There is a story I read once about a man who lived during the time of the Buddha. This man wanted to become a monk so he went to one of the Buddha’s monastic disciples and asked for ordination. The disciple thought deeply about the matter and told him: “I have looked into 100 or so of your past lives and I haven’t been able to see anything that you have done to create the merit to become a monk, so I am unable to ordain you.” Disappointed, the man went away and reflected on this and, not wanting to give the thing up, he decided to try again. He decided to go to another of the Buddha’s disciples, one he thought was more advanced, and told him of his situation. That disciple considered the matter deeply and again told him no, saying that he had looked through five hundred of the man’s former lives and still could not find any deeds meriting ordination.
Again disappointed, the man went away and reflected on his situation. Again he did not want to give the matter up and, fearful and near despair, he decided to go to the Buddha himself. The Buddha heard his story and, reflecting deeply on the matter for a long time, finally said “ah, there, I see that 1000 lifetimes ago you found yourself stuck up in a tree and you called out for help. That action created sufficient merit for you to be ordained as a monk.” And so he was.
Setting aside any questions about former lives and what kind of karma is necessary to become a monk, it is interesting to me to see that such value is put on the act of asking for help. In another place, I read that the Buddha advised that if we would like to become wise, we should seek out a wise person and ask them to teach us.
The matter of giving and receiving help can be a tricky thing, fraught with difficulty, but clearly there is much merit to be found in working out how we can incorporate into our lives asking for and giving help. There is just a lot of merit in being willing to give help to those around us and also to learn to receive the help that is offered to us.
One of the distorting factors around the matter of help is our own distorting desire. One time, when I was in my twenties, I was between jobs and, because there were some things I found very difficult about being a baker (namely the early morning hours!) I was looking for a job in another field. At the time I was sharing a house with some friends and I was behind in my rent, so I went to my dad to ask him to help me with some money to cover my rent: he said no. This stung and was very difficult for me to bear: I was angry with him; I was angry because I did not get what I wanted. I didn’t understand until later how hard it must have been for him to say no to me or how true and responsible to his own circumstances his answer was; and, in the end, his response was truly helpful to me.
At the time all of this took place, I had been earnestly practicing for a few years, and, if there was one message that had come through to me from the Dharma, it was that I could and, in fact, I must, take responsibility for my own life and choices. No matter how much some part of me might want it, the one thing that true help will not replace is responsibility for my own life. While I was, and still am, deeply grateful for the kind generosity of my friends at the time of this incident, I really did not want to over-stretch that generosity. Happily for me, an opportunity to take a baking job came up. This meant that, in order to be responsible, I felt I needed to take the job and deal with the difficulty I had with the hours. So I did, even though some part of me did not want to.
There are many places and many levels at which we can ask for and give help. During this period and since then, I was asking the Dharma for help in the form of reading and studying the teachings; asking the Sangha for help in the sense of going to the monks for teaching and advice and asking my friends, family and fellow practitioners for practical help. I also asked the Buddha for help in the internal way we can do that. Even though all this asking for help did not take away the difficulty that was mine to bear, it did make it much more bearable. (Of course I was also, and still am, giving help where I could and can.)
This experience with my dad helped make the point that sometimes when we ask for help, the answer we will get is “no.” Looking back on it, I am really glad, for my dad’s sake, that he said no. It turns out that he actually did not have the money, because, in part, of his own irresponsibility around money and I am glad he took the risk of saying no to me. (I have always kept my parents at arm’s length, and I understand, from my older brother, that this was difficult for my dad to bear.) While I found it bitter, I didn’t hold it against him for long and he knew that.
Another thing that distorts this matter of giving and receiving help is our attachment to our own notions of self. As I have mentioned before, I tend to get all tangled up in issues of adequacy and inadequacy. Because of this I tend to have questions like: “Is my self adequate and will asking for help mean that the self is really inadequate? If I ask for help and the answer is no, what will I do?” My favorite distortion is some variation on the theme, “I must not ask for help or even look at the need for help, because that will prove that I am inadequate, and I couldn’t bear that,” and then the very refusal to ask for help can sometimes lead to disastrous failure, thus proving inadequacy. A sad quagmire of suffering. For myself, this is solved, like the man in the opening story, by not giving up on the process of asking for help: asking, responsibly accepting the answer given, learning, asking, accepting, learning: not giving up.
Of course the self that thinks it knows everything, the one convinced of its own superiority, can also be a menace. I once knew a person who was a social worker and she said that in her office they had a sign that said “the helping hand strikes again!” And, I should add that inadequacy and adequacy are not the only way that the self manifests and it is for each of us to look honestly at ourselves to see how we hold on to notions of self.
Another thing that gets in the way of helping or being helped is our opinions about how things should be done our how they should look. One time, when I was a novice working at Shasta in the sacristy (the monastic office responsible for organizing ceremonies), it was the big and very busy retreat for Jukai, the Giving and Receiving of the Ten Precepts. One of the lay ministers who was staying at the monastery was assigned to our monastic office to help out as needed. This was potentially a big boon since many of the other retreat guests were new and needed to go to all events and the lay ministers had a little flexibility about whether to go to some events or not.
So, during a work period I noticed that this person was off doing something and there was a more urgent job which we hoped to have them do. I was asked to ask them to change to doing this other work. When asked to make the change, the person got all huffy and said something like “I came here to do what needs to be done!” and went back to the job they had decided they needed to be doing. I should say that I don’t really know what was going on with that person and I have a lot of respect for them and their training; I bring up the incident not to criticize, but to use it as an illustration of how our ideas can get in the way of helping.
One of the things we are asked to do when we participate in a retreat at a temple like Shasta, is to make letting go of our preferences about what we are doing a part of our practice. We do this by just doing what we are asked to do. I might prefer to sit and read rather than weed in the garden, but the schedule says it is time to do working meditation and I have been asked to help in the garden, so I go to the gardener and ask “how can I help?” In this I try to, with gentle kindness and friendliness, let go of my preferences.
Back, then, to the sacristy. I imagine to myself that it might have been nice for that helper to have said, “ah, my view of what needs to be done is being asked to shift and I will put down my view and accept this new direction: how can I help?” But instead, my view (Leon’s view) of what needs to be done was asked to shift (unwittingly by that helper). So, probably with some spluttering, the monk in charge and I (if I remember correctly) found a different way to handle the work that we hoped our helper would do.
And then finally, like many things in life, an important part of giving and receiving help is listening carefully, listening from a place of stillness, for what is really being asked for or offered. This listening in stillness can be applied to our own selves, especially when we are frustrated by not getting the help that we want or feel we need. Maybe we are asking in a way that can’t be heard clearly or are asking for something that can’t be given at a particular time. Bitter though that may be, it still represents an opportunity for practice. The practice of being willing to see clearly where we are holding on to some idea of self or idea about the way things should be, and, if those ideas are getting in the way, being willing to let those ideas go.
Or, sometimes a person may ask us for something that we cannot give them. But, if we listen carefully, with stillness and compassion, there may be something that we will be able to offer that will help: a kind word or just the willingness to listen.