Altruism is thinking and acting for the benefit of others before or more than for oneself. Theologians and philosophers have long argued about whether it is actually possible to be genuinely altruistic. The Buddha avoided the ‘self or other’ quandary because he understood that we are better able to benefit others when we have made some changes within ourselves. His six-year struggle for truth allowed him to spend the following 45 years teaching that truth to others. Likewise, he also understood that benefiting others often changes oneself for the better.
He once commented that Ānanda’s many years of ‘expressing love through body, through speech and through mind’ – often leaving him with little time to meditate – had allowed him to come close to enlightenment (D.II,143). Thus, for the Buddhist, it should not be a choice between selfishness, self before others, or altruism, others before oneself, but self and others together. In one of his most meaningful discourses the Buddha says: ‘There are these four types of people found in the world. What four? He who is concerned with neither his own good nor the good of others, he who is concerned with the good of others but not his own, he who is concerned with his own good but not the good of others and he who is concerned with both his own good and the good of others – and of these four he who is concerned with his own good and the good of others is the chief, the best, the topmost, the highest, the supreme.’ (A.II,94).