One common criticism of the topic of self-cultivation is the extent of focus on the “self.” The idea of self-cultivation is itself inappropriate because it is essentially self-absorbed and fails to acknowledge the more fundamental communal or social dimension of human life.
This is an important criticism, one that Buddhists have faced as directly and as responsibly as anyone in other traditions. The overall Buddhist response to this critique entails two primary points. First, Buddhists maintain that the beneficiary of your practice of self-cultivation is not just you but others around you, ultimately, the whole of humanity. Early in the career of Mahayana Buddhists who are serious about engagement in self-cultivation, a vow is taken–the bodhisattva vow–in which practitioners vow to seek enlightenment not just for themselves but globally on behalf of everyone. It is the whole of society that needs to be enlightened, not just certain individuals, even if individuals are the catalyst through which such enlightenment might become a reality. In effect, the vow is just to seek enlightenment, at whatever level and to whatever degree that can be accomplished, and not be possessive about it–enlightenment not simply for oneself but on behalf of greater vision for everyone and everything.
So we might say, that all of us need self-cultivation up to a certain point of maturity but that beyond this point there is very little point in calling it self-cultivation because our concerns have broadened dramatically to the point where we are just cultivating human enlightenment. This enlightenment is not intended as the property of anyone in particular but as the common good. Making the transition from the primacy of one’s own personal development to a broader concern for the well-being and development of all beings is the overarching intention of Buddhist practices of self-cultivation.
There is no end to the need to open ourselves to the world. We have no choice but to begin wherever we are and work out from there. The good intentions of self-cultivation are important as motivation for the journey, even if, at some point in the process, the “self” in self-cultivation begins to be displaced by larger collective sources of inspiration.
Peace and Love, Jim