COMMENTARY: The true meaning of courtesy

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Les Kaye is the abbot of Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center in Mountain View, Calif., and author of”Zen at Work.”He is the founder of Meditation at Work, an awareness training program for businesses.)

UNDATED _ The first Zen Buddhist wedding I attended, back in 1973, closed with the words,”Courtesy decorates the world; every phenomenon an instructor.” What a shock I felt hearing those words. My mind started spinning. Mentally, I was thrown off balance. It was like suddenly waking up in a strange world where nothing was familiar.

That experience was my first recognition of spiritual practice being other than mysterious, mystical or otherworldly but rather something to be expressed in the midst of the ordinary activities of life. It raised a large question: Is spirituality simply the things my mother taught me?

Is it merely the advice of Emily Post or Miss Manners? What was the real meaning of the priest’s words, I wondered?

Courtesy, I have discovered, is the beginning of selflessness. To be the opposite of selfless, to be self-oriented, means to be concerned for our own gratification. This concern can be an obsessive tendency, a very strong emotional pull.

In Buddhism, it is seen as a manifestation of”karma.”Its source is probably very old, its beginnings beyond our control. But although this tendency may not have been our fault at its start, we have to make an effort to go beyond the overriding anxiety for our own comforts and pleasures and the limitations that puts on our response to life, our sense of well-being and our relationships with others.

Otherwise we run the risk of becoming arrogant.

Sitting quietly in meditation helps dissolve our self-orientation and reorients us toward others. However, in addition to meditation we need to make a conscious effort to express our spiritual practice in our daily actions, particularly in our relationships. Without this effort, sitting quietly is a waste of time.

Zen master Dogen, who established the Soto school of Zen in Japan in the 13th century, recognized the importance of courtesy as an expression of selflessness, complaining of mindless monks who were”careless of greetings and bows.” Former President Harry Truman had a sense of the fundamental courtesy that is more than simple politeness. His biography describes his daily walks, part of the routine he established following his retirement to his home in Independence, Mo.

When passing a tree he would stop and speak to it, saying,”You are doing a good job.”This was not an act of superficial courtesy. Rather, it was an expression of the inherent, universal courtesy that exists everywhere, reflecting the understanding that everything is doing its best in accordance with everything else.

Even though Truman was criticized for being unsophisticated, he knew how to”greet and bow.”Years after he died, he was recognized as having been perhaps one of our best presidents.

Thoughtful, selfless courtesy is more than a brief gesture, polite word or forced smile. The Chinese Zen master Fuyo Dokai, who lived in the 11th century, advised,”Stop longing for fame and gain; regard everything you see as a flower growing on a rock.” This reverence for all things is a reflection of fundamental courtesy. It is the ultimate expression of spiritual practice. It is compassion itself, extending beyond the transient meeting of the moment.

Courtesy in its true, fundamental sense is not about making people like us. It is not meant to manipulate or seduce others to gain their approval. On the contrary, it is beyond gaining something for our self.

Dogen said,”Even in the golden region of Chinese Zen, countless ordinary people drown on dry land.”Why, when life is inherently full and complete _ when it is inherently”golden”_ do we feel”dry”? It is because we are choking on ideas of our own self, drowning in the ordinariness of misunderstanding because we do not appreciate the meaning of selfless, fundamental courtesy.

Spiritual practice is about not remaining”ordinary,”not letting self-orientation stick in our throat and get in the way of understanding. So whether moving or sitting, we need to encourage the mind of true courtesy and to encourage the minds and hearts of others.

Most important, we should make an effort to reach out to people whose behavior we don’t care for, going beyond judgment and resistance. Spiritual practice means to express true courtesy to people who act foolishly, who are confused because of their own karmic tendencies.

Spiritual practice is about paying reverence to all things with our courtesy.

The following poem expresses this feeling:”In midday, the ginkgo tree shakes its leaves and branches.

Out of courtesy, the wind arises.

Long before dawn the stone at the river’s bottom

Makes way for the flowing water.” IR END KAYE

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