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Goenkaji answers Questions related to Dhamma Seva

What contribution can we make in the spread of Dhamma?

The best contribution is to help yourself. Get established in Dhamma, and see that people start appreciating Dhamma by seeing your way of life.

What is the value of Dhamma service?

You are learning to apply Dhamma in day-to-day life. Dhamma is not an escape from daily responsibilities. By learning how to deal in a Dhammic way with students and situations here in the little world of a meditation centre, you train yourself to act in the same way in the world outside. Despite the unwanted behaviour of another person, you practice trying to keep the balance of your mind, and to generate love and compassion in response. This is the lesson you are trying to master here.

You are a student as much as those sitting in the course. Keep learning while humbly serving others; keep thinking, "I am here in training, to practice serving without expecting anything in return. I am working so that others may benefit from Dhamma. Let me help them by setting a good example, and in doing so, help myself as well".

What should we do when we are giving Dhamma service and a conflict arises with another Dhamma worker?

When you are in conflict or confrontation with others, retire from service; don't serve. When you cannot keep your mind free from negativities, keep the mind calm, quiet, full of love and compassion for others, then understand: "I am not fit to serve now - I had better meditate." Otherwise, you will only be distributing this vibration of negativity to others.

You may say, "The other person is at fault, not me." But whatever the apparent cause may be, your mistake is that you have started generating negativity.

If you find that there is some fault with those who are working with you, then very politely and very humbly you can point it out: "To me, it looks like this is not correct, this is not according to Dhamma." If the other person does not understand, then very humbly and politely explain again after some time. Still the other person may not agree. You have given all your reasons, explained your point of view calmly, without making your mind unbalanced.

Suppose this doesn't work. I would say that to explain your view twice is enough. In very rare cases you can do it a third time, but not more than that, never! Otherwise, no matter how correct your view may be, it shows that you have developed a tremendous amount of attachment to it. You want things to happen according to your view, and that is not helpful. When pointing something out to your Dhamma brother or sister who has made a mistake, you can mention it once, twice, at the utmost, thrice. If that doesn't help, then, without backbiting, politely tell him or her: "Well, this is my understanding. Perhaps our elders can explain it to you better than I can."

Before putting the case to anyone else, first talk with the person with you have a difference of opinion. Only then inform the elders, senior students, assistant teachers or, in rare instances, the Teacher. But first you have to speak with the person concerned. Only then there is no unwholesome speech. Otherwise, you are backbiting, you are breaking your sila, which is wrong.

Still, if nothing has worked and this person is not improving, then don't have aversion, have more compassion. You always have to examine yourself whether you are getting agitated when you want something very right to be done and it is not being done. If so, it means your ego is strong; your attachment to your ego, your views is strong. This is not Dhamma. Try to correct yourself before trying to correct others.

Please throw light on the role, and the relationship between Dhamma servers, trustees and assistant teachers.

If one serves Dhamma with the hope of material gain or even hoping for the subtler attraction of status and fame, one is not fit to be an assistant teacher, a trustee or a Dhamma server. One should generate only love and compassion for others and serve out of a feeling of gratitude and a wish to help them come out of misery, without expecting anything in return.

The position in which one works makes no difference; one must be, as far as possible, free from ego. If your service generates ego in your mind, it is polluted. When it cannot help you, how can it help others? A sick person cannot help another sick person. Come out of your own sickness first.

Once you have started serving, if you notice that you keep trying to assert your views, you should understand that at this time you are not fit to serve. You’d better meditate and come out of this egotism as much as possible before you continue with service. If this understanding develops at a deep level of the mind, the relationship between the assistant teachers, servers, management and trustees will be cordial; otherwise not.

The Buddha said that if somebody points out a defect to you, thank him. He is showing you a hidden treasure; you don’t know how useful this treasure is. Thank whoever points out your errors and examine yourself, thinking, “Yes, several people have told me I have this defect so I certainly must have it. Now I should not justify it, I’d better examine it and try to get rid of it.”

That is the best thing to do. It is difficult to discover whether one is at fault or not because the tendency is to justify one’s actions to oneself and others; but if you find you get irritated when people criticize you then yes, there really is something wrong within you. If you can’t bear somebody criticizing you, it shows you are still very weak in Dhamma.

The Buddha wanted us to live in cordiality without quarrelling. Buddha’s sons (buddhaputra) and Buddha’s daughters (buddhaputri) never quarrel, they always have piyacakkha, eyes full of love. Their relationship is like khira odaka, milk and water. Once combined, they can’t be separated. All those who are working for Dhamma should be like khira odaka, milk and water.

Whatever the way in which you serve Dhamma, you are a Vipassana meditator first and last, so work to eradicate your ego. If you do this, relationships will automatically become cordial. Make use of Dhamma for good

Why is it so important to maintain the Five Precepts on Dhamma land?

It is important to observe the Five Precepts everywhere but it is especially important on Dhamma land. The first reason is that it is so difficult to observe these precepts in the outside world. In daily life there are many reasons why people break their sila (morality). But on Dhamma land, where there is a wonderful Dhamma atmosphere, the influence of Mara is much weaker than in the outside world, so you should take advantage of this to strengthen yourself in sila. If you cannot observe silain an atmosphere like this, how can you expect to maintain sila in the world? How will you develop in Dhamma?

Secondly, it is meritorious to observe sila anywhere, but observing sila on Dhamma land is more meritorious. Equally, it is harmful to break sila anywhere, but breaking sila on Dhamma land is more harmful. Understand why this is so. As soon as a defilement is generated in the mind you contribute a bad vibration to the atmosphere, and you can’t break any sila unless some impurity first comes in the mind and then manifests as an unwholesome action of speech or body. If you generate that kind of vibration in a marketplace full of unhealthy vibrations, you contribute something bad to the atmosphere, no doubt. But it is already full of bad vibrations, so your contribution is inconspicuous — just as a new stain on a dirty shirt is inconspicuous. But if you generate mental defilements in the good atmosphere of a centre, you pollute the atmosphere in the same way that even a tiny spot of dirt spoils a clean white shirt.

The mind doesn’t stay idle; it generates either impurity or purity. When you don’t generate impurity you generate purity, good vibrations, and these are your positive contributions to the atmosphere. After all, how does land become Dhamma land? By the meditation of goodhearted people generating good vibrations, which permeate the atmosphere. This is your dana to the centre, and it is far superior to material dana.

The more people who meditate in one place, the stronger the vibration becomes. And the good vibrations at a Dhamma centre are helpful not only to those who attend the present courses; they also accumulate. This atmosphere of pure Dhamma will support students for generations, for centuries. You don’t know who will come to your centre after five or ten generations, after centuries. What a wonderful gift you are giving to those unknown people. Your dana is wonderful.

Equally, the negative vibrations you generate are harmful not only to the present meditators, but also to future meditators who won’t get the strong, good atmosphere that they should. That is why it is important to observe sila on Dhamma land. It is fruitful for the one who generates good vibrations by observing sila, and fruitful for others now and in the future.

Therefore observe sila. It is the foundation of Dhamma. Keep this foundation strong.

We feel that the hardest sila for us to observe when we are serving is right speech. As Dhamma servers it is difficult to avoid engaging in idle chatter or gossip, and sometimes we unwittingly spread misinformation or negativity. Also, private information about students is sometimes discussed. Can you guide us as to how to practise right speech?

Idle talk is a form of wrong speech; you are breaking your sila by indulging in idle talk and gossip. If somebody wants to gossip, they had better leave the Dhamma centre. Here, as the Buddha repeatedly used to say, have either Dhamma talk or tunhibhavo — noble silence, complete silence, nothing else. Otherwise, all the types of wrong speech that you mentioned are bound to occur. When you are chatting idly your mind is so loose that the talk becomes looser and looser, and you won’t care what you are saying, with the result that you may create difficulties for other students. This must be totally avoided.

Sometimes when we are serving a course, the topic of other techniques and therapies comes up naturally in conversation.

Just as gossip comes up naturally! Take out this “naturally” business! Whenever something wrong happens, people say it is happening “naturally.” Change that!

Some students find these conversations helpful in clarifying differences between Vipassana and other methods.

The conversations may also be helpful in creating confusion, so leave aside such clarification. You can discuss that sort of thing outside the centre, but not at the centre; not at any cost. If you want clarification take your question to an assistant teacher or teacher.

Please clarify how Dhamma service helps us to develop our paramis.

Dhamma service is actually one of the paramis, because a server contributes to the dana of Dhamma. People come here to receive the Dhamma and your service ensures that this gift of Dhamma can occur. Of the ten paramis, dana is one of the greatest, and dhammadana is the highest form of that dana. The Buddha said, Sabbadanam dhammadanam jinati —The highest dana is the dana of Dhamma.

When you give dana to a hospital, a school or an orphanage, people benefit — it is a parami — but later on the recipients will once again lack medicine, food or clothing. If you give monetary dana to a place where Dhamma is taught, it is more valuable because the Dhamma gives people the path from misery to liberation, and nothing compares to that. So donating to an organization or a centre that gives Dhamma is a valuable parami, but the parami of dana is even more valuable when you give physical service.

What, after all, is parami? It is just a mental volition. Before you give a monetary dana you feel, “Ah, wonderful, my money will be used for a very good purpose!” That volition becomes your parami.

We don’t say that giving money is bad, no. It is important, it is good, and it gives very good results. But giving service is many times more fruitful because you generate metta and goodwill for such a long time. Every moment during service your parami is developing. So to me Dhamma service is the greatest dana.

While giving service there will be times when the students are agitated and negative because a deep operation is going on, and they throw this agitation at you. You smile and understand, “Oh, this person is miserable.” You don’t react with negativity but generate metta for them, so your khanti parami, the parami of tolerance, becomes stronger, and your metta parami becomes stronger. Then two or three times a day you meditate and your panna parami is strengthened. Similarly for the paramis of sila, nekkhamma [renunciation], viriya [effort], sacca [truthfulness], adhitthana [strong determination], and upekkha [equanimity] — all are strengthened by giving Dhamma service.

When you sit a course you deal only with yourself, but when you serve you learn how to deal with others and how to live properly in the outside world. You may have practised Vipassana diligently and maintained equanimity towards all sensations, but you are not supposed to live in a glass house. You have to apply Dhamma in the world outside, and that is not easy. In a centre you are in a protected, healthy, wholesome atmosphere and that gives you the strength to apply Vipassana to face the vicissitudes of life.

I know from my own experience and also from that of others who have started giving Dhamma service, that meditation improves after serving. The meditation is deeper, the equanimity is stronger, and there is more metta. This is because the paramis have increased by giving Dhamma service. In every way Dhamma service gives wonderful results.

Sometimes on a course we find that for one reason or another conflicts arise between Dhamma servers. How can we best use our service to confront our own egos and to develop humility?

When you are not able to keep your mind calm, quiet, full of love and compassion for others, and negativity arises, you should retire from service. You may say, “It’s not my fault, the other person is to blame.” Whatever the truth is, it is your fault that you have started generating negativity. You have become involved in conflict with others, so you should understand that you are not fit to serve at that time. You had better meditate. Sit and meditate. You can’t serve people when you are generating negativity because you would throw the vibration of negativity at them.

If you find there is a fault with another server, politely and humbly place your view before him or her. Calmly explain your concerns and sincerely try to understand the other’s point of view. If this person doesn’t change, after some time you can again politely and humbly explain your concern. Perhaps the other person still doesn’t agree, but I would say explaining your view twice is enough. In very rare cases you can discuss the problem a third time, but never more than that. Otherwise, however correct your view may be, raising the same concern more than three times shows that you have developed a tremendous amount of attachment; you want things to happen according to your understanding. That is wrong. Explain your concern once, twice, at most three times, and if there is still no change politely tell him or her, “Well, this is my understanding, now let’s put the question to a senior.” But before putting the case to anybody else, first talk with the person with whom you have a difference of opinion.

After that you can inform your seniors — whether it is a senior student, the trustees, an assistant teacher, a senior assistant teacher, the local teacher or the Teacher.

Remember that first you have to discuss the problem with the person concerned. If you work in this way there will be no unwholesome speech; otherwise there would be backbiting, which is wrong.

If nothing happens and this person does not amend their ways, don’t have aversion for them, have more compassion. Always examine yourself. If you feel agitated because something you want is not being done, it is clear that your ego is strong and your attachment to your ego is predominant. This is not Dhamma. Amend yourself before trying to amend others.

Sometimes it seems that we are picking up negativity, fear, etc. from the students we are serving. How does this happen and what can we do?

You can’t pick up anything from others. If you are affected by a student’s emotions, it is because you have a stock of the same kind of impurity within you. For example, if a fear complex comes to the surface in a student because of their practice of Vipassana, the atmosphere around them will become charged with that kind of vibration and that stimulates your own stock of fear to arise. Be thankful to the student that this situation has allowed your own impurity to be eradicated. Meditate, observe sensations, and come out of it. Why worry?

While you are here in this atmosphere, you can work on anything that comes up and eradicate it. If you are free from a particular impurity, nothing will happen when you come in contact with that impurity. Let’s say somebody generates anger near a Buddha, anger would not arise in the Buddha because he is totally free from anger. So long as you have the seed of a particular impurity within you, when the same impurity arises in your vicinity it will stimulate your own impurity.

Why are both students and Dhamma servers asked to refrain from physical contact with others at a course site or centre, whether a course is going on or not? Can’t physical contact also be a way of expressing metta?

You say physical contact is just an expression of metta, but that is slippery ground because you don’t know when you will get caught in passion. It is very important to avoid this danger.

There can be no justification for physical contact at a centre. People keep telling me that in the West physical contact doesn’t involve passion. Maybe not always, but I have seen cases in the West where a student on a course started having physical contact saying it was without passion, and ultimately it resulted in an unhealthy situation.

You have to be especially cautious because you are working on Dhamma land, and the anti-Dhamma forces will always try to pull you down. You are representing Dhamma. If you have any little weakness (and passion is a great weakness) these anti-Dhamma vibrations will arouse passion in you, and you will spoil the entire atmosphere. So you’d better avoid any kind of physical contact. However people may justify it, don’t listen to their arguments. It is a strict rule in every Dhamma centre or even at a non-centre course that no physical contact is allowed.

When students are serving on courses or staying at centres, they might feel an attraction to a person with whom they would like to establish a relationship, and hopefully, a Dhamma partnership. How should students who are at the beginning stages or later stages of a new relationship conduct themselves when they are serving on courses or at centres?

It must be very clear that Dhamma land is not the proper place for any kind of courtship — whether it is the early or the later stage of a relationship makes no difference. If any Dhamma server finds that he or she is becoming attracted towards another person they should immediately leave, they should not stay at the centre even for a minute. Develop your romantic relationships outside the Dhamma centre. At a Dhamma centre you have to behave towards each other like brothers and sisters. Even a trace of passion arising in the mind of anyone will disturb the atmosphere of the centre, and this has to be avoided at all costs. It should be made crystal clear to every Dhamma server that a Dhamma centre is not a place for courtship.

Why is it necessary to maintain segregation of sexes on the courses and at the centres?

For the same reason as given above. Passion is the greatest weakness, and it will find some way or the other to express itself unless you maintain segregation. So it is better to remain segregated. This is healthy both for you and for the students who have come for the course.

Is there any purpose behind the old students’ chanting of sadhu and bowing, or is this just a rite or ritual?

They are not part of a rite or a ritual. As I said earlier, the extremity at the top of the head can receive vibrations. When a teacher expresses metta by saying Bhavatu sabba mangalam (May all beings be happy), he or she generates good vibrations, and when you bow down you accept those vibrations of metta at the top of the head. It is in your own interest to accept good vibrations. If you are thirsty and somebody offers you water, you will get the water only if you cup your hands together. If you keep your hands apart the water will be lost.

Saying sadhu is an expression of sympathetic joy, and you join with the teacher’s feeling of joy when you say this. Both bowing and saying sadhu are in your own interest, they are not part of any rite or ritual. They are a healthy tradition from the past. Make use of them.

What qualities do you take into consideration in the appointment of assistant teachers and trustees?

A long list of qualities, but I keep them private. However, I would like to say something that disqualifies somebody from becoming an assistant teacher or a trustee. If someone is eager to become a teacher, eager to become a trustee, a secretary, a manager, eager to have some position, status or power, then a red line is marked under the name of this person. Such a person is not fit to serve in the field of Dhamma. Somebody who has the volition, “I want to serve and I am willing to serve in any position. If I am asked to stand as a watchman, I will serve as a watchman; if you ask me to sweep the latrine, I will sweep the latrine” — and he or she does that, then this person is fit. One day, as he or she develops other qualities, such a person can reach the highest position. Dhamma service is not to develop the ego. It is to dissolve the ego.

You have always emphasized that we should have compassion towards the cruel. But in view of the large-scale violence and killing of innocent people that is going on all around, what role can we perform as students of Vipassana, as Dhamma servers, trustees or as assistant teachers, teachers?

A very important question, no doubt. There are two aspects of Dhamma. One aspect of Dhamma is purification of the individual. Another aspect is purification of the society. Both are important. But to purify the society, the purification of the person is a prerequisite. Unless individuals are purified—unless they have love, compassion and goodwill for others — we can’t expect a true Dhammic society. So at this stage we are trying to introduce Vipassana in India and the rest of the world. A time will certainly come when on a large scale, these very meditators can play a major role. But even now, individually, if people find that they can help in some kind of work to extinguish the fire

What contribution can we make in the spread of Dhamma?

The best contribution is to help yourself. Get established in Dhamma, and see that people start appreciating Dhamma by seeing your way of life, “Look, before going to Dhamma, this person was one way, and now what a big change has come! A change for the better has come!” If they find that there is no change in this person, or he or she has become worse and started generating ego now, thinking, “I am a grand Vipassana meditator. I am a very purified person!”—then they will run away from Dhamma. In trying to spread Dhamma, no purpose will be served.

Each individual is a representative of Dhamma, so each individual has to be very careful. If one is a Vipassana meditator, or somebody in the Vipassana organization with more responsibility, then one is in the limelight now. People will look at you, at your behaviour, your way of life, your way of dealing with things. And if they find defects in you, this will make people run away from Dhamma. To encourage people, the best thing is to become an ideal person yourself. People will get encouragement from this. Giving information to people that there is something like this going on, that there is a technique which can help us to come out of our misery—this information is very important. In the West you have started to have public talks, showing videotapes — a few people gather, and there are people to answer questions. In this way also, people should hear about Dhamma. A large number of people, the vast majority, do not even know that there is something like this going on. This information should be offered in a very humble way. This will help.

Goenkaji, every time assistant teachers enter and leave the meditation hall, Dhamma servers bow down. The students are watching this, and when they offer Dhamma service they do the same thing. It has become almost a ritual. Could you please advise on this?

In pure Dhamma no ritual at all should be allowed. Dhamma and ritual cannot co-exist. I find nothing wrong in somebody paying respect to an assistant teacher, provided that this person understands one is paying respect to Dhamma. An assistant teacher or whoever sits on the Dhamma seat — assistant or senior assistant or deputy or teacher, anybody — is representing the Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the entire lineage of the teachers of Vipassana. He or she lives a life of Dhamma and is serving people in Dhamma. One develops a feeling of devotion, of gratitude towards this person. Actually one is bowing down to Dhamma, paying respect to Dhamma. But when this becomes merely a formal rite or ritual, it goes totally against Dhamma. If someone bows out of respect and others feel, “If I do not bow then people will consider me a very discourteous person, so I must also bow,” again, there is no Dhamma. To act with Dhamma is always to have a pure volition in the mind. Otherwise it is just a mechanical exercise: You bow down and give good exercise to your back! If these back exercises are to be done, better do them in your own room.

If somebody does not bow because at that particular moment he or she has not developed the volition of devotion towards Dhamma, I feel happy, “Very good.” Bowing must be with this volition of paying respect to Dhamma, not to the individual.

Even the Buddha did not like people paying respect to him. He said, “You may be with me all the time, holding a corner of my robe, yet you are far away from me. But if you are practising Dhamma with purity of mind, though you may be thousands of miles away, you are near me.”

Yo dhammam passati so mam passati, yo mam passati so dhammam passati. One who is observing Dhamma — that means observing Dhamma inside — is observing me, is seeing me. If one is not observing Dhamma, then bowing down is merely a mad exercise.

All of us want to spread the Dhamma to relieve misery around the world. None of us, however, wants to create the impression of pushing Vipassana on others, as if we want to expand the size of our sect. Could you give some guidelines about spreading the word of this wonderful technique without giving others reason to label Vipassana as a cult?

If you are pushing Vipassana on others, you are pushing people away from Dhamma. How can anyone push this wonderful Dhamma on others? Actually the tradition—a healthy tradition— is that the Dhamma is not given to anyone unless the person very humbly requests it. How can you push it on others? If somebody requests, then you give it. Anybody who is trying to push Dhamma on others is certainly spreading cultism, certainly spreading sectarianism.

Dhamma is Dhamma, it has to be given with all the compassion and love. And people should accept it willingly, with all respect. Only then is it Dhamma, otherwise it is not.