Last weekend we rented a cabin up north, and because someone else was renting it right after us, we had to clean it top to bottom before we left. I like mopping, washing dishes, that kind of thing—few things are as simply satisfying as making a dirty thing clean again. But as I was sweeping the stairs, I found myself musing about how thankless it all is. If it’s dirty when the next renter arrives, she’ll notice, but if we do a great job and leave it spotless, she won’t see a thing. I was doing a good job; I kind of wanted a gold star.
I don’t think I’m the only one who wants a little credit. That’s the most human thing in the world. (And if you’re in a position to give out gold stars now and then, I think you should—it’s easy, and people appreciate it.) But from a practice perspective, this little yearning for recognition is something we need to address head on.
Everyone knows the experience of a thankless job. Sometimes it’s a little thing—we take out the garbage and no one notices. But for many, it’s lifelong. If you’re a parent, a teacher, a telephone operator, or any one of a thousand other jobs, you probably go most days without a “thank you.” That can be hard. If it goes too long, if that absence is too deeply felt, we can drown in it.
The job of a bodhisattva is no different. If you’ve made a vow to free all beings, to end all delusion, to enter all dharma gates, most likely no one even knows. You can dedicate your whole life to fulfilling those vows, and not only are you unseen by others, but you can’t even see for yourself if you’re succeeding or not. Ever. It’s beyond thankless. It’s like working in the dark, and in silence, alone.
Fortunately, that same path, the bodhisattva path, offers a way forward—not toward success or accolades, but toward a deeper understanding of what it means to make an offering of your life. The trick is to offer everything.
When you take a walk and see a little stone that’s beautiful to you, stop, put it on another rock, bow (if you want to), and offer it to the world. When you drop a kitchen towel and bend over to pick it up, pause and offer that simple action to all beings; after all, everyone needs to be picked up from time to time. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, make a little altar in that moment—maybe with whatever’s on hand, maybe in your mind—and make an offering. That beautiful pond you drive by on your way to work? Offer it. The song on the radio? Offer that, too.
Don’t get stuck on whether or not something is yours to give—that has nothing to do with this. The project is to practice giving with no expectation. That means no expectation of thanks, but also no assumption that anything is actually received. You could say it’s a pointless exercise, and from an ordinary perspective, you wouldn’t be wrong. But if your goal is to liberate all beings, if your whole role in the world rests on the assumption that everything is connected to everything else, that pulling one string pulls all the strings, then giving away that pretty cloud is far from pointless—it’s your job. It’s work that, by definition, requires giving everything away. And when we do that, when we truly let go on that level, we understand that any kind of transaction in which we expect something in return—yes, even a thank you—creates yet another thing we need to offer up.
One moment at a time, one encounter at a time, we can unlearn the reflex of closing our hands and learn, instead, to leave our hands open, always giving. Never grabbing, never expecting, never waiting. A bird can land on your palm, and you can give it away—not because it’s yours but because you understand it never could be.
Whatever it is, whatever beauty or kindness you see, offer it up and keep moving. Silently, invisibly, make an altar of the world.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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