to be a big problem.... We have to admit that we need some kind of motivation, some kind of enthusiasm will be born from confidence in future benefits to oneself.... The approach we take is ... to extend ourselves beyond that by introducing empathy for others into the self-interest
". To me, that is a quite pragmatic statement of the dilema and solution.

People in the thralls of the delusion of a separate existence and transient pleasures often can not comprehend that it is their focus on separateness that is bringing them such misery as they can not imagine anything else. However, once they start carrying out acts of kindness, the alternative of appreciating their connections to others becomes possible and they can end their misery as promised. The Buddhists have many traditions that really support this by emphasizing the qualities of kindness and compassion from the very start and these qualities are required for eternal bliss. Once you get down to an explanation that it is our focus on our separate existences which causes any misery or suffering which we suffer, that if we instead develop and appreciate our connections to others, recognizing that we are a part of something greater, then bliss will flow to us naturally. There should not be any misunderstanding that the acts themselves bring heaven or hell, it is our motives that count and these motives will be followed by actions if they are sincere.


2 My reading of the Koran found it dominated by descriptions of behaviors, rewards and punishments. However, early on the Sufis were an Islamic reform movement which focussed on motives rather than behavior. They were most notably represented by the saint Rabiya Basri (717-801 CE) who said 'O Lord, if I worship Thee to avoid the Fire, make it lawful for me [or send me to the Fire]; if I worship Thee for Paradise, make it unlawful for me [or don't send me to Paradise]. If I worship Thee to meet Thee, grant it me [or let me be close to Thee].'

2 The common definition of karma is that you get back what you put out, but if you look at the sanskrit roots of karma and dharma, karma is actions done with self-serving motives while dharma is actions done with selfless motives. All actions have consequences and those consequences are often viewed as inseparable from the action. For actions done for self-serving motives (karma) the consequences always come back to the doer (because the doer was seeking a certain response) giving the common usage of good and bad karma and you getting back what you put out. In Syda Yoga they would often have talks about various spiritual practices, but Dharma was always one of my favorite topics. John Grimes is a renowned professor of Eastern mysticism. He once spoke on Karma and Dharma and it really resonated with me. He could be considered my source on what dharma and karma mean in Sanskrit. I later found support for this translation from the Dalai Lama.

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This page was last updated on January 28, 2009