I would love to tell you a story about seasoned potatoes, but in order to tell that story I need to share some clunky theoretical stuff. Care to humor me?
In most strains of Buddhist practice there seem to be two somewhat opposite and complementary notions: one being that a wholesome intention empowers any action to become wholesome, and the other is that a wholesome action has the power to shape one’s intentions.
To serve up a rather simple example, consider bowing. One way to look at bowing is to fill the elements of a full prostration up with noble thoughts and intentions. Perhaps the practitioner mentally takes refuge in the triple gem in each of a series of three bows, or uses that time to reflect on humility or gratitude.
Another perspective on bowing is that the physical practice of placing yourself in a humble and vulnerable position, lowering your head and placing it on equal footing with your heart, can itself create feelings of humility and gratitude over time. This perspective relies on the theory of cognitive dissonance: that we all must conceive of the world as reasonable and governed by rules, and that we adjust our mental attitudes to be in line with our behavior when there is a conflict.
Alright. Keeping all that good stuff in mind, can we proceed to the potatoes now? Are we all together?
On one occasion, not long ago, I was enduring a week of particularly stringent exams at university. On a given day I had gotten up in the morning, rushed out to class, and had been on campus studying or attending meetings with my professors up until the early evening. As the day rolled to an end, I took my last few dollars and I bought some Panda Express. Now, Panda express can very often be a terrible thing, but at this point I was famished and it was the largest amount of food available for the smallest amount of money. Additionally, I had chosen some delicious chicken and potatoes.
I had never seen such a thing before: the chicken, as it typically is, was just chicken, but the potatoes were golden crinkle cut rectangles of luscious loving- ever so gently moistened with a brilliant amber sauce. They were not crispy, but firm, flaky, and flavorful.
As I paid for my food, I tasted one or two such potato chunks, and upon biting into their starchy flesh harpy paeans erupted from the four quarters of my mind and danced in circles around my tongue. I was hungry, and now I was fed. All was right with the world.
I walked down into the brisk evening air down a flight of stairs to a street which would take me back to my apartment. There was a bus stop filled with the typical students waiting to be transported to their homes, but among the students, hunched over the rubbish bin, was an old woman. As I walked by, she made wide steps, and with a thick Eastern-European accent and a gaze that saw beyond me, she formed one word into a question: food.
What she was asking for was my carton of rice and potatoes, which I had been hungrily eating as I walked. She had asked me for something to eat, and I had food. And I had to give it to her.
So I did. I gave the old woman my potatoes. For that moment I am very proud. What I am not proud of were all of the thoughts on the long, heavy walk home.
Why did I have to walk home that way? If I had not encountered her, I could have kept my food. Why didn’t she ask me for money, which I did not have? Why didn’t I eat my food inside instead of walking down the street parading my tubers about for all the world to see?
I spent the walk home, and a great many moments beyond that, wishing away that act. When that happens, can it be called generosity? My intentions were not good at all: I gave because I felt I had to. That it was my responsibility. I did not give with an open heart.
When I remember that time, I try to remember that second kind of practice that I talked about earlier: that hopefully giving will transform my terrible attitudes. That maybe the next time, or the time after that, I can be glad to let go of my potatoes.