Remembering to Serve

From Janet Taylor, Temple Buddhist Center

On Memorial Day weekend, we can take a moment to have gratitude for those who have served us and to remember the value of serving others.  Integral to the Buddhist teachings is waking up to the fact that we are not separate beings. Often, it probably seems like we are going through life negotiating for our piece of the pie, but the Buddha taught that is just an illusion.  The Truth of being is that we are intimately interconnected, in fact no separate self exists.  For us westerners, that can seem like a crazy idea, us with our individualism and our proclamation that we need to be free to be happy.  In Buddhism, this simple notion gets turned on its head.  Yes, we need freedom to be happy, but it’s not found in staking out our territory more definitively.  Freedom in the Buddhist teachings, is about freedom from this fixed notion of being separate from others.  Freedom is about being free from our need to feel separate.  Freedom is recognizing our interconnection and rejoicing in that.

So, on this special holiday for remembering those who have served us, we can take this weekend to reflect on what it means to serve others.  In Mahayana Buddhism, serving others is seen as so important that each of us would give up total and eternal bliss in order to stay present with others and help them become enlightened as well.  Would you be willing to give up total bliss to serve others?  In our little minds, we often find pleasure at the the expense of others.  We feed our egos, we act impulsively, we harm others through our hurtful words or actions.  The first step on this enlightened  journey is to wake up to this harm we are causing others and commit our intention to do no harm.  We can all be the caretakers of our life and the lives of others by being more skillful in our words and actions towards others and towards ourselves.  With this passionate intention to serve others, we can be more forgiving and more grateful for the words and actions of others towards us.  Once we start to feel the freedom that arises from forgiveness and gratitude, a space is created in our lives for more forgiveness and gratitude to unfold. 

With more attention and intention given to a desire to serve others, we start to loosen our grip on the needs of our own ego.  In serving others, it becomes less important to obsess about our own concerns and worries.  Imagine letting go, even a little, of the continuous soundtrack in our head of what we need to be happy, what we must do, what we must have, what others must do for us, in order for us to be happy.  In this moment, we can begin to imagine a life of service, spending more time thinking about how we can be of service to the world, and less time thinking about what we need the world to give us.  In Buddhism, we are taught that we already have everything we need to be happy.  Abraham Lincoln said, “People are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  So, we can start here, start now.  This is NOT about being a doormat and being a slave to others.  This is about rising above the little inconsequential day-to-day things we usually focus on, and inspire ourselves to think of how we can embody higher levels of service. 

In How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life by the Dalai Lama, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, he points out that, Buddhism, there are two basic types of practices: Sutra (which is about studying and practicing the teachings of other enlightened beings) and Tantra (which is the practice of imagining ourselves as enlightened beings) . For example, in Tantra, we use the power of imagination in a practice called deity yoga. The Dalai Lama describes it in this way.   “Imagine:

1.  Replacing your mind as it ordinarily appears, full of troubling emotions, with a mind of pure wisdom motivated by compassion

2.  Substituting your body as it ordinarily appears (composed of flesh, blood, and bone) with a body fashioned from compassionately motivated wisdom

3.  Developing a sense of a pure self that depends on purely appearing mind and body in an ideal environment, fully engaged in helping others.  This distinctive practice of Tantra calls for visualizing yourself with a Buddha’s body, activities, resources, and surroundings, it is called ‘taking imagination as the spiritual path.’”

At first it might seem uncomfortable.  Who am I to imagine being Buddha? Imagine being Jesus?  Isn’t it a lie to imagine having qualities that I don’t yet have?  Enlightened teachers have answered these questions for us.  You inherently are the Buddha—inherently awakened.  These practices open us up to the true reality to our beings.  At first, it might seem like you’re just making stuff up with imagination. Think of it instead that you are uncovering who you truly are.  We all have the potential for great goodness.  This visualization practice just uncovers that which is already there.

The Dalai Lama encourages us to purposely imagine ourselves as having a divine body, a divine mind. This is an imagination meditation; you need not be thoroughly convinced from the depths that you actually have pure mind, body, and selfhood.  Rather, based in clear imagination of ideal body and mind, you are cultivating the sense of being a deity, compassionately helping others.
…to engage in Tantra at any level demands a powerful intention to become enlightened for the sake of others.

So, on this Memorial Day, we can take these precious moments to reflect on the wonderful things that others have done for us, and recommit ourselves to being of service to others.  Through the power of our imagination, we can awaken to our true being and serve others from that place of selflessness.  On this day, we can focus on forgiveness and gratitude, for others and for ourselves.  We can have joy for our interconnectedness, joy in the fact that we are not separate.  That is what this whole journey is about.

2 thoughts on “Remembering to Serve

  1. So grateful for this essay. It helps to imagine myself with divine attributes–and takes me out of ordinary way of looking at others and the world.

    Thank you.

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