Central to our practice as Buddhists are the concept that it is less important to concern oneself with discovering the truth than it is to learn to let go of our opinions and perceptions. That is the reason we aspire toward sunyata – Emptiness.
The mystic Kabir once noted that although he was “going through the marketplace” of this world, he was not doing so as a customer… merely as an observer. So too do we move through the cloud of experiences in life with an awakened awareness of the impermanence of all things, all experiences, and all emotions. We learn to detach from the things which ultimately cause us to suffer, but only after we learn to recognize all that gives rise to attachment and all that results in suffering.
Temples are but piles of stones. Attachments hold you back
Maharaji Neem Karoli Baba would teach his disciples, “Temples are but piles of stones. Attachments hold you back.” He would remind them, “Unless you make it empty, how will you fill it up again?”
Our spiritual development is like that as well. Unless we let go of the things which cause us suffering, we cannot make room for the things which bring us liberation. My refuge guru, Swami Abishiktananda, OSB used to tell me, “A man never learns to swim if a boulder remains tied to his leg.” (I sense some of the Sicilian relatives in my family understood that principle long before Swami-ji taught me!)
What is it that holds you back? In life, we cannot avoid change, we cannot escape loss. Everything that has a beginning must also have an end. When we learn to accept that, we can learn to let go of our clinging to things.
There’s nothing cruel about impermanence. It is our own perception which is cruel.
We imagine that things will last forever, and then become sullen, disappointed, angry or depressed, when our fantasy ends. Impermanence opens the way for us to become more empty, less bogged down. It frees up the space that, once occupied by seeking fulfillment in relationships. jobs, material possessions, and status can finally be filled with the only thing that matters – compassion.
We sometimes lose sight of that, and otherwise healthy, good things can even get in the way.
Not long ago, a disciple was sitting in the shrine, placing the eight offering cups before the images of the Enlightened Ones. He had spent about $25 on puja items and beautifully arranged them on a brass tray. The sound of Krsnadas chanting in the background filled the room, as the smoke from the nag champa incense lifted the senses.
This student came to the shrine every day. On Tuesday nights, when we would prepare meals for the homeless, he was never there. But about thirty minutes after the meal preparations were done, he’d be at the door, his robes neatly pressed, mala around his neck, his Sevananda grocery store bag in hand, filled with puja supplies.
One Tuesday night, I met him at the door and after giving him a warm hug, turned him around, and walked with him toward the car. “Come,” I said, “We need to make a quick stop somewhere.”
We drove several miles back to the store, and I grabbed his little bag, while he looked puzzled. At the customer service desk, I handed the attendant the receipt and the goods, and I asked for a refund. My student stood there, stunned. When the attendant gave me the refund, I did not return the money to my disciple, but walked back into the store, bought several pieces of fruit, a couple of juice boxes, some granola bars, and some plastic spoons.
We returned to the hermitage, and I went into the kitchen, slicing up the fruit into a large bowl. I added one of the juice boxes, and some apple juice from the fridge. Then I took the silver offering bowls from the shrine, placed them on the large brass tray, and brought them into the kitchen, where I placed equal parts of the fruit salad into each bowl. I stuck the remaining seven juice boxes in between them and rested the granola bars atop each bowl.
We returned to the shrine with all of the bowls, offered incense and some traditional chants, placed the entire tray on the altar, bowed and prostrated ourselves, and then rose, as I sang an Indian bhajan to Sri Hanuman, the Hindu representation of service and compassion. On each bowl, I placed some plastic wrap, and gathered the juice boxes, granola bars, and some extra fruit, and placed one of each in a paper bag.
Again, I ushered my friend into the car, and this time, we drove a bit further, to a small park a few miles away, where I knew that a small group of four or five older homeless folks hung out. Before we got out of the car, I put the bags in one larger canvas bag and left my student holding the tray with the fruit salads on them. The folks in the park waved when they saw me, and as I approached, they commented that they were surprised to see me out so late in the evening. A couple of them were clearly a bit drunk, one was asleep or passed out.
A little old woman named Ms. Sealy – short and stocky was among them, and I handed her the tray. “Ms. Sealy, here are some spoons and forks, and in each of these bags,” I continued as I passed one to each of them, “there are a granola bar, a juice box, and some fruit. I’d be honored if y’all would accept this as a little something extra, for all the times you watch out for the younger folks on the streets.”
“Oh my,” Ms. Sealy said, her robust and deep Southern accent calling out as the night fell, “but we can’t take this tray! Here y’all go… you take it back with you.”
“Keep it, Darlin’,” I countered, “what’s a monk need with a tray anyway! Besides, you could probably get enough money for that at the pawnshop to buy these folks here some dinner tomorrow!”
I made her promise me that she would make sure to buy them the food, and not give anyone money. “I don’t want Joe or the others drinking up the profits, you hear?”
We exchanged smiles, I gave her a wink and led my devastated student back to the car. Not a word was spoken, and as we returned to the shrine, we sat in the Silence for another 30 minutes.
“Servant-Father,” he asked, as we left the shrine, “what are we going to use to make offerings tomorrow?”
“The same thing I have used for all these years, my brother,” I told him, “our hearts.”
From that day forward, offering bowls were unnecessary in the shrine, and as word spread among my students, I know that the significance of what was being offered up on many altars became greater as well. And as for that student of mine… he never came back.
Sometimes, even ritual and religious tradition can take our eye off what really matters – service, compassion, and loving-kindness. Awareness is only of merit when it generates increased compassion. If it does not, then it is not awareness at all, it is an only distraction.