There is a problem, central to religious life, which the Bible, with exquisite brevity, states for us in Luke Chapter 10: verses 38-42:
And she had a sister called Mary, who moreover was listening to the Lord's word, seated at His feet. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, "Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me."
But the Lord answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about many things;
But only one thing is needful, and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."
Clearly, these verses operate at several different instructional levels. There is the obvious one: The first and greatest need is God, and no other need takes priority over this one. Mary was serenely seated at the Nirvanic feet of God. She had what was truly important. But Martha, instead of fixing her attention on the Divine Presence or on her service to that Presence, squandered her attention on Samsaric illusions.
Zen Buddhists, especially, can understand the situation. We plan to sit in meditation and just as we get our incense lit and balance ourselves nicely on our cushions, we become anxious about the mailman. Will he be late again today? Or we realize that we can no longer put off making the decision: should we have rice or pasta for dinner tomorrow night? We try to focus our thoughts on the chant our mouths are uttering, but all we can think about is an encounter we've recently had with a rude store clerk. Yes, we understand Jesus' admonition. Nobody gets "worried and bothered about many things" the way a Zen Buddhist does.
But these words of Jesus have deeper meanings. Our attention is immediately drawn to His intriguing choice of terms: He speaks of 'one needful thing' which is evidently composed of several 'parts'. We need to think about this. And we need also consider the difficult problem which the event, itself, presents: When do we work to serve those who seek our help; and when do we retire, seemingly to ignore their needs, in order to study or meditate or attend to other things which we believe are, at that moment, more important? How do we resolve the conflict between satisfying spiritual or personal needs and doing those chores that civilized life requires us to do? In order to eat, food must be prepared. Somebody has to do the work.
And so we wonder... Why did Jesus refuse to ask Mary to help Martha? Is Martha some sort of second-class devotee? Is it perfectly all right to let her do all the 'scut' work while her sister Mary gracefully reclines at the Master's feet? There seems to be something unjust in this refusal. After all, we reason, Mary will get up to come to the table to eat. She will be dining, too.
On the surface, the Bible would seem to contradict Zen teaching. "No work, no food," is always our monastic dictum. Were this anyone but Jesus speaking, we'd quickly reply, "Hah! My master would've hit Mary with his stick and sent her scurrying to the kitchen." But men of Zen do not lightly dismiss a Bodhisattva's pronouncements. So we scratch our heads and maintain a discreet but darkened silence, waiting for the Buddha's lightbulb to start shining in our brains.
While pondering several seemingly unrelated events recently, I accidentally switched on a light which I believe illuminates these other meanings.
Not too long ago I had invited two bachelor members of my congregation to my home for Thanksgiving dinner. I'm a terrible cook, so the inducement wasn't the food... it was the viewing of two classic French films which were subtitled in English. My VCR and TV are back in my bedroom which is a very small place. In the room, besides the incidental bed, are chests of drawers, file cabinets, bookcases, CD and tape player with their stacks of CDs and tapes and, of course, my whole computer mishmash including desk and printer, etc. etc. Most bathrooms have more available floor space. Add to this some opened butterfly chairs and two people in the room defines congestion. Three constitutes gridlock. But what the heck. Bachelors don't require refined accommodations.
We planned to eat buffet style while we watched the films because, frankly, my kitchen table is also a small affair, suitable for assembling puzzles of less than five hundred pieces... and really all that it is used for.
At the appointed hour, one guest arrived. He had work to do later that evening and so, after an hour of waiting in vain for the other guest to show up, we began to eat and watch the films. Then the other guest called. He said that he was with his landlady, an older woman, who was sickly. She was from the Orient and didn't speak much English, but he was fond of her, and since it was Thanksgiving and she was alone, he wanted to do something nice for her. Would it be all right if he brought her to dinner? I said no.
I told him that he could take all the food he wanted home to her, but that in my cramped bedroom I had no room for three guests .. not even if they insisted upon being stacked vertically. Further, since the lady was unfamiliar with English, she could hardly comprehend a French film with flashing English subtitles. To entertain her and him, I would have to go to another room and leave my present guest in the bedroom alone to watch the movie. And this I would not do. If he had given me advance notice, I might have made other arrangements. I said I was truly sorry but that I had a responsibility to my present guest. Though obviously annoyed, he said that he'd be along shortly, but he never came at all and in fact never even came to another congregation meeting. I received some criticism for this decision. Many people thought I should have been more generous. But I felt comfortable with my refusal although, I admit, I wasn't exactly sure of why I felt justified in refusing.
Months later a friend of mine called to discuss a problem she was having. Her mother-in-law belonged to a religious organization which performed charitable acts such as giving rides to disabled or infirmed persons. One such person, an elderly man who was a kidney dialysis patient, lived in my friend's neighborhood, and her mother-in-law, after talking it over with her son and obtaining his approval, recruited my friend's services in driving this patient to the clinic for his frequent dialysis treatments.
Initially, my friend had protested that the new task would prevent her from doing her own Girl Scout volunteer work, but her mother-in-law dismissed her protests by saying that the kidney patient's need was far more important, a matter, after all, of life and death.
My friend acquiesced and tried to comply graciously, but the task soon became an intolerable burden. She had children, and on the days she drove this patient into town and waited several hours for his treatment to conclude, her husband took the children out for pizza. Everybody - except my friend - thoroughly appreciated the arrangement. She was profoundly resentful. "Even without my Girl Scout projects," she said, "I still have housework to do, and nobody helps me with it. They go out for pizza and have a good time. I come home to do laundry and mop floors. And when I complain, I'm criticized and told to be more generous and charitable. I feel like Martha", she cried. "They get the good part - the pleasure. I get the work."
Suddenly Luke, Chapter 10, verses 38-42 began to reveal this other meaning. The problem wasn't work versus idleness. And it was considerably more than sitting in meditation versus attending to life's nagging chores. It was a problem and solution characteristic of the religious life, itself. Recalling that the Bhagavad Gita addressed this very problem, I went to my bookshelf and searched for the text.
I also remembered years ago when I worked and my children had to help me clean the house. While I mopped or polished, they'd constantly come and ask me to help them find this, or reach that, or sort this; and I'd have to stop what I was doing to go help them until, annoyed by the interruptions, I'd shout, "Don't help me by asking me to help you!" This, in a way, was at the core of the problem posed in the Gospel of Luke.
My Thanksgiving Day guest wanted to do something nice for a woman; but what he wanted to do nice for her was to bring her to me and let me do something nice for her. He was right in wanting to help her. But he was wrong in trying to pressure me into helping him to help her. I had my own "helping" agenda to fulfill. He wanted to be good and kind. Fine. Then to the best of his ability he should have been so.
My friend's mother-in-law volunteered to perform a kind and generous act. Fine. But what she did by way of being kind and generous was to "volunteer" my friend, to impress her into service, to embarrass her into acting charitably. These two people had decided that their charitable agendas were more meritorious, more worthy of attention, than the agendas of others, that they had a right to induce another into spending his time and resources in order to fulfill their commitments. And in making this determination they showed that they had become, in Buddhist terms, "attached" to their image as charitable and resourceful persons. In other words, what was important was that their projects succeed and, by extension, that their reputations for being generous and efficient remain intact. In Chapter 3 of the Song of God, the Vedanta Society's beautiful translation of the Bhagavad Gita, there is a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna in which we hear an echoing reference to that one necessary thing that exists in several parts. Arjuna asks Krishna, "Tell me one definite way of reaching the highest good."
Krishna responds, "I have already told you that in this world those who aspire may find enlightenment by two different paths. For the contemplative is the path of knowledge: for the active is the path of selfless action." And he goes on to explain this other path. "The world is imprisoned in its own activity except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results... When a man has found delight and satisfaction and peace... he is independent of everybody and everything. Do your duty, always; but without attachment! This is how a man reaches the ultimate Truth; by working without anxiety about results. Your motive in working should be to set others, by your example, on the path of duty... It is better to do your own duty, however imperfectly, than to perform the duty of another person, however successfully."
Martha invited Jesus into her home. She offered him a meal. Fine. But she should have performed her actions sacramentally, as an individual making an offering of her own individual labor, without worrying about the results, without demanding assistance.
Acting from love and performing our duty as we understand that duty... is having "the good part." The one "needful" thing that Mary was doing was worshipping her Lord in her way. Had Martha performed her own service with as much love and attention and without anxiety or complaint, she would have done the same. The "good part" would also have been hers.
What, then, should we learn from these scriptures? We should learn never to sacrifice the Rare to the commonplace, never to work merely to enhance our public reputations and private bank accounts but instead, in our hearts, to offer our labor as service to the Divinity that exists in every man. If we perform our labor sacramentally, we will not lie or cheat or neglect to perform it well. And if we do not accomplish the results we sought, or if we fail to be paid, we will know that we, too, in serving God, received the good part which cannot be taken away from us.
And we also should learn never to press other people into fulfilling our charitable commitments or to let others press us into fulfilling theirs. But if we do freely undertake a charitable task, we should perform that task with loving attention, as if it were a religious ritual, a communion of our soul with God's... which, in fact, it is.
Serving God with love and humility! This is duty. This, I think, is Christian Charity. This, I know, is Buddhist Dharma.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts