To Serve or Sit: Stephen Girard, John Milton and Barnaby the Juggler
Stephen Girard, colonial Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist, lent his name to much that has now decayed into insignificance or municipal disgrace; but in one instance, his name, having been catapulted into the realm of verbs, will likely remain beyond timeís alterations. To stephen-girard somebody is to require him to perform a useless task in order for him to qualify for welfare, in other words, to make him demonstrate that his lack of money is not occasioned by his lack of effort. When approached for a handout, the good Mr. Girard (to whom, as it happens, our republic owes a great debt) would direct the would-be recipient of his charity to move a pile of bricks from one end of the yard to another and, when that task was accomplished, to have him move them back to their original location. Then, having cleansed the fellow of beggarhoodís taint, heíd give him some money.
John Milton, going blind, pondered his situation. Was service so important that God required it, and was the individual who couldnít perform it, especially at the level of his God-given talents, to be regarded as somehow deficient in devotion? Milton decided that God, unlike Stephen Girard, didnít give a damn whether a man worked or not. Forbearance was more important than sweat. Summing up the divine point of view, he lets Patience insist, "They also serve who only stand and wait."
Barnaby the Juggler, neither philanthropist nor poet, was a man of Zen. He understood in the very marrow of his bones what the other two with all their thoughts and strategems did not.
We all seem to have trouble with the concept. To serve or to stand (or actually to sit) and wait is often the crucial question in Zen; and the answer to this question has divided our religion into two opposing camps. According to their respective propagandists, the Northern School says that sitting in meditation is all that is necessary while the Southern School counters, "Get off your duff and do something!"
Itís always a Milton versus Girard clash of attitudes and since Milton has not only Patience on his side but Eloquence as well, he usually prevails. The arguments for sedentary modes are intrinsically persuasive.
Too many people in Zen want to make this another spurious Mary/Martha controversy, another case of a contemplative taking on a karma yogi and winning: Miltonís effortless service versus Girardís grueling non-accomplishment.
Reductions and extrapolations occasionally bring the problem into more ecclesiastically accessible areas: should the spiritually inclined person become a priest or a monk? Should he advance into the world or retreat to a monastery? Should he "go public" with his industry or keep his spiritual assets in private hands? And how, he might as well ask while heís at it, does his choice play for the folks back home? Is image anything or everything?
Image has more to do with it than we at first think. The act of choosing reflects a desire to become, and thereís an awful lot of image in becoming.. What is required, however, is the act of being. Zen isnít yesterday or tomorrow. Zen is now.
The problem needs explanation. Whether a person becomes a cleric or remains a layman of course requires a decision. And which mode in either case... Northern or Southern? Monk or priest?
Before proceeding, letís dispense with the reflex-responses of those who never seem to progress beyond the participation mystique, who identify with and are therefore undyingly loyal to whatever religion an indifferent fate has consigned them. Regardless of how accidental their acquisition, these folks impose superlatives upon anything to which they affix the word "my"... my country, my race, my dog, my guru... They then decide that since they already possess what is indubitably the best there is no point in comparative shopping. Perhaps thought for them must wait until they discover that theyíre going blind or find themselves verging on divesting themselves needlessly of assets.
As to the relative merits of Northern versus Southern schools, there is less difference than we like to think. True, the Southern School generates little in the way of group dynamic. Generally speaking, we do not congregate in order to meditate, or at least do not need to do so. Of course, neither does the Northern School, but letís not give anything away. We describe their mode as "cookie-cutter" or "polishing" Zen and they insist we practice a religion that is devoid of spiritual content. Naturally we flaunt our claim to "freely given service," a boast which we do not allow Northern School personnel who labor from dawn to dark for something less than peanuts ever to make. They on the other hand assure the world that whatever we think we are doing if it isnít on a Zafu it isnít Zen - to which we archly counter, "How would they know?" On it goes. Northern or Southern? Milton or Girard? We ought to know better but we enjoy the repartee.
Whenever Iím approached by someone who wants to become a monk, I discourage him. (Iím laughing right now because Iím thinking of a Roman Catholic priest I know who, when approached by someone who wants to join his obviously celibate Order, asks him, "When is the last time you had sexual relations with a woman?" And sometimes the fellow responds, "Last night." And when the priest suggests that the fellow try existing without a woman for a year or so, the manís eyes grow round and bulging as binoculars as he stares into the void of the unthinkable.)
I discourage people from hoping to become monks because it is usually quite evident that their desire is not to go a monastery to seek divine union but to effect a divorcement from humanity. They are standing amidst the smoking ruins of their lives and do not understand that they are the arsonists and that what theyíre really looking for is another place to burn down. Monasteries are not the idyllic fire-proof places brochures depict them as being. They have people in them, people who have enough to do without contending with the conflagrations of the disaffected.
Occasionally I am asked about priestly service and I have a test: if a person already has a ministry, I tell him yes, he should become a priest. He knows what it is to do work that is seldom appreciated and never compensated. He knows what it is to work for something greater than money or societyís applause. The Reverend Chuan Cheng Shakya, the second American to be ordained in China since the Kennedy Administration, had been an ideal candidate for ordination. Aside from pursuing a secular career from which she earned her living, she spent many nights a week assisting alcoholics and working at a suicide prevention center. She said that in the Twelve-Step program it was necessary to instruct in meditation and she felt that she needed the Seal of spiritual authority. She already had a ministry, she merely required the credentials. Now she is pastor of the Nan Hua Chan Buddhist Society, but then she was a kind of "minister without portfolio." (There is nothing ironic in the fact that she is an adept at Zazen and is ordained in a Southern School order.)
Sometimes I sense that a person has a caring nature and that thereís absolutely nothing meretricious about him. He exhibits a radiant honesty and humility. Though he might handsomely profit from his talent, knowledge or labor, he has avoided pecuniary obsessions and shares what he has, preferring to live the life of simplicity. In his case, image is nothing and because it is nothing, the Robe is tailor-made for him.
On the other hand, some people want to become priests because they think itís the one field in which they can succeed, having failed in all the others they have tried. If they canít earn respect and admiration by doing what they thought they knew how to do, they surely can earn it the easy way, by appearing to give up what they failed to gain. Itís rather like giving up octopus for Lent.
Itís not a question of vocation versus avocation. Monks work in their isolation just as priests have been known to spend time alone and to meditate under those peculiar circumstances. Work is work. A cleric is neither an amateur nor a professional. Heís a slave for a Master nobody else can see. He may love what he does but he performs what he does from a sense of duty. Dharma. Nature. He has no choice, if he had it wouldnít be committed service. When work is fun it isnít work.
Still, the question is always misrepresented as Ďcontemplation versus action.í It is almost a given that the person who retreats to a monastery is automatically a contemplative because, apart from his menial labors, he spends so much time appearing to be meditating, just as it is taken for granted that all priests actually do something, the energy expended for which is measurable in British Thermal Units. Despite all precautionary screening, in point of fact there are as many inert priests as there are monks who have the mystical experience of carrots.
Back in the Buddhaís day the weather relieved clerics from the burden of having to make choices. Tired and eager for the Sanghaís recharging of their individual batteries, theyíd retreat for study and meditation during the rainy season and just when they could no longer stand each other and approached critical mass the rains would end; and with immense gratitude and relief theyíd disperse to proselytize. Today, thereís little balance. Ideally, a monastery ought to be a place where a priest repairs for needed reflection, some spiritual R&R when heís burning-out. So if he serves and resents his service, finding himself needing to be appreciated, being picky about what his does and for whom, being aware of the fruits of his labor even if he doesnít actually collect them, a bell would go off in his head and heíd realize that itís time for him to spend some time on his cushion seeking divine guidance back to the Path of non-attachment.
And, just as ideally, a monk who finds himself too self-absorbed, a sure and certain obstacle to entering the meditative state, ought to go out into the community and render ministerial service. Focussing his attention on the needs of others, working for them and freeing himself of the burdens of judging his own singular performance would surely help to end his contemplative dry-spell and refresh his commitment to his Buddha Self.
There is no reason why anyone who desires to follow the Dharma, in the contemplative life or in the active one, cannot already be functioning in either capacity. In anyoneís day there are ample opportunities for prayer and meditation just as there are countless ways to render voluntary service. Ultimately, what counts is whether or not the individualís chosen path delivers him to selflessness and divine union. For so long as he succeeds in his path, he need not change it.
It isnít how or where or whom we serve thatís important. We do what we can to help others and to know God. Itís our attitude towards work, our ability to concentrate upon the task and not upon anything external to it, and the humility and love we bring to its performance. Said Xu Yun, "The heart of the Buddha and the people of the world, where is there any difference?" Too many people stand at the seashore gnashing their teeth because they cannot find the ocean.
We donít know what Stephen Girard did when a man was ill or weak from hunger. And Miltonís dialogue with Patience was perhaps too concerned with that "one" special talent which he, the acute observer, might be deprived of employing. Neither attitude exemplifies the Zen spirit.
In the story of Barnaby the Juggler we find a better example:
In medieval times itinerant entertainers -- jugglers, acrobats, actors and musicians -- eked out a living, as they went from town to town, from the coins tossed them by appreciative spectators.
On one particularly cold Christmas Eve, Barnaby the Juggler found himself in an unfamiliar town. He was flat broke, hungry, tired, and dressed in clothes too tattered to be of use against the wind. He had no hope of earning any money since all the townspeople had gone to church for the Christmas Eve festivities.
He sat outside the church on a windowsill and looked in, seeing the people all dressed in their finery, greeting each other and singing carols as musicians played. They had each brought food for the congregation and gifts for the Christchild; and Barnaby shivered as he listened to the joyful sounds and watched the merriment and smelled the meats and pastries. It was all so lovely.
He knew that if he tried to enter, they would let him in. It was, after all, Christmas. But his own poverty was an unyielding doorman. He knew his ragged appearance would disturb the festive air, and he was also ashamed that he had no gift to place at the altar. So he waited until everyone had gone home and then he quietly entered the church and went to the rail and standing before the creche gave the only thing he had to give: he performed his juggling act for the plaster baby in the manger.
Three, four, five balls in the air at once! With fierce concentration he spun and jumped, he twisted and bent, on and on for half an hour. He did his whole act, omitting nothing from his repertoire; and when he finished, quite out of breath, he went down on one knee, opened his arms, grinned and bowed the way performers do.
And it is said that the statue of the Virgin came to life; and she stepped down from the altar and with the edge of her sleeve wiped the sweat from his forehead.
And why wouldnít any Mother of Mercy grace him with the gentle touch of her hand? Barnaby the Juggler was a man of Zen. He did what he could do and because he did it without ego, it was quite enough.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts