First of all, I feel really at home amongst ten thousand Buddhas and all of you future Buddhas. And I speak in the spirit of learning from you although today I’m speaking in front of you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.
In India, when we meet and greet each other, we start by saying, “Namaste.” The most beautiful definition of ‘Namaste’ I’ve ever heard was a quote by Ram Dass that says, “I bow to the place in you where the entire universe resides. I bow to the place in you of love, of light, of peace, of truth. I bow to the place in you where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.” Namaste!
There is a Chinese story that I’ve always been very inspired by. There’s a young kid who wants to go out and change the world. He says, “There’s a lot of suffering. I want to go out and help the world.” He goes out and tries and realizes he can’t do it. He fails miserably. So he comes back and says, “Instead of changing the world, I’ll change my country. It’s a little easier!” and he tries for many years but fails again. Then he comes back and says, “I think I’ll change my state,” and again he fails. Then he comes back one more time and says, “Maybe I’ll try my city, my local community.” And again, he fails. So finally he says, “You know what, I’ll change my family, at least I can do that.” But he fails again because his family says to him, “You say one thing and you do something else!”
So after a full life of trying to change the world he comes back. He’s contemplating in his old age and says, “Forget everybody else. I failed, but I can change myself, and I can do that right now.” And so he does that, and the funny thing is that when he changes, his family around him changes. When his family around him changes, it goes out to the city, and the city to the state, and the country, and the world. So inner change, when you change yourself, you’re really changing the world from inside out.
And that’s sort of been my story in a way. When I was young, I saw a lot of suffering in the world and I said, “I want to change that. I want to try to do something about that.” And I tried, and it worked a little bit here, and didn’t work a little bit there. Then I said, “Let me try a different strategy. Let me try to change myself.” And I realized that when I changed myself, the external change happened naturally. I realized the difference between ‘doing good’ and ‘service’. Doing good, is good. But being good, being in a state of compassion, being in a state of effortless action is when service starts.
When I was in high school, all I wanted to do was get good grades and go to a good college. When I got to a good college (I was fortunate enough to get into a good college) and was studying at Berkeley, I realized I wasn’t good enough. I wanted to get to a good grad school. I wanted to impress my professors, I wanted to get a good letter of recommendation, I wanted to get a good job, I wanted to impress everybody, to get a lot of self-benefit. I wanted to be powerful, I wanted to be rich. I wanted to be everything that everyone always wants. But it was all…empty. There was no substance.
Whenever you try to satisfy this internal greed—which I had a lot of and still do—it’s a thirst that can’t be quenched. It’s a pit that has no bottom. It’s a losing fight right from the beginning. And I said, bit by bit, I said, “Let’s say I don’t want that. What if, instead of getting everything, what if I start giving? What would that be like?” And then I said, “What do you really have to give? Well, you don’t have any wisdom. You don’t have any money because you just got out of college. You don’t have any experience because you’re still young. What can you really give?”
I ran across a pretty cool story of a monkey and fish. A monkey’s sitting in a tree by a nice river and there’s a fish in the stream. The monkey says, “I want to help. Let me go out and help.” He says, “Look at this poor fish. You know, the fish has to work so hard to get food every day. It has to go upstream against the current. A fish has got a hard life; I need to go and help the fish.” So the monkey goes by the water and says, “Let me pick up the fish and bring the fish onto land” because the monkey thinks he’s helping the fish. But the fish dies because the monkey didn’t have any wisdom. In a way, this was how I realized the difference between ‘doing good’ and ‘service’.
A lot of us want to do good, but service requires an internal transformation. Service requires you to drop everything you know. Service requires you to touch that place in yourself where there are no ideas and beliefs, where you function from that pure space of compassion. I realized that that’s what I really wanted. So in the middle of my selfish pursuits I said, “Let’s go out and give. Let me just be in a space of compassion.”
So four of us went out to a local homeless shelter and said, “We’re here to help, to do what we can do.”
“Oh, what can you do?” they asked.
“Well, we’re from the Silicon Valley,” we said. “We can help you build a website!” They said, “Website…what’s that?”
“You know, a website’s a good thing,” we said. This was before everyone knew about websites.
We convinced them and they said, “OK, can you do this for us?” and we did it. It was a very rewarding experience. Instead of getting money for our services, we got this different kind of satisfaction. It was very deep and very lasting.
From then on we started building websites for non-profits. It was a pretty interesting journey, but along the way I started noticing what some other people in the world were doing. It was absolutely inspiring to see how much a mind-shift can change the whole world. If you look at the world with green goggles, everything looks green. Even a beautiful rainbow looks green because you have on green goggles. So I said, “What happens if you take those goggles off?” That was the challenge. If you take the goggles off it’s a whole new world.
I ran across this really inspiring story of this individual who was once a drug dealer and used to deal a lot of drugs. At one point, one of his relatives he used to do business with, I think his name was Pete, tells him, “Look, there’s this big drug deal. Once we do this, we can retire. We’ve done all these small jobs but now let’s do this one huge job.”
The other guy, whose name was Bo, says, “You know, this doesn’t seem right to me, I want to stop.”
“Are you sure, are you sure?” Pete asks. Bo says, “Yes, I’m sure.” So they both part ways. This is a big deal. Once Pete gets this he can retire for the rest of his life, but he gets caught and goes to jail. At the same time, Bo says, “You know, this is not for me; I want to go to an ashram. I want to go to a monastery.” So one of them gets caught and goes to prison, and the other one goes to a monastery. A year later they connect with each other.
This is a true story! A year later they connect with each other. Pete tells Bo, “Oh god, life is miserable.”
“Well, life is great for me,” Bo says. And then they started comparing notes.
Pete says, “Yeah, yeah, you don’t understand. At the prisons they make you do work day in and day out.” “Well, that’s kinda what we do at the monastery. We do work, you know. We call it service,” Bo responds. Pete says, “No, but you don’t understand; we don’t get paid for it.” “Oh, no, we don’t get paid for it either!” So Pete says, “Oh, yeah, well, but at least you don’t have to wear the same exact clothes every day. In the prison, they make us wear the same clothes. But Bo goes, “Uh, well, at the monastery, we wear the same clothes. We wear robes!” “Yeah, well, I don’t know,” says Pete. “We can’t even have sex in the prisons.” “Well, that’s celibacy. We don’t do lustful things in the monastery either!”
So they go on and on and on. They compare the two—a prison and a monastery and they realize that they’re pretty much identical! “And, you know,” Pete says, “we just have to sit in one confining cell all day, nobody there with us…” “Well yeah, that’s kinda what we call meditation.”
They look at each other. Bo says, “Well what’s going on? What’s the difference?” And he realize it’s all really about the green goggles. The difference was the point of view; the difference was about the perspective. One of them didn’t have the right mindset, the other one had a different mindset, and so he was happier because he was in this space of giving. He was doing the same exact things, but there were two totally different outcomes. So what Bo does next is something very interesting.
He says, “You know what? I want to turn prisons into meditation halls.” That was a pretty ridiculous idea if you think about it: how the heck can you turn prison halls into meditation halls? But he went out and said, “OK, I just want a job at the prison halls.” So he got a job and he would go out and talk to the prisoners. He started doing all these things.
All the prison guards were looking at him and saying, “Um…what is this guy doing? He’s got a job outside, but he’s talking to all the prisoners—and all the prisoner are listening to him!” He ended up starting the Meditation Ashram Project. I think he’s been to thousands of different prisons, and he gets warring tribes inside the prisons to look at each other, to meditate, to work, and tap a space of compassion within themselves. And all it was about was realizing that it doesn’t matter where you are; it’s really all about the shift of perspective.
To be continued