Uselessness and Benefitting Others

Today’s post is by Shirin McArthur

I recently read a Buddhist story, shared by Andō, a Zen poet I follow online, about The Useless Tree. In a nutshell (!), the story is that an oak tree grew so twisted and gnarly that its wood was not considered useful, so it was not disturbed. The point was that the very perception of uselessness meant that people left the tree alone. It grew and flourished, taking its own time and trajectory, without interference or threat. In Andō’s words, “it remained, useless, uncut, growing older, becoming ancient, fulfilling its own true nature.”

My sense of the goal of Zen Buddhism is to become still and silent, to find one’s own true nature and live it fully. Somewhat in contrast, my Christian heritage teaches me that benefiting others is a further, resulting goal of achieving a level of self-knowledge. As Jesus said, “Love your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do for others what you would like them to do for you.”

Therefore, I love a uselessness where my very being benefits others. If I were such a gnarled tree, providing shade and a place to rest would be a prime goal of my being. Others would not need to cut off my branches to benefit themselves. They would not need to strip me of my fruit, but rather simply gather the nuts that I freely released to the earth.

That kind of ideal uselessness happens when we let go of our need to change the other. For me, this is a key realization. What would it be like if we approached all our relationships with this more extreme version of that old physicians’ adage to do no harm?

It would mean releasing all our expectations about the other. It would mean intentionally learning the other’s true nature so that we would not inadvertently damage anyone by forcing them to be something they are not. For example, how many children’s branches have been prematurely pruned by ego-driven parental expectations?

It would also mean searching within ourselves to discern that true nature and not act in conflict with it. So many times we let others determine our choices because it’s easier to go with the flow and not cause waves, or we wish to attain success—as defined by others—rather than determining what best fits with our own created nature.

I spent a lot of years working in nonprofit administration. The jobs weren’t bad, but they also weren’t ultimately lifegiving either—despite the overtly religious nature of some of those organizations. Being in the right place, but doing the wrong job, is like that gnarled tree attempting to house humans instead of birds. I had to learn my true nature—which is an innate facility with the English language—and take the risk of becoming an editor and writer. In this way, I still benefit those religious organizations, but now in a way that is aligned with my true nature.

What is your true nature?

Can you approach others with curiosity rather than an agenda? Can you be open to discovering the true nature in others and welcome the gifts they freely let fall to the earth?

September 09, 2018 by Shirin McArthur
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