The Problem with Deserving

From a Dharma talk delivered at the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship 7/8/2018

Let’s start our talk today with a few questions – how many of you have rationalized or justified something that you knew wasn’t good for you because your “deserved it”?

How did your thinking go? What logic did you use?

Have you ever watched in glee when someone you couldn’t stand “got what they deserve”?

How do you think our sense of deserving has contributed to our global environmental crisis?

If you think about it, we are addicted to reward and punishment – mostly our reward and others punishment.

For today’s Dharma talk, I want to continue on with the theme of my last talk a few Sundays ago regarding gratitude and some of the obstacles to experiencing deep and profound gratitude –

We talked about the problem with “entitlement” and how it cuts us off from experiencing a deep and profound gratitude and today I want to talk further about that but instead of using the word entitlement, I want to use the word deserve –  which Is a lot more common in our daily language and thinking.   I think with entitlement it is easy to say, I’m not really entitled, I don’t feel entitled, I’m too poor to be entitled, it’s really easy to see when someone else is being entitled a little more difficult when we are – But when it comes to deserving, that is  is different, because we all think we deserve a myriad of things or not deserve a myriad of things – both are true and many times both are not true.

But deserving is problematic. Often we get tangled in a tangle of words – I deserve this, I don’t deserve this on a spiritual level such words often distract. Deserving can be problematic because one the definitions and connotations’ of the word deserve “is to earn”  It is this kind of deserve that I want to address –

One of the problems of deserving is this: This is from Peter Schaller who runs the Tattooed Buddhist Website:

“Deserving implies, in a not so subtle way, that the world owes us something. If we work hard, play by the rules, and refrain from doing harm to others, then happiness should be our just reward. However, the world was here much before any of us, and will, despite the imminent threat of climate change, be here for much time after we’re gone.”

I think he makes a good point – the world is not ours, we are the world’s – I think that is important and I want you to remember that – I want to come back to this quote in a bit.

Being a martyr was my profession – I was good at it – it is based on the idea that if gave so much and was amazingly understanding and so boundless in love that I was left with nothing then I would not be abandoned.  I used poetry, tears and an abundance of patience and whatever manipulation I could muster to earn the love I so deserved because of my “sacrifices”  Here is a line from one of my poems,

I was watching you slowly disappear on the orange couch

next to the green chair, So I broke apart the wooden bookcase

a built a cross – a climbed up on it -and spread my arms wide.

See how much I love you.

When she left like the others, I wallowed in my “I don’t deserve this” I argued with reality for over a year.

The outcome wasn’t about deserve or not deserve  – it was all about my skillful and unskillful action, my perception of reality –   that love is earned.

We are bound to this idea that we must earn love, acceptance, compassion as if our connection to the world was simply an economic transaction, if I do X then I will get Y if I don’t get Y it is Xs fault or because the world is unjust.

Here is a great quote from Halldór Armand

“Life’s hard. Really hard. And here’s a fact. In nature there’s no such thing as deserving or not deserving something. There’s no fairness. The human myth of fairness is a beautiful one, though—probably one of our best. It was a step out of nature of sorts, a rejection of its chaos. We strive to make our world fair and to do this we constantly have to battle our own internal contradictions. We are both the goal and the enemy.

But when fairness is our goal it’s easy to start thinking that fairness is actually the world’s fundamental principle in every aspect rather than a distant, shining star we try to follow as best as we can. We’re all familiar with this. I believe I deserve to be with the love of my life. I’ve fought so fucking hard for it. Don’t you too? Don’t we all deserve love? Don’t we all deserve happiness? Why did she say no? Why did I fail? Why Lord?

Both the Buddhist from earlier and the Existentialist are making good points. That deserving an non-deserving do not exist as a moral formula in the natural world and that in reality.  “Life’s hard. Really hard. And here’s a fact. In nature, there’s no such thing as deserving or not deserving something. There’s no fairness. We understand that implicitly, as our children grow older we tell them, “who said life is fair” and yet we really do – at least we operate under some misguided notion, that it is,  so much so that when it doesn’t work out for someone that is should we start the victim blaming.

In my own practice, I am committed to transcending this very notion of “earning”. anything, because beyond the egoic need to control my environment, that is where true compassion and understanding; where the ground of true being lies.

I have come to realize that, in many profound ways, the dynamic flow of life is a “gift economy”, where there is what is given with no implicit return or reward in the future. The ego, on the other hand, looks to earn love, the reward is of what we do or say, the expectation is to receive love, acceptance, compassion, and meaning.   I have learned from the insight of the Buddha, that love is not an object to be purchased, love is not transactional, love is the way of living in the world in love with all beings.

Gyomay M. Kubose has taught,

“We must find the way of love rather than that of being loved.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I know that a lot of us struggle with feeling that we don’t deserve love, or that we don’t deserve compassion.  A lot of this feeling undeserving comes from what is implied by deserving, the earning or meriting love.”  I don’t deserve to be happy, I don’t deserve to be loved because I am incapable of doing the things to earn love, or I am so defective, so filled with darkness, depression – I am unworthy of love. let me say that it is healthy to begin to feel like you DO deserve to be loved, but I challenge you to keep going, to go beyond deserve and not deserve.

I think this is the role of the myth of Amida Buddha in a modern context.  Amida Buddha represents at its core the inherent gift of love, of accepting one’s self as one is,  the gift of life, of simply being you, of being alive- because the archetype of Amida doesn’t love you because you are good – or you have earned it because of all the good you have done –what is funny about the Pureland tradition of Shinran, is that you deserve love in spite of any good you can do or any bad that you do.   It is all these attempts to earn love that bind love to outcome forced by will – In an absolute sense, the Amida archetype tells us that we are loved simply by the miracle of our existing – from this perspective everything, all things are loved – it’s nothing that you earn – it is nothing that you are entitled to – it is a natural inherent grace.

amida zu
Amida Buddha accepts you even when you do not. This is a drawing showing the Amida and the Bodhisattvas dragging those who feel unworthy to the Pure Land.

We love our concepts of deserving, it gives us a sense of controlling our worlds., I am not saying that we do not need to “earn” a living or do the things that we need to do to be responsible for our families, what I am saying is that our sense of “deserving” is skewed.

Life is more complicated than some formula – how many things happen every day that people don’t deserve, who many things have you received in your life, that you did nothing to merit but still have in abundance?

How many times have we held back compassion because, “they got themselves in that mess, it is their own fault”? As we pray every Sunday,

We want to remember that,

In compassion do not look for cause and blame

we give no thought to effort

Compassion transcends “deserving”

it is only concerned with the suffering that is there.

A digression.  I would like to share a story I once heard and it has stayed with me ever since.

” There once was a Christan preacher, preaching on the street near a temple. A young novice monk was walking by the preacher when the preacher asked him if he believed that Jesus died for his sins?  The young monk just shrugged.  The preacher then told the young monk that if he didn’t accept Jesus as his savior he would go to hell. The young monk stopped and thought for awhile and then asked the missionary, “are they a lot of suffering people in your Christian Hell, OH YES! said the missionary excitedly – The young monk all of sudden smiled a big smile and said,   “Good! That seems like a good place for a Buddhist Monk.”

So why this talk about deserving and not deserving – because it creates a view of the world  that cuts us off from experiencing life as it really is  – it can separate us from one another and because it is almost impossible for us to enter into a profound gratitude, a transformative gratitude while we are stuck in the cycle of reward and punishment – we are only marginal grateful for the thing we earn and unable to accept the gift that is unearned which is most of your life.

Lastly,  because it can be delusional – because of our time here on earth so little of what we do is earned by ourselves but by the support of the earth and the processes that give us life, our ancestors that brought us into this world, our fellow beings, and lastly the dharma. All the countless others that have made your life possible, as Gyomay sensei teaches,

“There is no I apart from others.”

I want to leave you with this

Let’s aspire together to transcend deserved and undeserved to live in Oneness, come as we are and appreciate and be grateful for all the gifts we have been given especially the ability to come together today and to learn from one another.

Namu Amida Butsu

Listen to the Podcast

Out of Work Bodhisattvas

Lately I have been thinking of all the out of work Bodhisattvas wandering around smiling with signs saying, “ Will Gladly Share Merit” as people shuffle by with their heads down, some saying, “No thanks, I don’t need any.”  Others just pointing at the goody two shoes, laughing at them, “them bleeding heart liberals” they say, “You gotta earn your own merit boy”, while they walk around dissatisfied, and hollow, singing,  “ I built this! I built this!” scratching their heads because they still feel so unsatisfied.

I think I have always been attracted to the idea of a Bodhisattva. I appreciate the traditional concept of the vow taking and the rebirth back to everyday life, the suprahuman powers to take on a myriad of forms to guide us, help us, teach us and sometimes even pull us begrudgingly toward awakening and always willing to  share with us the merit of their compassion. I also appreciate the more expansive everyday conception of the Bodhisattva as expressed by Taitesu Unno when he writes that the Bodhisattva can be, “anyone who meets the challenge and provides care for the needy…whether that person knows anything about Buddhism or not.”

In the more traditional Mahayana Buddhist view point there is the idea that our positive deeds, acts or thoughts generate a sort of spiritual energy or power that can be accumulated.  This concept is fundamental to the idea of Karma and Buddhist ethics. This view extends to the idea that the merit that is generated by our skillful actions can be shared with other beings. In the early Theravada, it was with  deceased relatives. In the Mahayana that was expanded to all beings.  The Bodhisattva “shares” his merit with all sentient beings to help them toward enlightenment. Taking to its logical conclusion  we see the life and career of Dharmakara Bodhisattva who becomes Amida Buddha.  In the more expansive and less religious definitions, also seen in the writings of Gyomay Kubose and Thich Nhat Hahn, the more mundane merit generated by these Bodhisattvas can come in very concrete and everyday ways.  Something simple as a hand up, a listen and a place to be safe.  Both kinds of Bodhisattvas can be recognized by their practice of  Ksanti, their practice of patience, patience with us and our struggle to receive their help. Patient and out of work until we accept their gifts.  The awakened Bodhisattva knows as Sunada Takagi  has written that life is, “as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving”. 

 The practice of receiving, let alone even asking for help is challenging for many of us. The first time  I really, open heartedly  asked and accepted help wasn’t until I was in my late 40’!  All those Bodhisattvas in my life offering their merit and their compassion and me walking past them, sometimes with my head down, other times mocking them.  In my delusional thinking I believed that to need help was to be weak and to be weak was to be unlovable.

I think at this point it is important to realize that receiving is different than taking. We take food, love, money all the time.  The difference between the two is that when we take, our small-Self is saying, “ I earned this!”  When we get love from our wife or our children, when we get kudos at work, when we eat a lovely meal, we aren’t receiving the love, acknowledgement or food; we see ourselves as earning it. We take it because it is ours.   A similar strain of this construct is when we see ourselves as unworthy to receive anything. This can manifest as self-doubt and shame. In both strains we are stuck in seeing giving and receiving as economic exchanges but how could it be any other way?  I was never taught how to receive. How about you?  Most of us have been taught that it is better to give than to receive but how can that be since to give you need to have someone to receive? Proportionally it doesn’t add up.

Truly receiving is something different from taking. There is an inherent humility. There is an openness of heart, an acknowledgement of our interdependence and an awareness of our dependence on a myriad of things. Receiving is a place of openness and courage in that it implies a vulnerability; we may ask for something in that open space and not get it.   Yet in realizing our lack of control, our inability to fix love, joy and peace in place by somehow earning them, those very things arise naturally. Everything I receive is a gift, a gift to me and a gift to the give. An ever expanding circle of giving, where in the end there is no giver, no receiver and no gift.  A gift is not something earned and the “merit” offered by all the Bodhisattvas is a gift of love of boundless compassion as they watch on in our attempt to control the world. When we insist on ‘earning our keep” and we do not receive the gift , we miss out on the  boundlessness of grace that is offered us by everything and by all of our patient Bodhisattvas waiting for us.  I try to remember that even in the Dharma, what we receive from the teachings is so much greater, exponentially greater, than anything we put into the teachings.

In a previous paper I wrote about the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of gratitude. Before the path can open up there is the receiving; receiving the teachings and the compassion of the Buddhas and for us Pure Land leaning practitioners, receiving and entrusting in the compassion offered by Amida Buddha manifest in the formless form of his Pure Land.  For me the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of receiving the grace of Amida and all the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, of setting aside calculations, schemes and dualistic and conceptual thinking, of sitting and chanting in an awareness of the abundance of the Buddhas and the Dharma and the Sangha.  I challenge myself and you to make room in ourselves to receive, to receive the abundance the Buddhas have to offer us.

When we turn toward our Bodhisattva ready to receive, she turns around her sign and on the other side our no longer out of work Bodhisattva has written this line,

“The buddhas say come, come, and dance.”*

And we dance.

Be Your Own Guru?

from a  Blog post by Jaffe Cole

I have always wondered about this quote from the Pali Cannon, a famous quote by the Buddha, used by many a rugged american individualist, those mindfulness practicers that follow a more “up by your bootstraps”  kind of Buddhism.  I like the context in which Jaffe Cole puts the quote.

” A common cliche we often hear today is to follow nobody but yourself. We are our own gurus, our own masters. We don’t need teachers or anybody to show us the way. We are the Way!

This advice is often bolstered with this (in)famous quote from the Buddha:

Therefore, Ānanda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge…

Modern lingo pegs it as “Be your own refuge”. Or something like that. But let’s quote the whole text, which comes from the Buddha’s Mahaparinibbana Sutta:

Therefore, Ānanda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

The Buddha actually advocates taking the dhamma as our refuge. The dhamma includes the sangha (and the Buddha), so rather than this quote pointing to a arrogant attitude of “I know what’s best for me”, it rather points to a modest accepting of the Triple Gem as the guiding light in our lives. The Buddha never intended for everybody to just go out and read a few books and then make up their own paths, which is what “spirituality” primarily consists of today.

Moreover, consider the context in which this sutta was spoken. Was he preaching to locals in a village? Was this shouted from the proverbial rooftops? Obviously not. He was speaking to his most advanced and dearest disciples, almost all of who were already arahants themselves. In other words, this is not advice that the Buddha would dish out to “worldlings” like us. He might tell us to take the dhamma as a refuge, but I can guarantee he would not tell us to be our own gurus and that we should follow whatever we “feel is right.”

We all follow somebody or something, whether we recognize it or not. We often overestimate our own spiritual attainments. A good sign to know if this is the case to ask yourself how well you’re doing spiritually. If you consider yourself advanced, this is an indication that the opposite is true. Almost none of the saints of any religion have considered themselves advanced. In fact, the contrary is true. Whether Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim — the great spiritual teachers had guides and followed the precepts of their religions until their ends. Furthermore, they were often disillusioned with their own lack of attainments, complaining of sins committed or hearts still unpurified.

We all follow something or somebody. If we think we’re beyond following, then this simply means that we’re following our own feelings and whims, which are unreliable, unstable, and prone to be manipulated by the world.

see original below.

https://purelandway.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/be-your-own-guru/

Spiritual Community and Spiritual Ego

As a fellowship we share and focus on similar values and ideals that we see and feel as important, worth while.  We also look for commonalities within and without the group. We find strength and refuge in our common values and ideas.   At the same time in expressing and practicing these commonalities we also identify those that are different than our own, we separate ourselves and may even set ourselves up to be somehow better than the other group or at least not as “self-righteous”. I think this is what Shinran is speaking about when he talks about us being “foolish beings”  When we look at the comparison of being not as “self-righteous” as the other, we realize that it is the same type of spiritual egotism  thing that we are trying to distance ourselves from.   Rev. Roland K. Tatsuguchi, in referring to Shinran’s teaching has written that. “Our efforts to do good, upon deep reflection, are constantly tainted by our pretentious spiritual egoism, regardless of whether we be monks or ordinary householders.”   The “ego” separates us from others and is an obstacle to compassion, the same is true of our spiritual egotism.

Let me give an example.  When our Sangha was just starting a friend was participating with us and he and his girl friend really like the community.  Then he stopped coming.  I asked him why and he said, because you are like all the others, you think your way is the better way, and people were disrespectful of others’ Christian beliefs, even laughing at some of the things others believe.    I remember being confounded by this comment, then after talking with Linnea I came to realize my own blind spots.  It wasn’t that anyone was being outright mocking or even demeaning, but there was this general attitude that our way is better, and then  there was laughter.  It is good to remember that laughter can heal and laughter can hurt. Remember being laughed at as a child?

I don’t think that anyone meant to come across that way or meant to hurt anyone.   Many of us come from different traditions, and for some it may feel more of an “escape” from a tradition.  Some of us were deeply wounded by the experience and in expressing our own issues, wounds, experiences, our self justifications, our blind passions, we may unknowingly come across as intolerant or even be intolerant.

Honen and Shinran taught us about our foolish natures, that we are full of blind passions.  I think sometimes these can be manifested in our collective group thinking.  We want to be special or at least not like those who have hurt us.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that is helpful to feel a tradition, a  path or belief is the best way to lead one’s life, at the same time it is important to understand that this “path” is not the only way to express the oneness of compassion.

There was a Jodo Shin minister who had the kanji for “fool” engraved on one of his beads to always remember his true state.  I think this is a great example of a humble attitude, to be aware of our “spiritual ego”.  It is hard to see that even our attachment to our  “foolishness” and trusting in Other-power instead of Self-power can also become  a “spiritualized ego”.  The idea that Shinran is better and more humble, because Shinran called himself a fool, and depended only on Other-power instead of hours and hours of meditation can be just as much of an attachment to a “spiritual ego”  I know that this is something I need to work on.

I want to remember that I too am a foolish being, that I will get it wrong a bunch of times,  and As Jeff Wilson has written

 “  There is one advantage to realizing that you’re never going to get it right: you do begin to stop expecting everyone else to get it right too, which makes for less frustration when other people turn out to be just as human as you are.” 

This can be applied to those outside of our sangha and to each of us within our sangha.

Here is something I found written by Sebo Ebbens.  It expresses what I think is an ideal for a spiritual community and something for us to practice.

“To me what’s important is that I want the sangha to be a spiritual community where we support each other in following our own path, in our practice as well as in our daily lives, while maintaining respect for each other’s personal paths. Our path is a difficult one. It is a solitary path. But if we are members of the sangha, this is the path we have chosen. In that sense the sangha is a spiritual community and not just a social club. The sangha does not function as a spiritual community if we can no longer say what we think because that isn’t done. Or where we can hide behind what is done or not done or behind what someone else says. We develop for ourselves what is done and what is not, within our own tradition. That makes us a living spiritual sangha… The principal characteristic of the community is that it helps you to realize your human potential and to express yourself in the real world, whether within or without the community.

May we honor each and every journey with respect, honor and compassion and may we be compassionate and humble traveling companions.

 Namu Amida Butsu. 

Christopher  “Myoshin”  Ross-Leibow   –  Practice Leader

 

Mind of Embracing All Things – Haya Alegarasu

At our last gathering we read a few pieces from a great Shin writer and priest, Haya Akesarasu.  Most of his writings are currently out of print or not translated but there are a few in existence.  This essay gives a feeling of his style of writing, He

By Haya Akegarasu 

Reading an early passage of the Kegon Sutra, I came across a poem by the Ho-E Bodhisattva which made me want to cry out, “How wonderful!” Here it is:

Be free from subject and object,
Get away from dirtiness and cleanness,
Sometimes entangled and sometimes not,
I forget all relative knowledge:
My real wish is to enjoy all things with people.

This poem expresses so clearly what I am thinking about these days that I use it to explain my feelings to everyone I meet.

Subject or object, myself or someone else, individualism or socialism, egotism or altruism-forget about such relative knowledge be free from it! Right or wrong, good or bad, beauty or ugliness-don’t cling to that either. Forget about ignorance or enlightenment! Simply enjoy your life with people-this is the spirit of Gautama Buddha, isn’t it? I’m glad that Shinran Shonin said “When we enter into the inconceivable Other Power, realize that the Reason without Reason does not exist,” and again, “I cannot judge what right or wrong is, and I don’t know at all what is good and bad.” I hate to hear about the fights of isms or clashes between two different faiths. I don’t care about these things.

Somehow I just long for people. I hate to be separated from people by the quarrels of isms or dogma or faith, and what is more, I hate to be separated from people by profit or loss.

I don’t care whether I win or lose, lose or win. I just long for the life burning inside me. I just adore people, in whom there is life. I don’t care about isms, thoughts, or faiths. I just long for people. I throw everything else away. I simply want people.

It makes me miserable when close brothers are separated by anything. Why can’t they be their own naked selves? Why can’t longing people embrace each other?

I love myself more than my isms, thoughts, or faiths. And because I love myself so, I long for people. I am not asserting that my way is Love-ism or Compassionate-Thinking-ism! Somehow I just can’t keep myself in a little box of ism, thought or faith.

I must admit I am timid. Because I timid, I can’t endure my loneliness. I want to enjoy everything with people.

I go to the ocean of the great mind.

I go to the mind of the great power.

Once I hated people because they lived a lie; once I saw them as devils. Once I lamented because there was no one who cared about me. But now I long for them, even when they are devils and liars, even when they are evil. I don’t care, I can’t help it-I adore them! They breathe the same life that I do, even though they hate me, cheat me, make me suffer.

I am so filled with a thirst to adore people that there is no room in me for judging whether a person is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong. This is not the result of something that I reasoned out, such as that I live by being loved or by loving. Regardless of any ism, thought, or faith, I cannot be separated from people because of that.

My spirit shines with the mind-of-embracing-people. Without reason or discussion, I just want to hug everyone! My missionary work is nothing but a confession of this mind.

Bowing Bodhisattva Dharmakara

We are liberated, not by an external being or force, but by the bowing that is realized in us.
Nobuo Haneda

In the midst of timeless time,
Bodhisattva Dharmakara, being filled
With great compassion, began bowing.
He bowed to each blade of grass,

And to each flower that ever bloomed,
He bowed to the ocean and to each wave,
to each cloud and drop of rain that returns
time and time again to the sea.

In the midst of timeless time,
Bodhisattva Dharmakara being filled
with great compassion, began bowing.
He bowed before the winds of the four

directions, bowed to the earth & before
each rock of every mountain, bowed
before each star in innumerable
star fields and before each and every

sentient being suffering the foolish dreams
of a separate self and the endless karmas
of delusion- and the more he bowed the more
he found and there in the midst of timeless time,

Bodhisattva Dharmakara found you there in your
very heart mind, and bowed deeply before you just as you are,
and in the deepest of compassion, born of wisdom;
there vowed to never abandoned you,

Dharmakara made an open hearted promise to you and only
you and to the innumerable buddhas singing the dharma
in every atom, to carry you and only you and all of creation
to the Other shore, across the river of suffering

to the land of bliss. Now with Amida, like each drop of rain
that returns to the great sea of compassion, time and time
again, we will return, as compassion itself, and more
innumerable than the sands of the Mississippi, each

and every one a Bodhisattva bowing to all those suffering,
and to all the buddhas in the midst of timeless time.

Who Am I

by Haya Akegarasu 

My thought is thought,
It is never myself.
I had thought that my thought is myself,
but now I’m aware
I made a terrible mistake.

My experience is
experience. It
is never myself. I had thought
that experience is
myself, but now I’m aware
I made a terrible mistake.

My feelings are feelings,
they are never myself.
I had thought that my feelings
are myself,
but now I’m aware
I made a terrible mistake.

My will is will. It is
never myself.
I had thought
that my will is myself, but now
I’m aware I made
a terrible mistake.

My wishes are wishes,
they are never myself.
I had thought that my wishes
are myself,
but now I’m aware
I made a terrible
mistake.

My deeds are deeds,
they are never myself.
I had thought that my deeds are myself,
but now I’m aware
I made a terrible mistake.

But then
who am I?
Yes, it is true, that through
thought, experience, feeling,
will, wish, and deed
I manifest myself,
but also
I manifest myself
when I break out
of all of these.

I am not such a limited self,
conceptualized self,
as to exist apart from others!
I alone
am the most noble:
I embrace the cosmos.

What an indescribable, subtle
existence I am! – I cannot in
speaking or writing
put down who I am!

I always touch this indescribable self,
always follow this indescribable self.
Truth is here.