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In discussions about how to translate words such as averena (a negation of some quality), I've seen two general kinds of answer: or the compound word is not just the negation of the suffix, but its polar opposite; or the compound word is just a negation of the suffix. In the case of averena, the first method renders 'love', 'loving-kindness', or whatever translation is used for metta; in the second, 'non-hatred' is the translated concept.

This discussion (on how to translate negations) has made me think on the role of altruism in Buddhism (which can be seen as unrelated to the root topic at first).

I know there are suttas like AN 11.1 which explain the importance of virtous conduct to the development of the other factors of the path. These suttas seem to indicate that the main purpose of ethics is to liberate one's own mind (which, of course, makes one a positive influence on others). But also there are suttas like SN 47.19 state that looking for others is key as well. I don't see both positions as contradictory, but as complementary. And we have as well the teachings on the practice of Brahmaviharas, with metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha as mind-states to cultivate.

Despite all of the above, in the descriptions of the Noble Eightfold Path (which I understand as containing all that's sufficient and necessary for "moving" from sotapanna to arahant) Samma Sankappa is broken down as nekkhamma, abyapada and avihimsa, with at least two of those three factors being words with negative prefixes, which depending on how you translate negations, could indicate the predominant role of the absence of the unwholesome over the presence of the polar opposite of the unwholesome, i.e. non-hatred over loving-kindness.

After considering all of above, here's the question:

What would you say is the role of altruism (understood as an active effort for improving the quality of life of other, whether by teaching the Dhamma, giving advice, getting involved in education, improving access to material conditions, etc.) and other forms of positive (as "presence of something", not as "good") wholesome deeds in the different buddhist traditions?

How important is to buddhist to make the world a better place, not just by developing negative (as "absence of something", not as "bad") wholesome qualities, but by changing the general conditions of the world?

EDIT: I'd like to add a new question to give more perspective:

As santa100 has noted, the negation of the unwholesome includes the positive wholesome deeds. However, it'd be interesting to know how important is for the buddhist practice to actively engage in positive wholesome conduct, and why does it matter. With that I mean: what effects does have on the world and on ones own mind to do those positive deeds?

My motivation for gaining some perspective on this is to know what to think about the idea of buddhism being not altruistic enough.

I'd appreciate personal points of view and/or references to buddhist teaching/discourses that support your views.

I apologize for any wrong understanding of the Dhamma I could have expressed in the premisses. Please, correct me if that's the case.

  • Do you mean positive instead of negative here - "negative wholesome qualities"? – ruben2020 Oct 29 at 7:38
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    Hi! No, it was on purpose. Maybe it makes more sense if that sentence is read with 'not just by developing' before it. Also, I edited to specify that "negative" means "absence of something", rather than "bad" or "unskillful". Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores Oct 29 at 7:53
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    @MH Hi! I agree, it's a suprising question. As I said after editing the post, the motivation for this was to gain some perspective for having better arguments (both for my own understanding and for answering others) about the claim of buddhism being "not that altruistic" in comparison to other religions. Personally, I don't think that's necessarily the case, because it depends a lot on the definitions of altruism and the motivations/reasons for it. – Brian Díaz Flores Oct 30 at 4:37
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    @MH Also, more motivation for my question came from listening some Dhamma talks given by some Venerables. From what I remember (if I didn't misunderstand), one of them has stated multiple times that metta is actually non-hatred, karuna is non-ill-will and mudita is *non-cruelty. Apparently, he is so emphatic on this idea because he wanted to distinguish metta what we currently call "love", which can contain a great spectrum of concepts: christian inconditional love of one's neighbor, fraternal love, platonic love, filial love, romantic love, etc. – Brian Díaz Flores Oct 30 at 4:46
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    @MH It seems that for this Venerable, metta is not a positive wholesome quality, but the absence of the unwholesome quality of hatred. As I see it, the consequence of would be that, effectively, Buddhism would not put emphasis on the same kinds of "actively altruistic" acts as other practitioners of other religious would. And this would also be coherent with some criticisms I've heard towards "Engaged Dharma", in regards to the apparent misunderstanding of what metta really is (according to the critics). Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores Oct 30 at 4:53
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Altruism is defined as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

With respect to Buddhism, altruism is therefore:

AN4.95:1.4: one who practices to benefit others, but not themselves;

Quite significantly, Buddhism goes further:

AN4.95:3.2: The person who practices to benefit themselves, but not others, is better than both of those.

Importantly, those who practice to benefit themselves but not others are not practicing stinginess in the conventional sense. Rather, those who practice to benefit themselves but not others are in seclusion extinguishing defilements of self-involvement.

Ultimately, Buddhists ideally practice to benefit themselves and others:

AN4.95:3.3: But the person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is the foremost, best, chief, highest, and finest of the four.

When I first read this, I found it a startling departure from my preconception that altruism was the highest ideal.

A parallel consideration here is that altruism concerns itself with "good deeds". Here, too, the Buddha says quite simply:

AN4.233:1.3: There are dark deeds with dark results; bright deeds with bright results;

But the Buddha goes on to say more:

AN4.233:1.5: dark and bright deeds with dark and bright results; and neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds.

We're all familiar with the muddle of dark and bright. But what is the fourth goal?

AN4.233:5.1: And what are neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds? It’s the intention to give up dark deeds with dark results, bright deeds with bright results, and both dark and bright deeds with both dark and bright results.

That fourth goal leads to the end of suffering for all.

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When it comes to Buddhism applied to social ethics, we must emphasize Peace, Health, and Harmonious co-existence (with other people and species) as the key goals to aim for, both tactically and strategically.

In effect you are asking whether one should focus on not creating the opposites of these three in one's own life vs. actively working out there in the world to cultivate them at the level of society at large.

I think the answer is obvious. The first is limited to self and the second is unlimited and more strategic. This difference in attitude has long been a point of contrast between Mahayana and other schools.

Of course one should be careful to avoid creating War, Diseases, and Conflict while unskillfully trying to promote Peace, Health, and Harmony. This is why Buddhism often insists on first healing oneself to a sufficient degree, before trying to help the others.

But in general I don't think there's a contradiction between active altruism and "negative altruism" as long as you define your goal correctly as Peace-Health-Harmony. The conflict only arises if you define altruism as helping people attain better quality of life or attain their desires - then it gets troublesome, because they may be at odd with the Buddhist goals.

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The Dhammapada teaches to leave miserliness and embrace giving and charity.

177. Truly, misers fare not to heavenly realms; nor, indeed, do fools praise generosity. But the wise man rejoices in giving, and by that alone does he become happy hereafter.

223. Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.

Iti 26 (below) has a strong message to give and to share, even the last bite, the last mouthful, but of course, the purpose is to remove the stain of selfishness from the mind, in addition to helping others.

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: "If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift. But because beings do not know, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they eat without having given. The stain of selfishness overcomes their minds."

AN 3.57 (below) praises charity and giving even to animals, but does say that it is far better to give to a virtuous person rather than an unvirtuous person.

"I tell you, Vaccha, even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, 'May whatever animals live here feed on this,' that would be a source of merit, to say nothing of what is given to human beings. But I do say that what is given to a virtuous person is of great fruit, and not so much what is given to an unvirtuous person. And the virtuous person has abandoned five factors and is endowed with five.

Iti 100 (below) talks about different types of donations and states that the donation or gift of the Dhamma (teachings) is the best type of donation or gift:

"There are these two kinds of gifts: a gift of material things & a gift of the Dhamma. Of the two, this is supreme: a gift of the Dhamma.

"There are these two kinds of sharing: sharing of material things & sharing of the Dhamma. Of the two, this is supreme: sharing of the Dhamma.

"There are these two kinds of assistance: assistance with material things & assistance with the Dhamma. Of the two, this is supreme: help with the Dhamma.

"There are these two kinds of mass-donations: a mass-donation of material things & a mass-donation of the Dhamma. Of the two, this is supreme: a mass-donation of the Dhamma."

AN 8.33 (below) states 8 reasons for giving:

Bhikkhus, there are these eight grounds for giving. What eight? (1) One gives a gift from desire. (2) One gives a gift from hatred. (3) One gives a gift from delusion. (4) One gives a gift from fear. (5) One gives a gift, thinking: ‘Giving was practiced before by my father and forefathers; I should not abandon this ancient family custom.’ (6) One gives a gift, thinking: ‘Having given this gift, with the breakup of the body, after death, I will be reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world.’ (7) One gives a gift, thinking: ‘When I am giving this gift my mind becomes placid, and elation and joy arise.’ (8) One gives a gift for the purpose of ornamenting the mind, equipping the mind. These are the eight grounds for giving.”

However, AN 7.52 (below) states that adorning the mind is the best reason for giving. From this answer, "adorning the mind" means making the mind more virtuous, similar to Iti 26 above.

“Sāriputta, someone who gives gifts, not for any other reason, but thinking, ‘This is an adornment and requisite for the mind’, when their body breaks up, after death, is reborn among the gods of Brahmā’s Host. When that deed, success, fame, and sovereignty is spent they are a non-returner; they do not return to this state of existence.

So, from the perspective of Buddhism:

  • Not all reasons to give are equal. The reason to adorn the mind is the best reason, more so than trying to change the world and make it a better place.
  • Not all gifts are equal. The gift of the Dhamma (teachings) is the best.
  • Not all recipients are equal. Giving to a virtuous person is better than giving to an unvirtuous person. Giving to a human is better than giving to an animal.

If you really want to change the world with a very significant impact, you must be a wheel-turning monarch (DN 26).

But the Dhammapada states that stream entry is better than becoming a wheel-turning monarch:

178. Better than sole sovereignty over the earth, better than going to heaven, better even than lordship over all the worlds is the supramundane Fruition of Stream Entrance.

So, no matter how you look it, the main goal of altruism in Buddhism is always adorning the mind, which based on AN 11.1, leads to stream entry and then to permanent extinguishment of suffering.

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How important is to buddhist to make the world a better place, not just by developing negative (as "absence of something", not as "bad") wholesome qualities, but by changing the general conditions of the world?

In terms of logical expression, the absence of something is actually a super-set that already includes positive forms. Ex: "one who is NOT an idiot" is a super-set of all sets of people from average intelligence, above-average, high, superior, to vastly superior intelligence. So the common application of negation in Buddhist text is actually a good thing, for it provides an umbrella term that covers the full spectrum of all practitioners from beginners, regulars, advanced, all the way to the fully enlightened, hence including all facets of training, from mere abstaining from doing harms, to actively engaging in positive wholesome conducts.

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    Thanks for your answer! You talk about the negation of the unwholesome as including the positive wholesome deeds; I agree on that. However, it'd be interesting to know how important* is for the buddhist practice to actively engage in positive wholesome conduct, and why does it matter With that I mean: what effects does have on the world and on ones own mind to do those positive deeds. My motivation for gaining some perspective on this is to know what to think about the idea of buddhism being not altruistic enough. What are your thoughts on that? Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores Oct 30 at 0:04
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    @BrianDíazFlores, as mentioned, the Buddhist's use of negation is actually a positive attribute for it's inclusive of all people from all levels of practice. So, it's not the case that Buddhism is "not altruistic enough". If any, if only means it's "altruistic for all levels". Another key point to keep in mind is, since Buddhism is not a theistic religion, one practices altruism not to please some higher being hence gaining some favor for his afterlive. Instead, the real purpose of altruism is really the practice of renunciation and letting go of clinging. – santa100 Oct 30 at 1:05
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The world is currently in a really bad place therefore no amount of altruism can tangibly make the world a better place.

For example, I often give what i can to independent reporters who risk their lives in foreign countries (or report other things) but, in reality, that is a waste of time because so few people listen to their reporting.

Or recently I gave some donations to Beirut & Gaza but I trust the Gaza donation won't do much.

The role of altruism is to make your heart & hands open; so you are free from miserliness & hardheartedness.

For example, when a Devadatta enemy came trolling for donations for his friend on DW, I immediately gave a donation without a thought. Someone asked me so I gave.

Then when another Devadatta enemy criticized me, I gave another (small) donation in his name to save his soul from rebirth punishment with King Yama in Niraya Hell.

This is what altruism is. When reasonably asked, you give.

The only purpose is the development of your heart to be unselfish; without fear.

And what is the wealth of generosity? Here, a noble disciple dwells at home with a heart devoid of the stain of miserliness, freely generous, openhanded, delighting in relinquishment, devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing. This is called the wealth of generosity.

Idha, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako vigatamalamaccherena cetasā agāraṃ ajjhāvasati muttacāgo payatapāṇi vosaggarato yācayogo dānasaṃvibhāgarato.Idaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, cāgadhanaṃ.

AN 5.47

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