“As You Wish”: On Service and Basic Goodness

As You Wish service basic goodness

The video below traces a thread in the classic movie The Princess Bride: the phrase “As you wish,” as code for “I love you.”

Spoiler alert! The video is the first two minutes and the final minute of arguably one of the best movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it in full, you may want to pause reading this and rent The Princess Bride instead. This article will be here when you’re done.

On Service

To me, the end of The Princess Bride is one of the most touching moments in film. When I try to understand why, what emerges is a discussion of service.

Since I first heard it, I have loved a quote by Rabindranath Tagore:

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Rabindranath Tagore

As is certainly the case in The Princess Bride, the type of service Tagore is describing isn’t a chore, and it isn’t a form of inferiority, being “servile.” Instead, it is a delightful act of putting love into practice.

This form of service is something that we love, and even need. As people attest who work (even well-paid) jobs they find meaningless—jobs that don’t seem to serve the good of others, to be for anything wonderful—a lack of genuine service can be its own kind of starvation.

True service is a delightful act of putting love into practice.

Service and Basic Goodness

For me, service is a direct window into basic goodness, the inherent power, dignity, and worth of our nature itself.

Part of our basic goodness is that we can give boundlessly to one another.

Part of our basic goodness is that we can give boundlessly to one another. In fact, this quality of generosity, known as dana paramita, as well as the broader spirit of love and benevolence known as bodhicitta, form the cornerstone of all Mahayana Buddhism.

Around fifteen years ago, a man named Paul told me a story that has always stayed with me as an example of the spiritual power of generosity. Paul is a senior meditation practitioner who, when he was much younger, had served as security for one of the Sixteenth Karmapa’s visits to the US during the 1970s. (The Karmapa is the leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage, and is one of the most powerful and revered figures in Tibetan Buddhism.)

Paul was standing guard in a hallway late at night, when the Karmapa came out of his bedroom. He saw Paul.

The Karmapa spoke very limited English, and so Paul, not knowing what to do, raised both his palms, in a gesture of “Can I do anything to help you?”

The Karmapa smiled and raised his palms in the same gesture. Can I do anything to help you?

When Paul told me this story, tears almost prevented him from finishing it. More than thirty years on, the spiritual power of the memory was undimmed.

This is the Sixteenth Karmapa:

Service and Gratitude as a Goodness Practice

In my experience, noticing the heart of service, in ourselves and others, can help us directly feel our goodness.

In yourself, if you feel the desire to help the world, or a specific desire to help a loved one overcome an illness or achieve a goal, then you are directly feeling your own goodness.

In others, if you can reflect on and feel gratitude for their service on your behalf—the efforts that your guardians exerted to raise you, or the long hours your teachers put in to help you learn, or the steady and patient support of a best friend—then you are reflecting both on your own basic goodness and on that of others in your life.

As a guided meditation directly in this vein, I strongly recommend Fred Rogers’ 2002 commencement speech at Dartmouth College, beginning at 10:51 (the full speech, but especially these last five minutes, is a spiritual tour de force).

Here is the transcript:

I’d like to give you all an invisible gift, a gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some, like my astronomy professor, may even be in heaven, but wherever they are, if they’ve loved you and encouraged you and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside yourself.

And I feel that you deserve quiet time on this special occasion to devote some thought to them. So let’s just take a minute in honor of those who have cared about us all along the way, one silent minute.

[Silence]

Whomever you’ve been thinking about, imagine how grateful they must be that during your silent times, you remember how important they are to you.

Just to round out where Fred Rogers was going with all this, I’m including the rest of the transcript, which is possibly the most powerful statement of basic goodness I’ve seen from a Western person:

It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life, which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our lives from which we make our choices is very good stuff.

There’s a neighborhood song that is meant for the child in each of us. And I’d like to give you the words of that song right now, “It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you, not your caps and gowns, they’re just beside you, but it’s you I like. Every part of you, your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new, I hope that you remember even when you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like. It’s you yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.”

And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say, “It’s you I like” I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which human kind can not survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.

So in all that you do, in all of your life, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices, which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are. Congratulations to you all.

Who Serves Whom

As a final thought, I want to offer something I’ve noticed about the spirit of service I find in the grandfather from The Princess Bride, Tagore, the Sixteenth Karmapa, and Fred Rogers.

“Service” seems to carry lots of different possible senses—including a Downton Abbey sense of oppression, knowing one’s place, sacrificing for one’s betters, settling into being low by contrast. However, what feels to me like true service is extremely different from that.

Instead, for me, the feeling of true service is: One light nurtures another. It’s on equal footing; it carries a recognition, like an eagle feeding a young eagle because it’s an eagle.

For me, acknowledging that a grandfather and his grandson are different people, there’s still the strong, strange, hard-to-describe sense that: The light is the same.

That shiver of recognition, of oneness, of love beyond all separation, seems to be what gives service its true power.

Thank you for reading!

This article is part of the Shambhala.org Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

9 thoughts on ““As You Wish”: On Service and Basic Goodness

  1. Who can read this without thinking of Ethan Nichtern’s book, “The Dharma of the Princess Bride”?

    This blog reminds of me of how it helps me to hear a contemporary expression of the traditional buddhist contemplation: “All beings are our kind mothers.”
    When Fred Rogers says, “I’d like to give you all an invisible gift, a gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. …. [L]et’s just take a minute in honor of those who have cared about us all along the way, one silent minute,” I can hear that instruction a lot more clearly. I can hear that “Mother” isn’t only biological; it’s what has given birth to us, to who we are today–all the living beings that are our causes and conditions. I can serve and become that to others.

  2. For anyone who enjoyed this post, I highly recommend Shambhala sangha member / teacher Ethan Nichtern’s excellent spiritual memoir on interpersonal connections: The Dharma of the Princess Bride: What the Coolest Fairy Tale of Our Time Can Teach Us about Buddhism and Relationships (North Point Press, 2017). I am rather surprised that Frederick Meyer did not mention or link it within this article, as it’s in direct alignment with the subject matter.

    https://www.ethannichtern.com/the-dharma-of-the-princess-bride

  3. It’s really good! Nichtern takes readers (humorously but insightfully) through the movie in alignment with key principles of Buddhist teachings — reading it helped me a lot as a child of the ’80s whose first movie seen solo in the theater happened to be this one, and who grew up with one foot in Vermont’s Buddhist community based near Karmê Chöling, and who has since reconnected with Buddhist practice. Apologies if my earlier comment seemed prickly; I’m sensitive to perceived sangha divisions that may persist related to the schisms of 2018, and would prefer to see everyone in the community aware of each other’s work, in the way an editor might Google for due diligence.

    1. Growing up near Karmê Chöling in the ’80s sounds magical—for some reason I keep picturing a lot of green leaves with dew sparkling on them. I grew up in the ’90s near what’s now Drala Mountain Center, and that was wonderful as well.

      Thank you again for letting me know about Ethan’s book! I bought the Kindle version. There’s a chapter on his own grandfathers that is very personal and very beautiful. I’m really glad to have read it.

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2024-05-26 03:11:31