A farmer went to see the Buddha. He had heard that the Buddha could help him with his problems. When they spoke, the farmer told the Buddha "I am a farmer, but sometimes my fields are too low. Sometimes it rains and the crops rot in the fields. Sometimes I have good years, but I have bad years, too. The Buddha nodded solemnly. The farmer went on to say “I am married, and I love my wife, but sometimes she complains too much and sometimes she is irritable. I love my children, but sometimes they ask for too much or are bothersome.” After thinking about it for a few moments, the Buddha said "I cannot help you". The farmer became very angry and said to the Buddha "I was told that you are a great teacher, and here you tell me that you can't help me with my problems!?". The Buddha told the farmer "your problem is not that you have problems. Your problem is that you want to not have any problems.”
The farmer, you see, actually had a pretty good life. He had crops, and a wife and children, but he wasn’t seeing it that way. He allowed his expectations to make him unhappy.
How many times have our expectations of our children, our job, or our partner let us down? It’s not the situation or the person that lets us down, it’s our own thinking of how we want things to turn out. Think about love. The highest form of love is to simply enjoy them as they are, without putting our desires onto them. And yet even knowing this, we struggle with it.
In our dharma practice, Even knowing that when we sit on the cushion, we should do so without presumption, we still have thoughts like: “I will feel calmer after this practice.” or “This practice will help me do my job better.” I know that I personally have been in the middle of practice and thought “This isn’t going the way I want it to, why do my thoughts keep intruding”, because I wanted to not have any thoughts. So instead of being present, I’m sitting inside my disappointment.
A life without expectation is not a life without hopes or dreams. It is simply allowing things to unfold organically. Sometimes in the dharma talk discussion, we stray far from the topic. Initially this bothered me, but now I find real joy in hearing where the group goes, the paths you took to get there, and how it relates to our everyday experience of the dharma.
In the rough times we’re in now, the sheer volume of work that needs to be done can be daunting. And we might sit on the cushion and think “OK cushion, let’s get me enlightened! Let’s get rid of my anger! Let’s make me a vessel of the Buddha’s wisdom. Now!”
But it doesn’t work that way. I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that when I let go of what I want and allow what will happen to unfold, what I end up with is so much better than what I expected and desired to happen. If I might steal a phrase from Ryugen Sensei, the dharma is grander and greater than we are. By practicing, on the cushion and off of it, without expectation, we will gain so much more than we could imagine. In the beginning I’d never have dreamed I could get rid of my anger, but these days it’s quite difficult to make me angry.
That’s my homework for the week; to look at the places where my expectations make me unhappy, and do what work I can to root them out. I encourage you to do the same.