The Ideal of Service in Buddhism

By Sukhomal Chaudhuri

Sukomal Chaudhuri is the head of the Department of Pali at the Government Sanskrit College in Calcutta, and has been awarded the prestigious title “Tripitaka Visharada”. This article originally appeared in the Vedanta Keshari special issue on “Service” which was later made into a book published by the Madras Math, entitled Service: Ideal and Aspects.

Buddhism, in all its branches, sects, and subsects prevalent in different countries of the world, is a vast subject. This article will therefore be confined to the study of the ideal of service in the early Buddhist scriptures.

Gautama Buddha was born in a royal family. He passed his early life, up to the age of twenty-nine, in royal luxury. His father, Suddhodana, was always worried about the prediction of the astrologer that his son would renounce the world. So he made arrangements in such a way that Gautama would never know worldly sufferings.

But eventually Gautama did come in contact with the realities of life. He became so perturbed that he at once left behind him all the pleasures of the palace and went forth in quest of the cause of suffering and the means to annihilate it once and for all. He practiced rigorous austerities for six long years and at last became the Buddha, the Enlightened One. He discovered the medicine for human suffering. Himself fully liberated from the mire of repeated existences, he felt he couldn’t be happy until he could liberate all beings too. His feelings are beautifully described in the Bodhicaryavatara:

“So long as the sky and the world exist, my existence will be here for the eradication of the miseries of all beings/
Let me suffer all the sufferings of beings and let the world be happy (and liberated) by dint of all merits of me, the Bodhisattva.”

For forty-five years Buddha worked hard as an all-sacrificing monk to see others become liberated. He propagated his Dharma-medicine, the perfect ideal of universal righteousness, for the good and welfare of the many. That he actually wanted the good and welfare of all, high and low, irrespective of caste and creed, nation and country to which they belonged, is evident from his historical advice to his first disciples, sixty in number, who were gathered around him:

“Go ye bhikkus [wandering monks], and wander forth for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, in compassion for the world, for the good, for the gain, for the welfare of gods and people” [Vinaya Mahavagga].

Buddha dedicated his entire life for the cause of others, for the uplift of humanity at large. The existing pattern of the society of his time was painful to him. Classifying people according to their birth was distasteful to him: he vehemently opposed the system and did not hesitate to preach boldly that “it is not by mere birth that one becomes lowly or a noble but by one’s own actions.”

Thus he was the first to revolt against the caste system which was firmly rooted in the soil of India. The formation of his sangha (Buddha’s holy monastic order) was one of such revolutionary steps. Irrespective of caste and creed, everyone—rich or poor, high and low—was freely admitted to the sangha and was allowed to enjoy equal privileges. Angulimala, a notorious robber and criminal was converted by Buddha and became a compassionate saint. It is said that Angulimala once gave relief to a pregnant mother from her labor pain by his solemn declaration:

“My sister, I solemnly declare that after my entry as a monk into Buddha’s holy order, I have not consciously killed any living being. By dint of this act of truth, may you and your child be out of danger.”

The courtesan Ambapali was allowed by Buddha to enter the sangha and she eventually attained Arahantship and was liberated. In the Buddhist scriptures there are numerous such instances. Thus Buddha himself was a living example of service to humanity.

Buddha showered his unlimited compassion blended with metta (loving kindness) towards all. During his time women had a degraded position in society. He gave them an honorable place by allowing them to enter the sangha. He recognized that both men and women could attain to sainthood and be liberated from samsara, the cycle of birth and death. He made special arrangements for the stay and maintenance of women monastics and appointed Arahants Khema and Uppalavanna to look after them. Many other nuns also were given positions of rank by Buddha. They were highly respected and venerated by lay disciples. From the stories depicted in the Therigatha commentary, we learn that many nuns distinguished themselves in various ways and attained nirvana coming in contact with Buddha.

The reformation movement of Buddha thus opened up a vista of social and humanistic work for women and, free as they were from their narrow grooves of life and household, they were equipped with Buddha’s teachings and moral ideals to prove themselves as harbingers of peace, goodwill, and love to all.

Buddha’s compassion and loving kindness were showered even on animals. With the help and cooperation of the king, the nobles and the wealthy who became his disciples and followers, Buddha urged people to abandon animal sacrifice.

It was Buddha who first emphasized the idea that life is dear to all beings, even to the tiniest creatures that crawl at our feet. As sensible beings, we have no right to take the life of other beings. In the “Metta Sutta” of the Suttanipata and Khuddakapatha, Buddha describes how metta is to be cultivated towards all living beings:

Whoever are living beings,
Either trembling or firm or any other,
Those who are long or huge,
Middle-sized, short, atom-sized, fat,
Those seen or those unseen,
Those who live far or near
Those born and those yet to be born,
May all beings be happy.

He says further:

“As the mother protects her only child even at the cost of her own life, in like manner is boundless, loving kindness to be cultivated towards all living beings.”

How lofty is Buddha’s concept of metta! This unique principle of metta was included in the ethics of Buddha as the first moral precept to be observed by all his disciples, monastic or lay. All had to totally abstain from killing.

Buddha’s concept of metta for all living beings has found expression in the writings of modern researchers also:

Buddha discovered his own self spread out in every creature of the universe. That was the source from where the stream of his eternal love sprang. It can be called the fruit of the tree of Supreme Knowledge. His spiritual journey started with the quest for the ways of the ultimate liberation from the hold of misery. It is remarkable that at the culmination of this journey his loving heart throbbed in sympathy with even the mute. Holding the dying bird shot by an arrow in his hands, Buddha is found engulfed in pain, stunned and silent. The ice of Supreme Knowledge melts into the stream of Supreme Love. This love gushed out on seeing a helpless lamb tied to the sacrificial post and he offered his own life in its stead. This feeling was put in words when he advised his disciples to resort to ahimsa, or noninjury to others, asking them to feel their own self present in others:

Everyone dreads pain, punishment, torture, or killing. Life is dear to all. So equating others with one’s own life, one should not hurt or kill [Dhammapada, 130].

The whole universe was sheltered under the canopy of his supreme love. Caste and creed were no bar. Not only his kith and kin, but men and women, young and old, rich and poor, flocked to him to drink freely from the fountain of love and peace.

Knowledge or wisdom is adored, but love penetrates the heart. However hard may be the outer shell of knowledge, the inner kernel of love is soft. Naturally Buddha as Love incarnate, Peace incarnate, attracts one and all. [The Maha Bodhi Centenary Volume, 1991, pp. 157-8.]

“The wise should sacrifice wealth and life for the cause of others”—this maxim is in the blood and soil of India. The Buddhist Jataka stories, five hundred and fifty in number, and the Avadana stories depict this maxim. Each and every story of the Jatakas and the Avadanas is an example of sacrifice and service for the good of others.

As king Vessantara, Bodhisattva sacrificed his kingdom and his wife and children for the cause of others. As king Sivi, he gave away his eyes. As a monkey chief, he sacrificed his life for the cause of his fellow monkeys. As a rabbit, he sacrificed himself to a hungry man as food. In one birth he jumped before a hungry tigress to save her life as well as the lives of her cubs. There are numerous such instances of sacrifice, generosity, charity, munificence, and patience.

The Vinaya Pitaka contains ample evidence of mutual service between monks and nuns, members of the sangha and members of the laity. There are also references to the mutual service between the teacher and the taught. The lay disciples were to serve the members of the sangha with food, clothes, dwelling places and medicines for the sick.

On the other hand, the members of the sangha were to serve the lay disciples in various ways—by giving them advice on how to lead a good and honest life, how to maintain cordial relations with others, how to serve the poor and sick, how to practice dharma for their good both here and hereafter, how to give charity without any selfish motive and without regret.

The sangha was to give the laity advice on how to observe the precepts: abstaining from killing, stealing, adultery, lying, using intoxicants, frivolous and malicious speech, rough speech, etc., which would undoubtedly give them peace, happiness, prosperity and well-being. The “Dhammika Sutta” of the Suttanipata gives in detail the respective duties and responsibilities of the sangha members and the laity.

Buddha was quite conscious of the fact that so long as peace and solidarity are not maintained in every family, society cannot prosper. For that reason he gave great importance to the maintenance of peace and harmony within the family. In the “Singalovada Sutta” of the Dighanikaya he clearly prescribed duties and responsibilities of the parents towards their children and of the children towards their parents, of the wife towards her husband and of the husband towards his wife and children, of servants towards their masters and of the masters towards their servants, of men and women towards their relatives, of the teacher towards the taught and of the taught towards the teacher, and so on.

By expounding the duties of the householder, Buddha taught with clarity how people should live with their family members and other members of society, bringing happiness not only to themselves but also to the world at large.

The “Mahaparinibbana Sutta” of the Dighanikaya describes seven conditions for the welfare, prosperity, and happiness of any community, nation or country. These conditions must be considered before serving the people for their gradual development and welfare. These seven conditions are:

1. To assemble on occasion whenever necessary to discuss the affairs of the community.
2. To do everything by consensus.
3. To respect old traditions and not transgress them.
4. To respect and obey elders and superiors.
5. To respect women in general.
6. To respect, worship and honor all religious shrines.
7. To honor and respect all holy people, irrespective of their caste, creed or gender.

It is evident from the above that the seed of community development was sown by Buddha and the ways and means of achieving it were also promulgated by him.

In the early Buddhist scriptures, priority was given to the service of the sick. Buddha made the rules for the monks and nuns of his sangha and in every case he added one word agilano, “if not sick.” That is, a sick person was exempt from observing that rule. He advised his disciples to always look after the sick, giving them motherly care and serving them with a compassionate heart. He also prescribed various kinds of medicine for various kinds of diseases and also gave guidelines on how to prepare those medicines. Once Buddha himself went to serve an ailing monk suffering from acute diarrhea. There was none to look after him as the monk was very selfish and did not care for others. But Buddha immediately rushed to him, bathed him with fresh water, changed his clothes with the help of Bhikku Ananda and made him lie on a cot. Buddha was distressed that the sick monk was left uncared for. He invoked and addressed the bhikkus thus:

“O monks, here there are no parents and no relatives who will look after you in your illness. You have to look after one another in any kind of distress. O monks, you will consider service to a sick one as a service to me. If one has fallen ill, you should not considered whether he is senior to you or junior. A sick person deserves service from anyone.” (Vinaya Mahavagga, chapters 5 & 7)

There are many such examples of Buddha or his disciples, lay and monastic, serving the sick, the poor and helpless and old, the destitute and orphans.

For the good and welfare of all, Buddha encouraged people to create plantations of trees and forests, to create parks and gardens, to construct bridges, to create areas for the distribution of drinking water for travelers, to dig wells alongside public roads, to make rest houses, etc.

Buddha entered Mahaparinirvana at the age of eighty. Along with thousands of his disciples, Buddha worked hard for forty-five years for the uplift of humanity. Through his untiring missionary work, Buddha brought about a significant change in the pattern of Indian society. He gave humanity its proper dignity. “Birth or gender is not the factor for becoming noble or ignoble”—this was openly and boldly preached by Buddha and people from all classes came under his umbrella. What they all confessed without hesitation was that the unique and wonderful teachings of Buddha could make their lives secure, happy and peaceful. After the death of Buddha, his disciples faithfully carried out his programs of service to humanity for more than two hundred years.

Then came Ashoka, a worthy successor to Buddha. H.G. Wells writes: “Amidst tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousness and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines alone, a star.”

Ashoka not only adopted Buddha’s idealism and human feeling in toto but also expanded them by giving them a time-befitting touch. Whether Ashoka embraced Buddhism as his personal religion or not is debatable. But there is no doubt about the fact that he welcomed and learned thoroughly the lofty teachings or Buddha and, like an expert garland maker, he picked up the choicest teachings of the great Master which directly concerned the true well-being of the people in general, had them engraved on huge rocks and pillars, and thus scattered them in different corners of his vast kingdom (and even beyond that, by maintaining good relations with neighboring states) so that the people of all faiths and traditions could be benefited by them.

Ashoka cherished parental feelings towards all subjects. He used to say, “All people are like my progeny.” He also cherished parental feelings towards the people of neighboring states. To love people best, he felt, was to serve them best and never tired of impressing this fact on the minds of his officers. He used to say that to increase the good and happiness of the subjects is the duty of the king. He did not apply to others any principle or command which he would not apply to himself. Thus Ashoka tried to stand as a living example of virtue to his own subjects.

Ashoka was fully aware of his duties towards the needy and distressed. Those who were indigent—the aged, the destitute, the sick, slaves and servants—drew his special attention. To provide travelers with comforts, Ashoka constructed roads, planted trees, dug wells, excavated tanks, laid out fruit gardens and erected alms houses.

He made arrangements for two kinds of treatment—one for men and women and another for animals, both within his empire and outside. Regular medical departments were organized for the purpose with expert physicians and veterinary surgeons. He enacted game laws to minimize the slaughter of animals. Medical herbs useful for men and animals, wherever they did not exist, were imported and planted. Likewise, roots and fruits were planted everywhere for the use of people and animals.

Almost eight centuries after Ashoka, the service programs based on Buddhas ideals were adopted and applied by King Harsha. This found powerful expression in Harsha’s drama Nagananda. When assured of certain and easy victory over his enemies in battle, the hero, King Jimutavahana, firmly declares the Buddhist principle of nonviolence and self-sacrifice:

“One who is ready to give his own life for the good of others, out of sheer compassion for them—how can such a person even thinking of the enormity of killing fellow human beings merely to win an earthly kingdom?”

In the same strain he addresses his last admonition to the cruel Garuda:

“Cease forever from taking life; repent of thy past misdeeds; eagerly accumulate a store of merit, freeing all creatures from fear of thee, so that, lost in the infinite stream of thy goodness, the sin of slaying creatures, in numbers unlimited, may cease to fructify, even as a morsel of salt cast in the unfathomable depths of a great lake .”

Harsha regularly held the quinquennial convocation where he gave away in religious alms everything except war material to about half a million people of all classes and creeds. In all the highways of the towns and villages throughout India, Harsha erected hospices, provided with food and drink, and stationed there physicians with medicines for travelers and the poor, which was to be given without any stint.

The Buddhist ideal of service to humanity spread in different countries of the world along with the spread of Buddhism. This was responsible for the prosperity and gradual development of culture and civilization in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Burma. This ideal has now entered to some extent even in Europe, America, Australia and in some parts of Africa and the Middle-East. As we have seen, service to humanity in an organized form was first introduced in the world by Buddha through his sangha and after by Ashoka.

Let us conclude with the words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, and pray for the peace and prosperity of all beings in the world:

“In these days of the worldwide human indignity, it is meet that we should say, Buddha saranam gacchami. Buddha will be our refuge. He manifested the ideal of humanity in himself. He spoke of the liberation which is not a negation but a positive reality; the liberation that comes not by abjuring work but by the practicing of self-giving through right action; the liberation which consists not merely in the rejection of anger and malice but in the cultivation of immeasurable love and goodwill towards all creatures. In these days, blinded as we are by motives of self-interest and cruelty, insatiable greed, we seek refuge in him who came into the world to reveal in his own person the real self of the Universal Man.”

A Fruitful Search for God
April 1, 2001
Some Sayings of Swami Prabhavananda
June 1, 2001
Show all

The Ideal of Service in Buddhism