Service – The Means and End by Keith Rowan

At a recent gathering at the Wangapeka the subject of service arose. There was some talk of how the Wangapeka is a place founded on the practice of service and is in itself a manifestation of service both in how it runs and in its very physical existence. I was asked to write something. Though I have nothing new to offer, perhaps these words will engender some reflection.

If we think about it we can see that service is the very heart of the practice, regardless of the level from which we examine it. Service is generosity in action. It is not demeaning but, quite the reverse, is the basis for the development of inner strength and confidence and ultimately, liberation. One definition of service/generosity is “Giving what is of value without attachment.” We give what seems valuable to us without any expectation of something in return. If we expect something, that is called trading! So our valuable time, energy or resources or just our attention are something we can give.

In just an ordinary way of thinking, service is beneficial. A person being served may well feel good and benefitted but if we check within ourselves, we find that we also feel good. It feels good to be useful for someone else doesn’t it? It is a very satisfying feeling to see someone happier because of something we did. Our ego can get tricky here so it’s also useful to check if the reason we did that act was simply to get that ‘feeling good’ feeling. If so we are in trading mode. If not, you may notice how much better it feels when the act is free of any expectations.

When it comes to what might be called our Dharma practice, at whatever level, service is central. From the basic level, service or generosity, is the primary training, the antidote to clinging and the creator of merit. The teachings are quite clear and unified that service results in merit. What is merit? One explanation says an action has merit if it causes supportive/good/useful results. All of us who have contact with and an interest in dharma, wanting to be free of difficulties and understand how things actually are, have come to this as a result of accumulated merit. Not luck, not accident. Practicing and making progress is made much less easy or even impossible if we don’t have supportive circumstances, if we don’t have merit. So we can consider ourselves fortunate but also need to remember that we need to continue to benefit others to maintain and increase our good fortune.

As a result of such practice there grows a recognition that ‘I’ am inseparable from and interdependent with all else. The very idea of an ‘I’ becomes doubtful as we conventionally think of it. By contemplating this, service seems increasingly natural since it is bringing benefit to the interdependent whole, to other, to ‘you’, to all. Anything else doesn’t make sense. To upset others is to upset the whole in which ‘I’ am enmeshed. It is like shooting ourselves in the foot. Seeing this is wonderful but old habits die hard so we have to continue to make effort to counter selfish tendencies. As the truth of this is more clearly seen, feelings of urgency to be of more and more service arise. To give more, in ways that are increasingly extensive, varied and skilful. I love the construction of some of the great Tibetan Buddhist aspiration prayers which, in a nutshell say: Through this merit, may all, without exception, be happy and free of suffering, immediately, without any effort on their part. I always think, yes! Why ask for anything less? May such abilities arise in me.

At the highest level (though I hesitate to make any comment about such things), all perception of divisions dissolve. ‘You’ are service, being like the sun that effortlessly brings warmth to all without distinction or conditionality. If we meet people like this we are very fortunate. Even though I have only been in the presence of H.H. Dalai Lama for fleeting moments or in a crowd from a distance, he is a manifestation of such qualities. His friendliness radiates to fill a hall containing thousands.

Personally I often feel daunted by the challenge presented by the higher views but I do have confidence that with application, I can achieve them. The Buddha said this is true and I tend to go along with him! Thus far, none of my acts of service have given rise to any regret. Quite the opposite, they have helped me feel more confident, more at ease, happier in my own skin, warts and all.

When daunting thoughts enter my mind, when I wobble, thinking of the length of the road ahead and the obstacles to be surmounted, I often reflect on words of Namgyal Rinpoche. He said the entire journey of awakening can be summed up in two words, “Begin. Continue!” I don’t think oral teachings come much pithier.

The inclination to serve is not dependent on what others appear to do or not do; if it’s fair or not; if it is my turn or not. It is founded in the actuality of things and is reflected at all levels. It is the actuality of things.

Keith Rowan


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