Once upon a time, the King of Benares had a gardener who looked after his pleasure garden. Animals sometimes came into the garden from the nearby forest. The gardener complained about this to the king, who said, "If you see any strange animal, tell me at once."
One day, the gardener saw a strange kind of deer at the far end of the garden. When the deer saw the gardener, she ran like the wind. That is why they are called 'wind-deer'. They are a rare breed, that are extremely timid. They are very easily frightened by human beings.
The gardener told the king about the wind-deer. The king asked the gardener if she could catch the rare animal. She replied, "My lord, if you give me some bee's honey, I could even bring him into the palace!" So the king ordered that the gardner be given as much bee's honey as she wanted.
This particular wind-deer loved to eat the flowers and fruits in the king's pleasure garden. The gardener let herself be seen by the wind-deer little by little, so she would be less frightened. Then the gardener began to smear honey on the grass where the wind-deer usually came to eat. Sure enough, the deer began eating the honey-smeared grass. Soon she developed a craving for the taste of this 'honey-grass'. The craving made her come to the garden every day. Before long, she would eat nothing else!
Little by little, the gardener came closer and closer to the wind-deer. At first, she would run away. But later, she lost her fear and came to think the gardener was harmless. As the gardener became more and more friendly, eventually she got the deer to eat the honey-grass right out of her hand. She continued doing this for some time, in order to build up the wind-deer’s confidence and trust.
Meanwhile, the gardener had rows of curtains set up, making a wide pathway from the far end of the pleasure garden to the king's palace. From inside this pathway, the curtains would keep the wind-deer from seeing any people that might scare her.
When all was prepared, the gardener took a bag of grass and a container of honey with her. Again she began hand-feeding the wind-deer when she appeared. Gradually, she led the wind-deer into the curtained-off pathway. Slowly, she continued to lead her with the honey-grass, until finally the deer followed her right into the palace. Once inside, the palace guards closed the doors, and the wind-deer was trapped. Seeing the people of the court, she suddenly became very frightened and began running around, madly trying to escape.
The king came down to the hall and saw the panic-stricken wind-deer. He said, "What a wind-deer! How could she have gotten into such a state? A wind-deer is an animal who will not return to a place where she has so much as seen a human, for seven full days. Ordinarily, if a wind-deer is at all frightened in a particular place, she will not return for the whole rest of her life! But look! Even such a shy wild creature can be enslaved by her craving for the taste of something sweet. Then she can be lured into the center of the city and even inside the palace itself.
"My friends, the teachers warn us not to be too attached to the place we live, for all things pass away. They say that being too attached to a small circle of friends is confining and restricts a broad outlook. But see how much more dangerous is the simple craving for a sweet flavor, or any other taste sensation. See how this beautiful shy animal was trapped by my gardener, by taking advantage of her craving for taste." Not wishing to harm the gentle wind-deer, the king had her released into the forest. She never returned to the royal pleasure garden.
“I am an unselfish person living in a world of selfish people.” I found this quote in Google images without any attribution, and I spent a little time wondering about it. I do make frequent efforts to be unselfish, and I have seen a lot of selfish people. I went to a potluck several years ago; I think it was a church dinner, not here; and the man in front of me in line took two huge scoops of candied yams, leaving none for me or anyone else. And there is this person who, along with so many others, took selfies during turtle nesting season, scaring the mother turtles so much that many of them did not nest or lay eggs. And what about government state and national representatives who take money from lobbyists to pass legislation that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, or those legislators in Springfield who refuse to pass a budget, leaving those with mental health problems in Illinois without services. I could go on, but I know that many of you, like me, wonder about these behaviors; you see them all the time. You too wonder if we live in a world of selfish people.
To be selfish is not inherently a bad, destructive, hurtful, or an evil thing. To be selfish is just trying to make yourself happy. My wanting to have shrimp gumbo and shrimp etouffee on my birthday, which I did by the way, to make me happy is not a harmful thing. If I wanted to eat shrimp gumbo and shrimp etouffee on the back of a mother turtle during nesting season, well that is another thing all together.
We all want to be happy. However, I have three things for you to consider when wanting to make yourself happy: will what you are doing for yourself really make you happy, will there be negative consequences as a result of making yourself happy, and how far are you willing to go, what values or ethics you might be willing to compromise, to make yourself happy.
Remember the story of the wind-deer. She became less sensitive to her surroundings, as she pursued her craving for the sweet honey-grass. Her intense desire blinded her to reality. And we all have that tendency. If a little bit of chocolate cake tastes good, a lot will taste better, even if eating the cake negatively affects our weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. And will the extra chocolate cake really make us happy, really?
All religious traditions warn against letting our selfishness, our desire to make ourselves happy, go too far. In the Tao Te Ching, it is written:
“There is no crime greater than having too many desires;
There is no disaster greater than not being content;
There is no misfortune greater than being covetous.”
In the Hindu Scripture, Allama Prabhu:
“They say that woman is an enticement.
No, No, she is not so.
They say that money is an enticement.
No, No, it is not so.
They say that landed property is an enticement.
No, No, it is not so.
The real enticement is the insatiable appetite of the mind.”
And in Christian Bible book of James: “Let no one say when he/she is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; each person is tempted when he/she is lured and enticed by his/her own desire.”
Think for a moment of a time when you were selfish, in other words, a time when you made a decision to make yourself happy. You might find yourself feeling okay about this conscious decision. You might regret something about this decision. You might wonder if you made the right decision. There are times when we do need to put ourselves first for our mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual health. Heck the week before last I took an extra day off and didn’t do any church work. I exercised, had a massage, had an acupuncture treatment, and napped on and off for the rest of the day. Do I regret this decision? Not in the least. There is nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves or treating ourselves with extra care and compassion from time to time. However, there needs to be some balance between making yourself happy and caring for the interdependent web of all existence of which you are a part.
And what about this concept of unselfishness. Buddhists refer to this as selflessness, when we consider the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part as part of our decision-making process. Someone named Daphne wrote of this experience: “Every day I walk down the mall to get a cup of cappuccino, and every day I get hit up for spare change. Every day. The panhandlers all have these wonderful stories but you never know what to believe. After a while it gets to be an irritation, and then I find myself getting upset that I’m so irritated over what is really just spare change. One day this person came up to me and said, “I just ran out of gas. My car is about six blocks away from here I have two kids in the car and I’m just trying to get back home.”
I said to myself, ‘Here we go again.’ But for some reason I gave him $10. Then I went on and got my cappuccino. As I was walking back to the office, I again saw the man standing by his car, which had run out of gas right in front of my office. Seeing me, he came over and said, ‘Thank you, but I don’t need the full ten,’ and handed me $2.
Now I find that being asked for money no longer bothers me and I give whatever I can every time I get the change.” (http://www.kindspring.org/story/view.php?sid=7121; Random Acts of Kindness by the Editors of Conari Press; Daphne)
I think we can all relate to the experience of this person’s struggle with being unselfish. Wondering if being generous to “certain people” will be helpful or harmful. Wondering if we’re being duped by professional panhandlers. Wondering if our small gestures have any meaningful impact. I have certainly struggled myself. Sometimes I’ve given to street people asking for help; other times, for whatever reason, I didn’t give anything and tended to avoid their persistent pleading looks at me, treating them as if they were invisible. What is your decision-making process when you see a man or woman or family by the side of the road holding a sign saying, “Homeless”? Will our unselfishness result in really helping someone who is really in need? Should we always choose to “teach someone to fish?” Is it okay to sometimes just “give a fish” to someone?
When I reflect today’s opening words by the Buddha, “To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one's own in the midst of abundance”, I wonder what does that mean?
Most of us are familiar with the Buddhist concept of no “possessions”, but what does this concept really mean? Does it mean that if I don’t want to give up, say, this tie, one of my deceased father’s favorite ties that reminds me of his every time I wear it, that I can’t be purely unselfish? Is it okay to be somewhat unselfish? Does it still count?
I invite you to think of a time when you were unselfish. When you made a choice or decision that made you feel intensely connected to the web of existence. Many times, these kinds of acts don’t focus on ourselves, don’t “put the glory” on us. More often, these are times when we’ve put our energy and resources toward a greater good or common goal, when we’ve put the “other” before ourselves, and in so doing have found a part of ourselves in the other.
Okay, let’s go back to the Buddha’s statement: to live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.” If this statement is to be incorporated in a useful way into our lives as Unitarian Universalists, we probably need to let go of the concept of “pure unselfish life.” As I’ve already said before, we are a “both/and” faith, and our rationalism helps us, we recognize that “pure unselfishness” is an ideal. But recognizing this does not mean the statement is without practical meaning. Here’s a simple example: I don’t have to stop feeling a little possessive about my dad’s tie. It makes me happy to think about him when I wear it. I do have to realize that those feelings aren’t in the tie itself; they are in my heart. The tie just brings these loving feelings to the front of my consciousness. If I were to lose my dad’s tie tomorrow, I would be sad, but I wouldn’t lose my feelings about my father. After all, it is just a tie.
There used to be a saying going around, especially in churches around the annual budget drive time, pledge season. “Give until it hurts.” I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful saying, and I don’t think that is what the Buddha is saying. In fact, as its core, I think it’s kind of a harmful saying, because it de-emphasizes our connectedness with each other. It is our connectedness, our sharing of our lives, our spiritual and ethical journeys, our being together that is most important. I honestly believe I am here in a room full of people who understand how deeply connected we are to the interdependent web of all existence. That’s why you’re here. You get it. You are all living lives of spiritual and ethical abundance, of love abundance, of friend abundance, happiness abundance, and I see the fruits of your unselfishness all around me.
And I see you helping others outside these walls because of that belief in abundance. When you see an opportunity to help others right in front of you, you act on that opportunity. I see you feed and care for homeless people at PADS. I see you supporting a Bridge family; a family who was homeless until you chose to help them. I see you equipping yourselves to work on Racial Inequality, getting to know people in the Black Lives Matter movement, getting to know people at the Lisle AME church, getting to know people in the DuPage NAACP, and getting to know people in the Community Renewal Society, a local grass roots organizing group working to change laws to help people of color in our community.
I see you, and I am proud—apologies to Buddha—I’m proud to be among you, a spiritually and ethically abundant people. Unitarian Universalists who will not refuse to do the something we can do to make a difference. A people who know themselves to be part of the interdependent web of all existence and act accordingly, unselfishly, affirming and promoting our Unitarian Universalist principles.
Do you feel you are an unselfish person in the midst of selfish people? I don’t. I feel free to give enough to myself to be happy; I make time to be loving and compassionate with myself; I have an abundance in my life. It’s okay for me to be a little selfish. And I feel that this community gives to me, gives to each other, and gives to people beyond these walls because we feel the abundance of this community. We, this community, have love enough, compassion enough, heart enough to share. I want to be with people who want to be of use in this world, who can be selfish enough to take care of themselves and selfless enough to try to change the world. This is all of you. This is why in my own selfish and selfless way, I am honored and happy to be a member of this church. And I see in your eyes as I look out at you, you feel the same happiness.