THE SECOND HELPING
At the feeding frenzy that is Thanksgiving, it's not hard to see what Americans mean when they insist God helps those who help themselves. I for one am still waiting to taste the Harvard beets that never got to me six years ago because somebody else short-stopped them and dug in too deep. This year the white meat was gone by the time I got to the turkey.
The morning after this beloved ritual of stuffing, grabbing gravy, and insisting everything has been served with a sprinkle of God’s blessing, it's also easy to see how the Protestant ethic, God helps those who help themselves, is the modus operandi of America's gluttonous economic system too. That's become the same sort of feeding frenzy, only with different people at the table. Once we ordinary “turkeys” are eagerly killed and gobbled up, these stuffed ones help themselves to the gravy made from us. Only they don't bother to pretend to give thanks.
A society this devoted to helping yourself has created a weird hierarchy in which people get rewarded in inverse proportion to how they benefit others. We so value grabbing over sharing, those who actually commit their lives to doing something vital for somebody else—social workers, schoolteachers, caregivers-- end up trashed at the poverty level of an income scale that shoots to the moon for people who do absolutely nothing but play with money, people who say of themselves, "we eat what we kill" without the slightest compunction to share. If you don’t believe me about the perversion of payrolls, read the Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman who this morning said in the New York Times, “there’s broad agreement — I’m tempted to say, agreement on the part of almost everyone not on the financial industry’s payroll — with Mr. Turner’s assertion that a lot of what Wall Street and the City do is “socially useless.”
The Buddha, of course, said the cosmos helps those who help others, because what goes round comes back at you. That’s karma, or destiny, a promise that it really is good for you to do and be good to others. And it isn’t supposed to be fattening.
As it happens, on the Dzogchen Ponlop paramita practice calendar, November is for meditation, which he says actually means honing the qualities of a Bodhisattva. First and most famously among them is the will to help others. So to balance the press prattle about takers, I’d like thank some givers. And I’d like to start with all those anonymous folks who spend their entire work year sewing up and blowing up those awesome balloons in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Snoopy… Superman… Santa Claus…how wondrous to work only to put joy in the world! What would life be like if everyone’s job goal was to make others innocently happy like that?
I would like thank those who actually forego all monetary income and physical pleasures to become bearers of the Buddhadharma, actually living out the aspiration to help all sentient beings. This is not so easy. The Rinpoche level requires the stamina and stoicism for endless airport marathons of security checks, visa approvals and missed connections. Plus a punishing schedule with a different location almost every week, surprise food and strange beds, infinite interviews with total strangers, infinite requests for help. How they suffer to alleviate others' suffering.
At the lower levels, the food is terrible and the accommodations anything but gracious. Think floor. I think about an accomplished monk who struggled mightily without English language skills or familiarity to stick to his post in the middle of nowhere Colorado. Last year at this time, when he was packed and ready, he was denied a visa that would have let him go home to see his seriously ill mother in the Himalayas. He is still here, smiling and guiding those in retreat while other monks considered also seriously devoted to the Dharma burst out of their robes because the bright temptations of our culture—the gifts, attention and meals respectfully offered—blinded them to the beauty of their calling. Suddenly it seemed bleak. Now one is wandering somewhere in Ohio, struggling to find a job, finding out that no one tends to the needs of just another unemployed, unskilled guy in jeans.
I give thanks to the Nepali bamboo flute genius Manose who for the last two years has been circling the globe delighting and inspiring people with intensely sacred sound from his bansuri. His music so touches the human spirit that his CDs keep topping the charts and selling out, not only at yoga centers but Target stores. “I have enough money,” he says, “and it just keeps coming so I tell people: ‘Don’t pay me. Send money to help people in Nepal.’”
Thanks also to everyone who plucks a guitar string, hits a piano key or blows into a flute because no harm can come from this, only joy—after all the frustration of getting it right, of course. But thanks for sticking to the flatted fifths and syncopations and scat singing, because I totally agree with the country music disk jockey who used to close his hour-long NPR show with the tag line: “Just remember, making music is never the wrong thing to do.”
And thanks to those like Emmanuel from Silicon Valley by way of Nigeria who two weeks ago saw a photo of school kids in Nepal playing soccer in bare feet, and immediately tapped out an email message saying: “Soccer is my sport so I’d like those kids to love it too. I want to buy them shoes. How can I do that?”
Like Sioga who wrote from Ireland last week, “I am a retired nurse, a Buddhist for 35 years…a mother of two adult sons, widow and farmer, horse breeder and master gardener, with a passion for gardening. This past summer I spent in voluntary work with Wwoof Ireland, 'willing workers on organic farms traveling around Ireland, working in various gardens, tunnels, restoring a walled-garden, composting, soil amending, small animal care, and learned so much, shared of myself, time and talents in this exchange. …So, I have experience and confidence in the garden, and kitchen and would be glad to offer to be of service.”
Thanks even to those like the San Francisco dentist who last week said: “Even if you don’t have insurance coverage, I feel so strongly you should have X-rays that I will only charge you half price.” What a tidy resolution to a health care crisis!
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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