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I Acted and Behold, Service Was Joy

April 14, 2013

by Stephen Damon

While reading Anne Lamott’s newest book on faith, Help, Thanks, Wow, I came across an interesting selection from the Bengali poet and philosopher, Tagore that I’d like to share.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.

Over the past couple of weeks as I’ve turned this verse over and over again in my mind, I have come to see that it contains a fundamental truth, perhaps the fundamental truth of life: the goal of life is to be of service. This service must not be restricted to those who are close to us. It must be directed toward everyone we meet, even those we don’t like, as well as the countless others who will never cross our paths. Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.

What I find most interesting about this verse is that it shows the different stages of a person’s understanding of this truth. It starts as a dream or an emotion, then becomes a thought and finally becomes an action. We may think we know something but until we actually act upon it, it is only a dream. In his first talk after his awakening at Deer Park at Sarnath, near Benares, the Buddha gave his former ascetic companions the Four Noble Truths not as propositions to be believed in but as four truths that needed to be acted upon in their own particular way. We have to experience the suffering of our lives, see its causes, and then live out our lives according to the Eightfold Buddhist Path. Awakening happens in this body at this time.

I realized the truth of the last line of Tagore’s verse just recently while working at the dog shelter that I talked about last time. I was “socializing” with one of the very shy dogs in her run before our scheduled walk. It was the first time we had worked together and she was timid and scared and tried to hide in the towels around her bed. After a lot of coaxing with dog treats and a soothing voice she came out of hiding and licked my hands. We then spent about fifteen minutes playing before going on our walk. I was very tired and it was hard for me to walk, but I felt obligated to be as kind as I could to Bambi. After a few minutes I felt exhausted—why I’m not exactly sure—and I wanted to stop but I kept going as I felt obligated. As I did so I felt something in me lose its grasp on my state of mind. Yes, I still felt tired, but I didn’t feel trapped by my lack of energy. In a strange way, I felt free, not just of my lack of energy, but of everything I had been feeling.

Working with Bambi was such a new and unexpected experience that it is very hard to describe it words, but I will try. As I was walking with her, I became aware of how profoundly good I felt. I would not describe what I was feeling as “happy” or “joyful.” It felt deeper than that. I sensed that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. As I continued walking I felt that everything was unfolding in a new way. I felt as if life were revealing itself just as it had always been but I had never seen before.

There was no sense of “I” or “ego” to buffer me from my surroundings. As we walked I felt saturated with everything I saw and heard and smelled. I felt as if all my usual buffers were gone and I was saturated with…life just as it is. It reminded me of a dream I had recently had in which I was freefalling through the clouds in an open sky. By the time I reached the ground I was saturated with “cold” and “heat” and “moisture” and “distance” and “nearness”—with everything.

Paradoxically, I felt more “myself” than I had in a long time and at the same time I had no sense of “I.” I was myself, but I was not “I.” In the deepest sense I felt transparent and connected—not just to the dog but to everything I saw as we walked around the park. I literally felt that what I was seeing “out there” were not objects to be experienced by me, the subject. There was just raw experience without subjects or objects, without any transitive verbs. I discovered that “joy,” real joy, cannot be experienced until one is freed from the constraints of one’s usual self-centered state of mind. And one of the best ways to do this is through generosity, the first of the six paramitas or perfections of the Bodhisattva way of life. Only when we keep giving, even after it “hurts” do we begin to lose our usual sense of “giver” and “receiver.” There is just giving without subject or object. This, I believe, is the heart of all of the Buddha’s teachings.

I repeated Tagore’s verse softly with a new understanding.
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.

Bows,
Stephen

From → Zen Buddhism

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