Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, from the week 3 teaching of her Tricycle Retreat, “Widening the Circle.”
The oldest meditation instructions that we have in the Zen tradition, and in those that preceded the Zen tradition, remind us that we practice meditation not just for ourselves but for all beings.
When we’re seated in meditation, we are about the business of freeing ourselves, but we also, by virtue of our interpenetration and interconnectedness with all energies, are creating an energy in the world. This energy—one drop of space and time, of compassion and wisdom—is a drop of space and time that is offered to the world.
But that’s not enough: we must also act. It’s not enough to practice to feel good. To care about others, we have to be of service. An attitude of serving the world is an attitude of honoring the world, rather than treating the world as some kind of broken thing. When you serve the world you honor it; you take care of what is there. There is, ironically, a leaping joy in this kind of service. We recognize that we are part of something important and we are expressing this connection through actual action. I like that, actual action.
Here in the United States we are experiencing a time of enormous fragmentation in terms of politics and strategies on how to reduce suffering in this country. There is such fragmentation. It seems like many people only want to help their own—their own family, their own class, their own political party—rather than looking at the whole puzzle. I think that’s why so many people responded so positively to Barack Obama’s memorial speech in Tucson, when he said “we should turn to one another” and that “we need to widen the circle of our concern.” That’s a very Buddhist phrase, widen the circle of concern. In fact, this is the Bodhisattva vow.
When we widen the circle of concern, we suddenly feel lighter even though there is so much to do. You can see it on the faces of the volunteers who serve in soup kitchens, you can see it in the faces of the kids that are raising money to send school supplies abroad, you can see it in the body language of the volunteers at the youth center on the Lower East Side, you can see it in people working in hospices and shelters. What brings these people to do this kind of work?
When I visit a soup kitchen I am so inspired by the smiles, the resilience, the joking, and the laughter of those who choose to come and take time out of their day to go and serve the homeless. There is an amazing quality of aliveness that arises from this action. It is a readiness to meet what is there.
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