Sacrifice comes from two Latin words – sacer : sacred and facere : to make. One sacrifices to a god to propitiate the deity or to ask a favour. At the time of the Buddha, there were huge ritual slaughters of horses and cattle in the King’s sacrifice. Abraham offered his son to the harsh desert God who softened. Christ is said to be the ‘blood of the lamb’, the sacrifice of his own life for the benefit of all human beings. Sacrifice then is an offering of something we treasure for a higher cause. It is the point where generosity demands great courage and conviction. ‘No greater gift has man than to offer his life for another’.
It is said of arahats, those who are fully liberated, that they engender an inestimable field of merit. The power of their goodness is limitless. This is the meaning of puñña, merit. Just the very fact that they have arrived at that station of non-suffering, Nibbana, makes real the aim for all. Once Everest was conquered, it becomes climbable. To become fully liberated we have to give up everything - eventually. And we are asked to give up everything on a promise. We don’t know what the outcome will be. We trust on hearsay. However, we do gain confidence as the Path becomes clearer through our practice. But it is always going to be in the end a leap of faith. A faith that sacrificing everything we treasure will bring a boundless return.
Few have the qualities it takes to go give up everything immediately as did the *Bodhisatta when he left home. This is why it is called the Great Renunciation. And it is so called because it was a personal quest. However, at the point of the Great Doubt, as it is put metaphorically, Mara, the Evil One, approached and asked him who he thought he was to seek such a goal as full liberation. When the Bodhisatta then called upon the Earth Goddess to witness his right, it was the Parami, the Perfection of Generosity she says that gave him the right to seek full liberation. What had been Renunciation now became Sacrifice for he was no longer doing it for himself but for all humankind.
So let’s start small. There are so many causes in the world that we can give something up for. There are all the spiritual charities that aim to heal our deepest dis-ease. There are all the social charities to alleviate suffering. There are all the charities that try and do something about the enormous suffering we cause animals by way of greed. And there’s mother earth. What will we sacrifice for her?
Letting go of something we really treasure is hard. It may be wealth or time. Even the situation we are in at present may call upon us. Parents are often called upon to make sacrifices for their children. Children called upon to look after ageing parents. These are also paths to liberation.
Every time we give something that demands a sacrifice we are preparing ourselves for the greatest of all sacrifices: letting go of any hope of achieving a lasting happiness in the sensual world. Only when we have accomplished this can the greater happiness arrive.
There’s a saying in Italian ‘che va piano va lontano’ – who goes slow, goes far.
*Bodhisatta in Theravada Buddhism is someone who determines to become a fully self-enlightened Buddha. There are said to be four such monks in Sri Lanka at this present time.