the philosophy of an acrobat

Once a year, on the 31st of December, we go as a group into the forest to spend the night there, practicing building a shelter and surviving in the wilderness. On the latest occasion, we had more people with us than usual, and we set off into the woods as a fairly long procession of people, most people dragging a sled behind them.

The way was long, and hard; through the snowy forest where for much of the way there was no trail, hauling the sleds (which didn’t seem very heavy at first but got progressively heavier the longer we walked) up steep hills, and pulling them down equally steep slopes.

At one point, as we were going down a slope, I was strongly reminded of a story that Ajan once told me about two acrobats, and how he used it to explain the quality of generosity, or more particularly, “dana” in Buddhist philosophy. But before I tell you the story, I should explain something about how to walk in the forest while pulling a sled.

When you want to go down a steep slope dragging a sled behind you, there is a danger that if you keep pulling it behind you, it will take off and start sliding fast downhill, hitting into you as you walk in front of it. When we walk as a group, in a line following one another, each one pulling his sled behind, there is a technique to all descend safely together.

It works by making a kind of chain: each sled has a rope tied to the back of it, so that when we start walking down a slope, each person takes hold of the rope that is tied to the sled in front of him, while still pulling his own sled with the other hand.

In this way, each person holds the sled in front of him, so that it doesn’t run into the person in front, and in turn has their sled held by the person behind him.

As I looked at the chain of people walking with their sleds, each one carefully placing his feet and trying not to fall or let go of his rope, knowing that if he let go or slipped, the one in front could get hurt – I remembered this story about two acrobats.

There were once two acrobats, one young and one older, his master in the trade. They did many tricks together, involving complicated balancing acts, throwing one another through the air, and so on.

One of their tricks involved the younger acrobat standing on the shoulders of the old master, and from there doing some gymnastics. One day while they were practicing this trick together, the old master acrobat said to the younger one:

“If you always take care and help me keep my balance, and I always take care not to knock you off balance, then we will not fall and we will make money..”

“No, no,” said the younger acrobat, “It doesn’t work like that. Here’s how it works: I will take care of myself and work to keep my balance, you take care of yourself, and hold onto your balance. So that way neither of us will ever fall, and that way we will make money – because when I stay strong and stable, I’m helping you to keep your balance, and when you are steady and don’t wobble around, you’re helping me to keep my balance too.”

When you look after yourself, you look after me. By helping you I help myself. It was like that too when we were carrying our sleds on New Year’s Eve – each person taking extra care not to fall down, to keep strong and stable himself in his step and his hold, helping the other not to lose his footing, simply by not losing his own.

Ajan uses the story of the acrobats to demonstrate the idea of Dana, or “generosity” as it is usually translated in English. The word “generosity” does not quite do full justice to the idea of Dana, which needs a bit more explanation.

In its full meaning, Dana is based on this simple law: when you do good, you receive good – with interest. When you do wrong and cause suffering, you receive suffering with interest. Dana refers to the first part, of doing good – it means that, by giving and being generous, you are securing a future in which good things will come to you. The more you give, the more good will come to you in the future.

When people hear this, they sometimes react, “But that’s not real giving, if you’re just doing it for yourself – that’s only selfishness!”

What brings up the word “selfish” in the mind is the idea that by doing this good action, you are securing a good future for yourself. However, at least in my own experience, this future gain is not the main motivation behind giving; more like a pleasant side effect. Nor is pure Dana ever motivated by the expectation of something in return – whether it be a gift in return, or just attention, approval, appreciation, hearing the words “thank you.”

When you give like this, freely without any expectation of something in return, the benefit is felt, not only at some unknown point in the future, but right here in the present: because true generosity towards others is very lightening for the heart, bringing with it the best kind of happiness: the knowledge that you have done good. This happiness comes completely freely and of its own accord, and is not connected with any expectation of future gain; you feel it regardless of whether you believe in the law of kamma or not.

Proper looking after yourself, self love, or self-care, to use the most clichéd words possible – it means this! It’s not treating yourself to a massage, or your daily fancy coffee. When you look after yourself by making the effort to do good, to help others and avoid doing wrong as much as possible, you immediately are rewarded with the happiness and peace of mind that comes with it, and meanwhile the effect of your acts of goodness spread everywhere, to all those around you.

You can see how it is like the story of the two acrobats, or like making a chain to walk down a slope while pulling a sled behind: by looking after you, I look after myself. Helping myself means I’m helping you. In those examples, as in Dana, there is nothing really to separate or differentiate the acts of helping oneself and of helping others: they are one and the same.

There is one more aspect of Dana that makes it mean more than simple generosity – it is the idea that when you give to someone, you contribute to, take part in, and therefore you share the result of, whatever work they are doing and will go on to do.

That means that when you come across somebody who is wise, moral, and working to do good in the world, you are delighted and grateful to have somebody like that to whom you can offer service, to have the chance to contribute to them and their goodness; because such people are quite a rare find. It creates a sense of respect and honour around the generosity you do, and adds to the joy of it.

This aspect of Dana is incredibly important in this group of people all working to be better, to do more good and less harm, to grow their qualities and remove faults. In particular, it’s the perfect antidote to things like jealousy and competition, which might otherwise appear easily in a group of students all striving to learn under a teacher – a fertile soil for these particular weeds.

Keeping Dana always in mind, how could jealousy or competition ever get the upper hand among such people? Each of us is surrounded by others to whom it is an honour to give, an honour to serve, an honour to help. The more the other progresses and works well, the more we are honoured to serve them, and the more we help ourselves to progress, in turn, by doing so.

Together we walk down the slope. Keeping ourselves strong we help everyone else to keep their balance. Looking after you, I look after myself. To love myself, I serve you.

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