Why We Follow Precepts and Offer Seva

January 25, 2023

Shambhavi gives a lively satsang on nine levels of motivation for offering seva and following precepts. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

This is about our motivations for following precepts should we be in a tradition that has precepts, and our motivation for offering seva. And what are the varying different motivations for why we might follow presets or why we might offer seva to our teacher or our community.

And I structured this in a sort of semi-humorous way in a very traditional Hindu teaching style where there's nine levels. So in this style, there's low low—that's like baseline [laughs] and low just means less, less awake, right? Why would you offer seva or follow precepts if you were in a very less awake condition?

So there's low low, then there's just low, then there's high low. Okay? That's the first three levels.

Then there's low medium, and these all have Sanskrit words, which I've forgotten, just medium and high medium. And then there's low high, high, and high high.

And the only one I ever remember is high high, which is uttama uttama, but I can't really remember the other ones.

So the low low motivation for following precepts and offering seva is to evade punishment or criticism. [laughter] You are basically in a state of fear while you're offering seva [laughs] and following precepts, and you're hoping to not be criticized or not be punished.

So this is very self focused, right? Has nothing to do with sadhana, [laughs] and is completely immersed in wrong view.

The idea that you would be punished for just being human in whatever condition you're in, or that a teacher would criticize you in an arbitrary way just for being a human in a human condition, that is something, at least if you're following this kind of teaching, that is an attitude or a bhava—a feeling orientation—that is completely out of view.

It doesn't have anything to do with the reality of the situation if you're studying with a teacher in a direct realization tradition. So that's low low.

Ordinary low is you want to be thought of as a good person or you want to think you're a good person. [laughter] Why is this ordinary low?

I'm always saying feel your goodness, feel your eternal goodness. But this isn't about that.

This is about thinking you're good because you're doing something externally to prove that you're good, right? So you're following precepts or offering seva so you will be seen as a good person or be able to think of yourself as a good person because of acts that you are performing.

In this tradition, as I've always said, you're pre-approved. [laughter] And a lot of people do not like to be pre-approved because then they can't earn approval and they don't know what to do with themselves. If they're already pre-approved this is a problem for some people. [laughs]

So you can just see if you recognize yourself in any of these things.

High low is that you're doing this to earn some kind of reward. And that reward could be praise or approval, but it could also be some sort of spiritual benefit that you're hoping to earn by doing good works, you know, following your precepts and offering seva.

So this is actually quite common, that you're hoping to earn a reward for doing this and you might not even know what the reward is, but you just think, I'll do this and I’m—you're basically striking a bargain with your teacher or with God.

I've done this, now I want my reward, I want you to praise me, or I want to be given some spiritual reward of some sort. Yeah?

Would this also apply to doing practice?

Yes. And I mean, following precepts and offering seva is sadhana, right? But oftentimes people relate to precepts and offering seva in a very bargainistic, utilitarian way, or in a very fearful way, or they feel put upon like they have to do this or they're going to be thought ill of or something like that.

These kind of attitudes seem to especially sit down and not move on top of people when they're following precepts and offering seva.

Excuse me, but what is offering seva? What is that?

Seva means service. So for instance, all the people that came early and helped set up the space for everybody else, that's seva.

Jaya Kula is completely run by seva with the exception of myself and a quarter time employee, we're the only ones getting paid.

And everybody else is offering seva to run the organization. So very nuts and bolts things you know, like doing the books and paying the bills and cleaning things and taking care of me when I need taken care of and all that kind of—making sure the teachings happen.

Doing the tech, setting up, making sure we have the right equipment and everybody knows how to use it. Training new students to host at teachings, all this kind of thing is all seva.

The Jaya Kula students got together a long time ago, I don't remember what year it was, but I think around 2011 or something and decided to run the organization this way. And we've gone through several iterations of how this is organized to make it easier for students to do that.

But basically this organization is run by the students and all the hosting. So hosting is one of our core practices—hosting people, hosting each other, and hosting people who come so that there's the possibility for people to feel comfortable and to do sadhana, to do practice in the most relaxed way possible.

Those are the low low, low, and high low. And then medium: low medium would be you do these things with the recognition that you're doing them as an aspect of your own sadhana.

You have the understanding that offering seva and following precepts are somehow related to your sadhana, that they are sadhana. And you have some confidence in the teachings and in yourself, and you don't have necessarily a concrete idea of what the result is going to be, but you go along with it in a kind of open-ended way with some confidence that this is part of your sadhana and it's going to be of benefit to you.

That's still pretty you-focused, but at least in view, right? [laughter] At least getting on the right track.

Medium, that's low medium, medium is having recognized that this is sadhana you go further than that and you have the recognition—recognition in this tradition means a direct understanding, not just some intellectual thing—you recognize that this is helping you feel your own goodness, your own essential nature. And you, you approach it with that attitude.

Like by being generous and offering seva and following precepts, which are aligning your body, energy, and mind in a more relaxing way for a human being, you recognize that it's helping you feel your own essence nature, your own goodness. And you go along with that attitude.

And then having felt your own goodness and recognize that, what is the result of that? Well, the overarching result is that you start to turn outward. You start to feel that fountain of the heart, right? And it starts to flow towards other people.

Maybe at first you’re like, okay, I got to, got to go in there and feel that. And what, what is that? Hmmm? [laughs] Right?

But having felt that and having that develop a little bit, having that feeling of your own essence nature, your own essential goodness develop a little bit, it's like a fountain. It starts to flow out towards other people.

So medium, after low medium, of using seva and following precepts to feel your own essence nature, your own goodness, is that your seva and following precepts becomes a natural expression of your care for the teacher and the community.

So instead of thinking, I should be compassionate or I better look like I care, or something like that [laughs]—I hope people think I care. I'm not really sure if I do or not, because if I don't care, I'm going to get criticized. [laughs]

Once having felt that essence nature, that goodness, then something starts to flow out. It's like the generosity starts to open up. And then your seva and your following of the precepts becomes an aspect of this spontaneous natural caring for the teacher and for the community.

And why is following precepts that? I, I think it's obvious why seva is, but why is following precepts? Why could it be an expression of natural care for a teacher and community?

It seems like it's time aligning yourself with the energy body of the community and the teacher, kind of being in the flow of that.

Yeah, it aligns you with the energy body of the community and the teacher. And what does that do? You know, so what? We're aligned. Now what?

Well, it supports the energy body, the strength of the energy body, as well as yourself.

Yeah, right. It supports it. It keeps, it supports the integrity of it and the strength of it. And what does that do? So what? Now we have integrity and we're strong.

Then it benefits everyone.

Yeah, how?

Does it make you more generous? Like just naturally?

Well, this is all springing from generosity, right? This desire is springing from generosity. It might help other people to feel more generous too.

But this is what we call the crucible, right? That this crucible for being able to do practice when there's a lot of people going in the same direction and doing it with integrity, as you said, and doing it from the heart, it's not contrived, at least some people doing that. What does that do?

It creates this crucible, this energetic crucible, where people can have better result from their sadhana because you are aligning with that and they can feel more confident that they can practice without worrying about, you know, is this an okay place to do that? Right?

They feel supported in their own sadhana, right? That contributes to everyone. It's nourishing for the whole community, it has a kind of a wholesome feeling. Right?

I was just thinking of the word, like, ojas to describe that.

Yeah, perfect. So ojas is the end result of good digestion and it has to do with, in a human being, our immune system and also our aura and our ability to sort of roll with life and sort of the cushion or the juiciness of life, or the good taste, or the sweetness.

So, yes, when we align in this way, we’re, we could say in a metaphorical sense, we're producing community ojas, right? That's a good way of putting it.

I keep hearing it in terms of like, creating this improvisational dance with members of a community. And if, if we go into the dance without some sort of acknowledgment of how we're going to be or what we're going to follow, what kind of dimensions we're going to follow, not about performing—we establish that, that the precept’s not about us, but we're here for the other. We're going to have a certain relationship to the way we use space and each other. And we all, we're all on the same page.

That makes the improvisational dance so much more than seventeen people out there doing—whatever the fuck they want to do.

Doing their own thing, right.

Because we, we establish a sense of precepts and then the—


—the dance has this other aliveness—


—the field is charged with different communication and information.

Yeah, that's something I think that a lot of artists know, that the contact with the infinity of expression is best held in some sort of container, right?

We want to be free, but we have to understand, well we don't have to, but there's an understanding that a certain sense of discipline and dedication to the form that we all agree on is really necessary to, you know, express.

Yeah, that's an aspect of skill and precision, right? That this alive, aware reality has incredible skill and precision and clarity.

And from our perspective, there's a lot of structure happening here, and structure is played with in order to create these myriad forms, right? This infinity of forms.

So when we play that way, we're playing just like God does.


It’s, it's a free for all, but it's a free for all by an adept, not by just someone you know, flailing around. [laughs]

A free for all by an adept. That’s it! [laughter]

Yeah, in other words, there's infinite potential for self expression but an adept is the expresser, not just someone winging it. [laughs]

This is why people think, oh, I'm going to do improvisation and then I don't have to actually study anything.


You know, this is utterly bullshit. Barkha was explaining this beautifully to me when we did an interview for the Time Medicine website, and she was saying how improvisation in her dance tradition is the highest form of the art.

You know, you have to study for decades before you can become a good improviser. Right. And people who don't have this understanding aren't really prepared to improvise, right?

So I have another question.


We you use the term crucible, I think a place where dross gets burnt off.

Where what?

Dross gets burnt off.

Dross, what's dross?


Yeah, impurities.

Oh, mmhmm.

And so I’m, I’m trying to relate what you might mean by crucible?

We definitely mean something where burning can happen. [laughter] My teacher said we can either burn karmas with effort or melt them with devotion. And of course, most of them are doing, most of us are doing both of that if we're lucky. [laughter]

A little bit of both, right? And the crucible is where both of those processes are happening.

But we do need a container, the container is people doing it together, going along in a similar way, following a stream of teachings and supporting each other—that creates the crucible.

And when it's done with integrity and when the larger part of a community is doing that, it creates a tremendous vehicle for people to continue to do sadhana and to have whatever realization is vouchsafed them for this particular lifetime.

There's many, many communities where it's much more chaotic, percentage wise, fewer people following the teachings in a concrete way. In other words, doing practice. Everyone at Jaya Kula who is thinking of themselves as my student particularly, which not everybody is, but most people are doing at least an hour of seated practice a day.

So that creates a tremendous base for the community. And then we also have some precepts that we follow. They're not terribly restrictive precepts, but they're precepts that help us stay healthy in our body, energy, and mind.

And then the organization as a whole has some precepts that we're following around integrity and transparency. All of those things combined are creating that crucible for people to practice in.

Yeah, especially right now in these times when there's so many communities that are riven with various kinds of improprieties and harm, I think it's really important to have that kind of crucible. So people know, well, this is a place they can come and practice.

So high medium, as we've been talking about, is an expression of natural care for the teacher and the community, that's our bhava, that's our motivation for offering seva and following precepts.

Now we're at low high. Finally, at high medium we started reaching out more to other people. We've been offering seva and following precepts all this time. But the feeling orientation is much more self-focused.

And in high medium, we finally start to feel that fountain of generosity and feel things really going out to other people.

But only, I'm offering seva it to my community, I'm offering save it to my teacher. People have come, you know at least a solid handful have come to me over the years and said, I want to offer seva to you, I don't want to offer seva to the community.

I'm like, you got, you don’t, you don't get it. [laughter] No, you can't separate us like that. Or, I just want to give to the community, not to you. They'll say the opposite, you know. [laughter]

And then there are people that have the idea that they're serving the community and serving me and they're satisfied with that. But as I've been saying for the last 15 or 17 years, the community and the teacher are training wheels.

Our job or our goal is not to remain only thinking of ourselves as members of this community and this—it's not to think this is special, and I'm only doing this kind of seva here, and I'm going to be this generous here, but not elsewhere.

I mean, that would be a very, very impoverished view of what spiritual life is about.

When we get to low high, the first level of high, then that fountain of generosity is understanding that your following precepts and offering seva is an expression of natural care for all beings, not just for people in your spiritual community.

And that you're keeping yourself well for the benefit of all beings. And you're offering seva to all beings when you can, in whatever way you can, and you have that, that natural desire. It's not just about the special teacher and the special community.

When you have enough contact with living presence, when you have enough realize—and this all depends on levels of realization, this is not about what you think about things, right? This is not about ideas you have, or opinions you have, or even about convictions you have. This is about your actual condition of body, energy, and mind, right?

Low high is an—you feel a natural care for all beings and you want to naturally express that and it happens spontaneously.

High, ordinary high is you feel a natural desire to express care for beings, all beings and things. You are no longer distinguishing between what we call living things and what we call insentient things.

You no longer have that distinction between sentient and insensient beings. Everything feels alive to you. Everything.

When you look at anything, you can feel devotion, whether it's like a table leg or a student, you can feel devotion toward anything.

And this is just happening. It's not something again, that you're deciding on, or not something from your intellect, or because it sounds good.

So ordinary high is that you feel a natural desire and a spontaneous kind of activity starts to be generated where you want to care for all beings and things. And this is where there's a shift in how you care for an altar, or a house, or someone else's stuff, or land, or whatever it is that you're caring for.

You're no longer making a distinction between caring for people or animals and caring for your house or caring for a circumstance. Everything has some aspect of equality.

And then the highest expression is that you are doing this out of pure enjoyment. There's no longer any sense that service is being rendered. And this is, of course, hard to fathom, but devotion is manifesting spontaneously, and compassion is manifesting spontaneously, and there's just pure enjoyment.

It has nothing to do with seva or precepts anymore. You don't want anything else but to be in that condition of total service.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.