2016-08-29

No Desire for the Fruits of Your Action

Attain the Good You Will Not Attain, part 2

Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it. The toil of body and soul, we offer up to the universe, and what the universe makes of it is not ours to say.

Is the world making any progress? Is the world getting more fair, or more just? Activists for peace and justice, have devoted much energy to devising strategies. While we can point to progress in some areas, when we look at the refugee crisis, ISIS, Boko Haram – or here in the US, the poverty rate has been fluctuating between 11 percent and 15 percent for the last 50 years, and right now it’s back up to 15 percent again. Income inequality worsens. Our black communities have been calling attention to police brutality since the 1960s. Atmospheric CO2 is not coming down.

Desired outcomes have not been achieved. This may be disheartening. It is less disheartening if we understand that achieving desired outcomes is not the main reason for activism. We inherit a Western philosophical tradition that has stressed consequences – as in utilitarianism’s dictum that you must so act as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, and also in Kant’s categorical imperative that tells you to imagine the effects on the world of everybody else adhering to whatever ethical principle you might be following.

Eastern thought brings attention to another sort of consequence: to ourselves. Hinduism teaches:
“If I chop down a tree that blocks my view, each stroke of the ax unsettles the tree; but it leaves its mark on me as well, driving deeper into my being my determination to have my way in the world.”
According to Hindu doctrine every action performed upon the external world reacts on the doer.

When our work, our labor – our vocation or our social action -- is the projection of our ego upon the world, it is ultimately forlorn. Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, tells us,
“Those who perform actions without attachment, resigning the actions to God, are untainted by their effects as the lotus leaf by water....Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give, whatever austerity you practice, O Son of Kunti, do this as an offering to Me. Thus shall you be free from the bondages of actions that bear good and evil results.”
And another Hindu text, the Bhagavata Purana, praises those who “have no desire for the fruits of their actions.”

We lose our center when we become anxious over the outcome of our actions. “Do without attachment the work you have to do,” says the Bhagavad-Gita.

A tale tells of a yogi meditating by the banks of the Ganges. He repeatedly rescues a scorpion that falls in the river, and is repeatedly stung by it. When asked why he does this, the yogi explains, “It is the nature of scorpions to sting. It is the nature of yogis to help when they can.” Reading that story, it occurred to me -- as it perhaps would have occurred to you -- that the yogi might have been more helpful had he placed the scorpion somewhat farther away from the water, so it wouldn't keep falling in again. We do need to take practical effectiveness into account.

We also need – and this is the greater need and the one we in the West are prone to overlook entirely – to let our action flow from the depths of who we are, from the compassion and wisdom that is, as the Buddhists say, our inherent Buddha-nature. Let the nature of scorpions be to sting. It is our nature to live out of love.

We are Unitarian Universalists, and our tradition emphasizes this life. We believe in social progress. We are committed to it. What we learn from the east is that we are more likely to achieve it when we forget about achieving.

Don’t think you will attain good. Set aside that ego projection. And in setting it aside, we can also lay down the burden of worries about failure to be good.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Attain the Good You Will Not Attain"
See also
Part 1: Life Is Not a Utilitarian Calculation
Part 3: Doing Without Hope

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