I used the search function on this site to look up any Middle Way treatment of ‘altruism’ but, as nothing showed up, I decided to post my thoughts and questions for all to see, and to invite comments.

I recently posted comments on the Secular Buddhists UK (SBUK) site in response to a debate on “Buddha losing his religion”.  At some point the discussion turned to Buddha rupas, and a contributor wrote that he had carved a seated Buddha figure out of a dead tree-stump in a public park.  This carved figure was the object of further treatment by a person or persons unseen: spray paint, tar and amputation of the figures head and limbs occurred.

I need to add at this point that, lest I distort the content of the discussion, readers may wish to get its full flavour by reading it for themselves.  But I’ll try to set out the main points here, as I understand them, to advance the questions I have about altruism.

The creator of the Buddha-in-the-park is a secular Buddhist,  loves carving, and is good at it.  In reporting the fate of his artistic endeavour, his posting expressed some pain and disappointment (my interpretation of his words) rather than anger.

Some discussion on what had befallen his carving ensued, in which the word vandalism was used, and I was affected by the way motives of possible malicious intent, or ‘mindless’ impulses to personal gratification might be (or possibly were being) attributed to the person or persons involved in ‘modifying’ the Buddha from its creator’s intended form.  My position in the debate was that, as we had no direct knowledge of the person(s) involved in the secondary acts on the Buddha, we could not be certain as to her/his/their motive(s), and could only speculate.

It’s important to note that the Buddha-carver himself didn’t contribute to the discussion of motives after his first reporting of the incident.

As the discussion continued, consensus about the likely malicious (or ‘mindless’) motivation of the second person to work on the carving softened, so we agreed (more or less) that we didn’t know.  However, one protagonist suggested, wasn’t it  at least in order to feel saddened and solicitous (my words) for the original creator’s feelings, because he had wanted to bring beauty and happiness into the lives of others who visited the park, and saw his work?

Now I understand this as an inference of altruism.  Without knowing directly what the artist’s motive(s) might have been in taking his blade to the tree-stump, it is inferred that he did so – either primarily or secondarily – from an intent to bring beauty and happiness into the lives of others; persons whom it is unlikely he would know personally (unless he directed them to his work, or waited by his work to get to know them as they encountered it).  I think you probably get my meaning here.

My suggestion is that the motives of him who created the Buddha-in-the-park are as inscrutable and as closed to us as the motives of the one(s) who subsequently altered its appearance with spray-paint, tar and a Stanley knife or axe.  The artist may, like the one who followed him, have got busy on the stump because he could, and wanted to.  On an impulse. For personal pleasure (or personal gratification, which sounds slightly more unpleasant but means much the same, I think).

So there it is.  What does the Middle Way have to say about any altruism in this suburban saga?  How can I know how far my own acts intend kindness to or benefit for others, and how much they are influenced by my own wish for pleasure, fulfillment, or other benefit for myself?  And how much – if anything – does it matter?

The picture above is taken directly from the Wikipedia page on Altruism; I’m not aware of any constraints on my using it in this way.  If there are, and I’m made aware of them, I’ll comply with them.

About Peter Goble

I am an Englishman aged 77 years, married with 3 adult children. I am retired from professional life which was in mental health and teaching. I have been a (sort of) practising (sort of) Buddhist for about 30 years, and was active in the hospice sector, and more recently served as a Buddhist chaplain specialising (sort of) in mental health. My wife and I now live in north-western France (Normandy).

6 thoughts on “Altruism

  1. Hi Peter,
    Good to see you sharing your thoughts here. However, I’m slightly unclear as to what question you’re asking. Are you asking (primarily) whether we can understand someone else’s motives, or are you asking (primarily) what the Middle Way might have to say about altruism?

    My stab at the first question would be ‘to some extent’ – avoiding the assumption either that other minds are transparent to us, or that they are wholly closed.

    And my stab at the second would be that I the ideas of ‘egoism’ and ‘altruism’ are dependent on the metaphysical assumption that the self is the individual. Like ‘selfishness’ and ‘selflessness’ I don’t find these very helpful categories for judging ethics, and thus I tend to try to avoid them. I would rather think of our egos as identifying with various things – including our own bodies, others, social groups, nations etc, and moral progress as involving the gradual stretching outwards of those identifications. For some that might mean identifying more with others than they did, but for others it might mean identifying more with themselves than they did. In other words, whether altruism is good compared to how we were previously depends on how altruistic we were previously.

    At all costs I want to get away from the duality of self and other, and avoid the assumption that doing good automatically means being nice to others at one’s own expense. This is a naïve and unhelpful, but all too popular, way of thinking about ethics.

  2. Hi Peter,

    I’m thrilled that this discussion has spilled over to this site too and am fascinated to see where it goes.

    I have not ignored your last post on SBUK, in fact I have been thinking about it a lot. You have, for the second time in this discussion, challenged an assumption that I have made and I have had to give my position serious thought, not only have I had to ask myself about altruism but it seems that we have ended up exploring the nature of art itself (which is Norma’s territory!).

    I will reply on SBUK soon but I have an assignment to complete by tomorrow morning and so am concentrating on that first. However I will just say here that, despite the (woolly?) romantic notions expressed by myself, on the other site, I do not think that there is such a thing as truly altruistic act and – to try to fit it into the context of the Middle Way philosophy (as I understand it) – I might even go so far as to say that to suggest something is 100% altruistic (which my posts on SBUK , at least seem, to do) could be described as a metaphysical claim (Robert will pick me up on this if I am talking gibberish).


    1. Hello Rich, I’m glad to find you here too.

      I was pretty confident you’d continue our discussion on SBUK, and I like very much your thoughtfully reflective answers and friendly style.

      Did you hear the latest Reith lectures on Art, delivered by that transvestite artist whose name unfortunately escapes me? His thesis was (in part, and if I got him right) that art is what people say it is (or isn’t). I’m not an artist in any sense of the word, although I would say that I have some aesthetic sensibilities and perhaps some aesthetic talents. It would be interesting to explore this more fully on this site, but I wouldn’t know where to start.

      Except perhaps that’s not the first assumption I’ve made here in the last 24 hours, so I might be well advised to finger my phylactery before I write any more……….;)

  3. Thanks Robert for several helpful responses to my vaguely conceived question(s).

    It’s helpful to know that by sparing a bit more time and effort in clarifying my thoughts I would be clearer in what I say. I might even be able to work out the answer on my own! You first answer helped me there, because it was very close to where my own thinking was taking me, if I’d followed it through myself.

    Your second answer made me more aware of how dominant unquestioning assumptions figure in my thinking. Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions! Maybe I could fix that on my brow like those little boxes worn by some orthodox Jews.

    It’s also a help to me in understanding ‘self’ – better expressed than many Buddhist explanations I’ve met.

  4. OK, so I’m mining the archives of the MWS site and I’ve just read this article for the first time. It has reminded me of something I did (as a small project) two years ago as an experiment in altruism. To what extent it was actually altruistic, I don’t know… it might be a post-rationalisation that I’ve added onto something I did because it amused me and my (6 year old) son. Anyway, a chance discovery recently means that I’ve taken up this altruistic project again this week and it’s active for me again. In other whimsical things I’ve tried along the same lines (slightly random acts of anonymous homemade jam donation) I’ve ended up being outed eventually as the anonymous donor, and I’ve had to consider to what extent it was humility or false-humility that made me hide my identity when making random donations of nice things.I think I have some complex conditioning from a childhood being told that (the Christian) God sees what I do in private.

    1. Re-reading my posts after more than three years is quite shocking to me, it’s like reading the thoughts of a stranger. A stranger much more sure of himself, or seemingly so, than the one who speaks now. More sure, even, of his own predisposition to fallibility.

      I was a nurse for over fifty years. I can’t do the calculus of altruism relative to the acts I carried out for and with others, as I saw it. ‘Giving care’ was what I was trained to do, and I accepted it without much question. Over the years I realised that caring involves reciprocity, ‘giving’ necessarily involves ‘receiving’ something in return, and being open to that exchange. It’s not a matter of manifest gratitude in return for manifest kindness; indeed being thanked for what one does as matter of course somehow ‘grates’ and feels inappropriate.

      It’s more a sense of completeness, of equilibrium in the complex equation of human relatedness. I’m sceptic about random acts of kindness, they seem to me to have little if any valency, if that’s the right word to convey a potential for connection. It’s like an arrow shot without a target.

      I look back on my career and the sense I have is of a trail of slime left by a slug in the garden. I’ve had this image since I retired and, to begin with, it perturbed me. But since I’ve got more involved in gardening and the relationship of earth to its denizens, I find the image comforting. Slugs are part of the natural order of things, and have a certain dignity and slow beauty about them I’ve been surprised to learn that chickens disdain to eat them, there’s not much else they turn their beaks away from.

      I was never taught to believe that God sees what I do in private, but I did sense that some things I did in private were best not disclosed or discovered. I think I learned that at school at under the instruction of my gowned masters. My own conditioning is also complex and has cast a long and sorrowful shadow over my life and the lives of others I try to love and care for.

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