I have once again returned home after serving on a 10-day Vipassana
meditation course. I arrived at the course a few days after it had
begun. On this course I was washing dishes. Doing the dishes for 80
students whom you don’t know, without being paid, probably doesn’t sound
very appealing. The task also included waking up at 5:30 am to make
their breakfast, working closely with other servers whom I likewise
didn’t know, cleaning toilets, and a list of other chores that most
people wouldn’t ordinarily find very motivating.
So why did I do it?
Firstly, being at the meditation center is a profound and deeply calming experience. I heard plumbers who came to the center for work say that they felt an extraordinary sense of peace being there. And they were on a job, not meditating!
Secondly, it’s also a joyful experience sharing moments with other servers. Although it isn’t itself the goal of serving, we get to know each other really well during a 10-day course. We share a genuine connection and have a lot of fun. Not that everything goes smoothly all the time, but because we share the practice of Vipassana we’re able to deal with the ups and downs together.
As well as enjoying the fun, we do our best to accept the challenges that arise. We learn through meditation to see things as impermanent and not get entangled in them, either on an individual or a group level. After serving some days on a course my sense of self-importance wanes and my focus alters. My motivation and reasons for serving change. I have the mental acumen to see beyond myself and to concentrate on caring for the students sitting the course, so that they are better able to develop through the practice of Vipassana.
at the end of the course I feel a lot more tranquil, energetic and
alive than I did beforehand. I connect more deeply with people
afterwards, no matter whether it’s the merchant at the gas station or my
mother when I call her on my way home. Having done a Vipassana course
myself, I know that it can be a life-changing experience and the
beginning of a different path forward. It was for me.
As I serve, I remember the Buddha and his great disciples, and the qualities they developed. Their example has been a great help in my own practice. The depths of the Dhamma that they developed was not something that they achieved solely in the lifetime they became ariyas, noble beings. For countless lives they strove for liberation by meditating and performing good deeds, filling up their metaphorical jars of paramis, the perfections. With diligence and renunciation, they made extraordinary effort. Goenkaji said that they could have succeeded by filling much smaller jars, but chose to undergo the suffering of many additional lives so that they could develop the mental strength to spread the Dhamma for the benefit of others. Understanding what that means can help us implement the same goals and cultivate the necessary resilience in our own lives.
The Buddha and his disciples have already walked this path of purification. Their footsteps are there in front of us, easy to follow. When I serve, first and foremost I see their steps of loving-kindness, tolerance, renunciation and generosity. Thinking of all the good deeds performed by the Buddha’s disciples makes it easy for me to put my small feet into their giant imprints.
One story from the Buddha’s life really inspires me. He was asked to allow a woman to be ordained as a nun. Following tradition, the Buddha at first refused, but then changed his mind and, as it says in the Pāli canon, proclaimed that the dispensation of the Dhamma would now last for only half as long. He never said why. Perhaps he meant that in allowing the ordination of both monks and nuns, the volition to join the saṅgha would arise more often and spread faster among all recluses, and therefore accelerate the spread of Dhamma. Whatever the reason, he decided to give women as well as men the same opportunity to live a holy life. When I serve, the Buddha’s compassion is a constant reminder for me to shed old views and find ways to collaborate with other people, even if our views differ.
The Buddha’s great disciple, Sāriputta, a leading figure in the sangha and foremost in wisdom, also inspires me to serve others. While the monks were out on their alms rounds, Sāriputta would go through their sleeping quarters to ensure that their beds were neat and comfortable. He was the chief disciple but still made beds! He did this so that new monks would feel welcomed when they arrived and therefore inspired to practice. Wow, what an example! Whatever role I might play when serving at the center, I will never forget to do the simple things like seeing that the rooms are well-kept and tidy, so that the center is always welcoming!
Mahāmoggallāna, the foremost disciple in psychic powers and Sāriputta’s counterpart, inspires me with an unusual deed for a monk. Assassins had been hired by envious ascetics to kill him. Moggallāna employed his supernatural abilities to hide or to escape, doing so to spare them the terrible karmic consequences of killing an arahant. He could have utilized his mastery of psychic powers to defend himself; instead he tried to persuade the assassins to give up their nefarious plan. However, they persisted, and as the aging disciple’s supernatural powers diminished, unfortunately they succeeded. With goodwill and humility Moggallāna tried to avoid an ill-fated predicament, which serves as a great example for me to remember to think of others and their actions. Even when I might be the underdog in a given situation, if I can help others and contribute to their welfare, it’s worth making the effort!
What inspires me most about Ānanda, the Buddha’s closest assistant, is that he served him every day, consistently, for 25 years. Ānanda had reached the stage of sotāpanna, but never aspired to becoming an arahant, to reaching full liberation. Working closely with the Enlightened One for so many years, he could easily have asked the Buddha for a special discourse or teaching to help him reach nibbāna. Instead, he dedicated himself to serving: the Buddha, the monks and the nuns, and laypeople who came to learn meditation. A pristine illustration of selfless service!
The example of these recluses, with their boundless qualities of loving-kindness, tolerance, renunciation and generosity, is like a lighthouse for us when we are far out at sea. Whether serving in the kitchen and encountering challenging situations or people, whether serving on a committee and feeling that we are doing most of the work, or whether renouncing our personal views and compromising while serving as a trust member—whatever the challenge, we might always ask ourselves what advice these great monks would have given us to help turn a challenging circumstance into a positive one, where we serve others and in so doing also serve ourselves. It is always comforting to remember that someone else has been in a similar situation and able to turn the tide. I try to feel that support and inspiration when I take refuge in the saṅgha.
With all this in mind, steps on the path become a four-lane autobahn of loving-kindness, tolerance, renunciation and generosity.