by Ven. Thubten Nyima
Ven. Nyima has joined in the Exploring Monastic Life (EML) program for eight years. During the 2017 EML program, she shared her process and insights about an important aspect of the program and of Abbey life.
“ We are grateful for the opportunity to offer service to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and to sentient beings.” This is how the Offering Service Prayer, which we say every day at the Abbey, begins.
My appreciation for offering service evolved over the course of several years, as I participated in several Exploring Monastic Life (EML) retreats. As a participant, I observed my mind and body go through a range of attitudes and feelings.
Having a sedentary job, my body was not used to physically demanding work, so after a few days of offering service in the forest, my body was very unhappy. My mind was also unhappy at times as a result of being asked to do chores I did not like. Let’s face it. In the beginning we all have favorite and least favorite jobs.
After several EMLs, however, I began to notice that my mental capacity to perform tasks I didn’t like was increasing. I even began to like previously dreaded chores like cleaning toilets. I began to appreciate learning new skills, and as my mind opened up, so did my body. I found more resilience and greater joy.
When we come to the Abbey and offer service, we are expanding our circle of care and concern because every activity of body, speech, and mind contributes directly and indirectly to sustaining the Three Jewels. By doing that, infinite numbers of beings will benefit. We are also directly contributing to sustaining monastic life so that all beings who have an affinity for monasticism can come to the Abbey to ordain and practice. These contributions will create the causes and conditions for many sentient beings, including ourselves, to practice the Dharma and attain realizations.
One of my favorite quotes from the book The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran, reads, “Work is love made visible.” I have found it to be true. Every offering service activity at the Abbey is a manifestation of our love for all sentient beings—our desire for them to be happy.
When we come to the Abbey for retreats and to offer service, we are cherishing others more than ourselves. After all, we could have chosen to vacation in Hawaii, to spend a few days at the spa, to buy a new wardrobe, or simply to stay home and relax. Instead, we chose to work for the benefit of others.
Working side by side with others, sharing thoughts and experiences and learning from each other, engenders a sense of community and fellowship. I am always amazed at how we are all strangers at the beginning of the retreat and dear friends at the end.
During one EML retreat, I met a young man who reminded me of someone I found to be very disagreeable. I immediately and unconsciously projected all the negative feelings I felt for the disagreeable person onto this young man. Although I’d just met him, I could not stop thinking how irresponsible, immature, and unreliable he was. This made my interactions with him very uncomfortable, bordering on hostile. Finally, I realized what was happening. I made a determination to take off the label I had placed on him. At the end of the retreat he told me that he and I worked together very well and made a good team. And I wholeheartedly and sincerely agreed. He was indeed very kind to me by helping me see how my mind erroneously labels people and situations, causing me to act in unkind ways.
When I first visited the Abbey to offer service, I had no idea how much joy I would eventually derive from each offering service activity. First came the joy of seeing my small contributions take shape, such as clearing a small patch of land from invasive weeds, staining the deck of Ananda Hall, or cleaning the Meditation Hall. Then came the joy of working with those who are striving towards the same spiritual goals in a harmonious, supportive, enriching, and nurturing environment. Lastly, and most significantly, I have had the joy of seeing the Abbey grow—not just on the land but also in the hearts and minds of so many people all over the world—and knowing that together we are all creating a space where others can practice the Dharma for a long time to come.
Offering service helps us expand our capacity to help sentient beings because it expands our minds. How? Because we learn new skills, we do things that we didn’t think we could do, we break the walls in our minds that say we can’t do something. Here at the Abbey, we try, we do, we learn. And at the end of the day, we discover that we could, and we did.