Is a beneficial action selfish if one also benefits by it?

By Matthieu Ricard on March 17, 2014

A disinterested action is no less so when one is satisfied with carrying it out. One can draw satisfaction from an altruistic gesture without this satisfaction having motivated our action. Moreover, the individual who carries out an altruistic action for purely selfish reasons risks being disappointed when he does not obtain the expected effect. The reason is simple: only a benevolent action stemming from an equally benevolent motivation can give rise to true satisfaction.

When a farmer cultivates his field and plants wheat, it is with an aim to harvest enough wheat to feed his family. At the same time, the stalks of wheat provide him with straw. But no one would argue that the farmer devoted a year of labor to the sole aim of amassing straw.
According to the great Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the true Buddhist is one who ‟never hopes for a reward. He responds to the needs of others spontaneously, out of his natural compassion.

Cause and effect are unfailing, so his actions to benefit others are sure to bear fruit — but he never counts on it. He certainly never thinks that people are not showing enough gratitude, or that they ought to treat him better. But if someone who has done him harm later changes his behavior, that is something that will make him rejoice wholeheartedly and be totally satisfied.”

This concept of an internal economics is related to the often misunderstood notion of ‟merit.” In Buddhism, merit is not an accumulation of ‟good points” for good behavior, but positive energy that allows us to do others the greatest good while being content oneself. In this sense, merit is like a farm of which one has taken great care and which provides an abundant harvest, capable of satisfying everyone.