The Emperor Wu looked at his strange visitor. A bearded monk with big bulging eyes stood in front of him. He had come all the way from India and was regarded as a great teacher of Buddhism. The Emperor, eager to get an affirmation of his divine merits, asked, "How much merit have I earned for my support of Buddhism?" He was a great patron and had done a lot of public service in the name of Buddhism. The monk replied bluntly, "None. Deeds that expect worldly return may bring good karma but produce no merit whatsoever." Emperor Wu was shocked. He asked, "Then, what is the meaning of noble truth?" The monk replied, "There is no noble truth, only emptiness." Now annoyed, the emperor thought he'd trap this monk in his own sophistry, and asked, "Then who is standing before me?" The monk replied, "I don't know, your majesty," and turned around and left. This monk was the great teacher, Bodhidharma, now regarded as the one who established Zen Buddhism, and this peculiar conversation makes us question our assumptions on service.
If action driven by the motivation of delivering some return, such as impact, is not meritorious, then what is meritorious action?
To find an answer, we go to an unknown time and place where the monk Kaushika is having a profound conversation with a virtuous butcher. Kaushika has been asked to seek this butcher out and learn from him. He started by expressing regret that the butcher was engaged in such a sinful profession. The butcher replied,
I have been born into this profession and could not choose it due to my circumstances. However, I bring all the virtues of renunciation, self-control and love to my work. Even though the behavior of a profession may be bad, a person in that profession may still be of good behavior. So also a person may become virtuous, even though he is a slayer of animals by profession.
Kaushika further inquired, "How shall I know what is virtuous conduct?" The butcher replied, in essence, "That which takes you closer to knowing your true nature."
While Bodhidharma's conversation shows us that what outwardly seems like service may not be meritorious upon examination, the butcher's conversation shows the opposite, where, what outwardly may appear to lack merit may in fact hold the possibility of deep and authentic service. The virtuous butcher has given us a wonderful test -- is our work deepening our own understanding of what our true nature is? If so, that is virtuous work and the service performed is sacred service for us. What might such service look like when we are entangled in the messiness of daily life?
One day, my grandmother, who had a lifelong practice of seeing the sacred in all, heard a knock on her door. She was a mother of pre-teens at that time. A neighborhood kid was at the door, and he breathlessly uttered, "Come quick. There's been a fight. Your son's hand has been broken." She rushed to attend to her 10-year-old, who had to be taken to the hospital in great pain. After getting a cast on his hand, she came home late that evening with her son, and decided to pay a personal visit to the offending boy who had broken her son's hand. She knocked at their door, and was told by the father, "Our boy is not home." Pushing the door open, she calmly said, "I know he is here, and I am here to see him." Sure enough, the boy stood trembling inside. The parents were terrified, not knowing what drama would unfold. She looked at the boy and said, "I know you have received a lot of scolding from everyone today. I am here to give you some love. Come." And she hugged him. The boy melted in her arms, howling with tears. His parents broke down, saying in between sobs, "We have not seen a mother like this." And in that breakdown, a great service was performed, one that would form deep roots of love and community of a kind that is hard to describe.
Sacred service is not heavy. It makes one feel incredibly light. Some people call it selfless service, referring to the practice of emptying oneself of ego, but selfless service seems like hard work. On the contrary, those who serve selflessly have a great lightness of being, and under deeper examination, seem to have a practice of treating their work as sacred. Nothing needs doing, and yet great action emanates from being. The outer appearance of helping someone pales into insignificance when the merit of sacredness dances its way into our heart, dissolving boundaries and small egos. That is when I, a product of my mind, am able to acknowledge not knowing who the presence within truly is.