Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Grace to Change the World


Saying grace before or after meals is something that is routinely done by millions if not billions of people all over the world.  Regardless of the religion, saying grace is part of one’s religious practice.

What is grace?  From every grace that I had ever heard, whether it was in movies, in people’s homes, or in the company of my family, grace was about thanking God for his bounty.  Praising God.  Sometimes additional thoughts would be added asking for God’s grace with regards to something ... like a child’s taking an important exam, or an upcoming marriage or operation, etc.

Then one day I went to a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in rural Michigan.  (I was born and raised Jewish, but I had become interested in Buddhism.)  After meditation and conversation about the Buddha’s teachings, we sat down to lunch.  Before we began, the two nuns who ran the temple rang a bell for silence and one of the temple members said the following grace:

This food is the gift of the whole universe -- the earth, the  sky, and much hard work.
May we live in a way that makes us worthy to receive it.
May we transform our unskillful states of mind.
May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.
We accept this food so that we may realize the path of practice.

The first four mouthfuls
With the first taste, I promise to offer joy.
With the second taste, I promise to help relieve the suffering of others.
With the third taste, I promise to see others’ joy as my own.
With the fourth taste, I promise to learn the way of non-attachment and equanimity.

Eighteen years later, I still carry these words with me every day in my wallet, and recite this grace every morning before eating breakfast and starting my day.  Why?

The words of this grace are not so much about thanks, although that element is there.  It is about how we as human beings should live our lives so as to be worthy of the gift of life  and food that has been bestowed upon us.  If everyone, regardless of their religion, spoke and took to heart the words of this nondenominational grace, the world would be on its way to solving all the intractable problems that we face.

This food is the gift of the whole universe -- the earth, the sky, and much hard work.”  This reminds us not to take the food that we eat for granted.  It is the result of much hard work, whether it be peasants in some faraway land or a worker in a food processing plant where we live.  People labored, and if we eat meat animals died, so that we may live.

May we live in a way that makes us worthy to receive it.”  Having food to eat is not some absolute or unconditional right we have.  With food, as with life, come responsibilities ... to ourselves and to others.  We may have the power to nourish or destroy, whether it’s ourselves, those close to us, or strangers.  But it is our responsibility as human beings to nourish ourselves, our fellow human beings and all sentient creatures, as well as the environment, not to destroy.  All religions have at their core morality the saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  That is our highest moral responsibility.

May we transform our unskillful states of mind.”  What are these states of mind?  They are greed, lust, envy, anger, pride.  These cravings destroy our ability to exercise good judgment and do what is right for us, our loved ones, and for others.  And despite our tendency to almost revel in these states of mind, they cause us nothing but suffering for they always ultimately result in frustration.  Because when we feed these states of mind, our mind just wants more.  There is good reason why these emotions form the core of the Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity, as well as being admonished in other religions.  

May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.”  There are two aspects to this thought.  One is that to eat foods that do not nourish us or prevent illness is not good for our body ... witness the epidemic of obesity in this country.  It is not so much a question of eating too much, but of what we eat.  Although gluttony (another one of the Seven Deadly Sins) is also not good for our health.  Second, food is a precious commodity; it is limited.  There are many people in this world who go hungry, even in the United States.  The problem is not that there isn’t enough food; it’s that there isn’t an equitable distribution of it because obtaining food is a function of having money.  If we all just ate what was necessary to nourish us and prevent illness, there would be plenty of food to go around; just look at all the food Americans waste.

We accept this food so that we may realize the path of practice.”  The word, “practice,” here refers to Buddhist practice, but it applies equally to the practice of any religion.  Again, with life and food come responsibilities.  And what are they?

With the first taste, I promise to offer joy.”  Just as we want other people to offer us joy, we should offer others joy.  And if we aren’t offered it, that makes no difference.  The point is to do other others as you would have them do under you.  And this is not just to be a goody-two-shoes.  As in all aspects of the teachings of this grace, what we do is not just to benefit others but to benefit ourselves as well.   When we offer others joy ... for the pure reason of wanting to offer joy, not for an expectation of receiving anything in return (and that’s a major catch for many people), we experience joy just in the giving.  Regardless where you are, if you interact with people in a friendly, joyful way, you will experience joy yourself, regardless of their reaction.  Likewise if you go through life interacting with others in a perfunctory fashion, you will experience no joy.

With the second taste, I promise to help relieve the suffering of others.”  There is so much suffering in the world ... and I don’t just mean the obvious suffering of malnutrition or illness or extreme poverty, but the daily suffering of people caused by their insecurities and the neuroses that stem from that feeling.  One of our main responsibilities as human beings is to help others, and in so doing we bring joy into our lives.  Not because we feel sanctimonious and superior because of our good deeds, but for the pure pleasure of trying to help another suffering person.  Whether it be random acts of kindness or donations to charity or hands-on volunteer work, you will experience joy when you help relieve the suffering of others.

With the third taste, I promise to see others’ joy as my own.”  In our culture, we are so ego obsessed, that the common reaction to much of this teaching is, “What about me!”  If our focus in life is in finding ways to make ourselves happy, we will not find happiness because wanting something that we don’t have just leads to frustration.  One may achieve what one wants initially, but then one always wants more.  The fact is that if we stop being so ego obsessed, if we see our oneness with others, and see others’ joy as our own, we are much more likely to experience joy and happiness.  That being said, I must advise that if one truly sees others’ joy as your own, you will also see their pain as your own.  The two go hand in hand.  But that’s an essential part of what being human and understanding your oneness with others is about ... whether you think of it as we’re all in this boat together or we are all children of the same God.

With the fourth taste, I promise to learn the way of non-attachment and equanimity.”  This is the real kicker, the real challenge, for most of us.  We can do all sorts of things that are on the surface good or worthwhile, but if we attach to them (obsess about them) or if we do these things because we are unhappy or dissatisfied with our life as it is, if we feel insecure, while we may still be productive and help others, we will be frustrated and unhappy.  We will feel anger, greed, envy, and lust regarding the things that we or others do.  We will suffer and we will make all those close to us suffer.

People sometimes react to the teachings of the Buddha with, “Why should I always be thinking of others; what about me!”  What people often fail to understand, and their teachers don’t make the point clearly, is that the Buddha developed his teaching as a way to end suffering, starting with the individual.  The Buddha understood that to free the world of suffering, one must start with the individual who causes suffering in himself and others.  The teaching thus is all about how to free ourselves from our suffering, which is mainly caused by our learned experience, our past.  A significant part of that process is learning to find joy in giving joy to others, helping others, and seeing others’ joy as your own. This is one way we free ourselves from our ego.

If everyone acted according to the words of this grace, there would in time be no more suffering in the world.  Everyone would feel secure and loved.  No one would try to gain control over others, to exploit others, to oppress others, to take advantage of others.  The world’s wealth and resources would be distributed more equitably.  It would be a very different world indeed.