Nobody told me that serving a Vipassana course could be fun. Or maybe they did, and I didn’t listen. I had faith that it would be fulfilling and deepen my practice but didn’t realize that I could have a good time along the way. So, if you don’t know, or someone told you and you didn’t listen, I’m here to tell you something. Serving a Vipassana course can be fun!
It was a difficult decision for a middle-aged man like me with a full-time job and two young children, to free up twelve days from my family and responsibilities (it really takes twelve days to sit or serve a 10-day course). Even though I was fortunate to have found the time to have sat two 10-day courses, I wasn’t sure when I’d find another twelve-day period again. At first, I told myself that I should just use the time I have to be a student again so that I could deeper my practice. Even after publishing a piece in the Pariyatti Journal titled “Let’s Talk About Mettā and Service” that concluded with a promise that the next course I joined would be as a server, I still had doubts about serving! Couldn’t I just keep working on being a decent, helpful person in the real world, volunteer for charities in the evenings and weekend, and perform other kinds of service? Wouldn’t that be enough? Or possibly even better? Why would I need to serve at a center, away from my family? (To give credit where credit is due, those weren’t all my original questions. My wife asked them to me. But since they were all quite valid, they turned into my own questions.)
When I tried to explain what serving a course entailed to family and friends who have never sat a course, they looked at me with even more surprise than when I told them I was going to sit the first time. This was an impressive feat considering that the first time I sat, they thought I had caught a nasty case of mid-life crisis syndrome that entailed self-torture. “Wow. Pretty much the complete opposite of what I would do with ten days to myself!” a friend texted me.
My idea of what serving a course was going to look like and the actuality of doing so was quite different. In my mind, I thought I would cook, clean and perform other menial tasks in silence, talking only when absolutely essential. It seemed like I was headed toward a solemn experience.
But it was more than that. Our team of dhamma servers worked in the kitchen prepping, cooking, cleaning, and serving food during the day, with breaks to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We also had time to take about ninety minutes of rest, attend three hour-long meditation sessions, and listen to the evening discourse if we so desired. Before calling it a night, the servers practiced mettā meditation, followed by a meeting with the teachers to review how the day went. Two of the servers were course managers, one woman and one man, who helped the students arrive punctually to all mandatory meditation sessions, fulfilled any reasonable need that students might have had, and acted as assistants to the teachers.
I am naturally a loner, so ten days of silence without reading, writing, music, or contact with the outside world was not much of a barrier to me participating on a 10-day course. At my job, I often need to work with others, but I rarely enjoy doing so. Yet, working with my dhamma brothers and sisters felt different. I suppose it doesn’t always turn out this way, but in our case, we quickly formed a cohesive and harmonious team. No one was above anyone else. Nobody was seeking anything in return for their help. There was a sign above the sink that said, “If you see a job, it’s yours” and that’s the way we all operated.
We signed up on our own volition to serve others, so pretension, expectations, and ambition were minimal compared to typical life. That left us a space filled with lots of fun and laughter. We enjoyed working together for a common cause and watching students earnestly attempt self-betterment through dedicated meditation practice. While we vowed to practice noble speech, i.e., strictly dhamma talk or practical talk devoid of lies, gossip, and idle chatter, some of us stuck to it better than others. We shared amusing stories of previous times at dhamma centers, struggles with the practice, and life experiences. We were like staff at a restaurant where our customers paid nothing for the products and services received. We knew they appreciated our work and if they didn’t, well, they couldn’t complain!
Even though I now know that serving can be fun, I also understand that having a good time isn’t the main purpose. I already find plenty of enjoyment outside of dhamma centers with my family, friends, and community, so leaving them simply to have a good time isn’t a good enough reason. There is much more to service than that. Vipassana is an action-based practice. Without the service component, the practice is incomplete. Other than the actual manual work involved, practicing selfless service provides a chance to dissolve the ego, learn Dhamma from experienced teachers, discuss Dhamma with fellow servers, and reinvigorate and deepen practice in the meditation hall.
So, can’t we just volunteer for charities and help those in need outside of dhamma land? Absolutely we can and should. However, serving meditators in a place that minimizes waste, egotism, and commercialism is a service to oneself. It is also a service to the broader community as courses are accessible to every socio-economic level, race, and religion. Within the property walls, we are equals. No one can buy a better room or better food or anything else directly or indirectly. It’s particularly inspiring to be involved with such a unique group, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an abundance of opportunities in the real world. The equation is simple: if you can help without harming anyone, including yourself, you should do it. We must be able to treat everyone patiently and peacefully, not just those on our particular path, or else our endeavor is far from fulfilled. But it doesn’t hurt to work with a group you have confidence in and have a little fun along the way. In fact, I’m confident that it helps.
If you have never served because you think it might be drudgery or an obligation or a waste of time, I suggest you put those erroneous thoughts aside and give it a try. And if your family and friends are asking tough questions, feel free to use some of my selling points. Ultimately, however, actions speak louder than words. Come back as a better person, keep working, and you won’t have to say a single word.