The Meaning of Courtesy

And there was knowing that twice since midnight a person had trusted me enough to fall asleep beside me.
— John Updike

"The first Zen Buddhist wedding that I attended closed with the words: 'Courtesy decorates the world; every phenomenon, an instructor.' What a cold-water shock I felt hearing this: I lost mental balance; my mind spun, unable to grasp a thing, as if I had suddenly awakened in a strange, unfamiliar world. The experience was my first recognition of how courtesy — true courtesy — was not simply what my mother taught me about being polite, not merely the advice of Emily Post or Miss Manners. Its real meaning, I discovered, is spiritual; its origin is selflessness.

"Even superficial courtesy, if only for a moment, orients us toward others, interrupting concern for our own gratification, a concern that can be an obsessive tendency, a very strong emotional pull, its beginnings often beyond our control. Although it may not have been our fault at its start, we need determination to go beyond the obsession — the overriding anxiety for our own comforts and pleasures — and the limitations it puts on our response to life, our sense of well-being, and our relationships with others.

"However, true courtesy requires us to remain mindful in our daily actions and to come back to the present when we notice attention has strayed. Without this willingness to come back from distraction, courtesy is lost. Zen Master Dogen recognized the importance of courtesy as an expression of selflessness, complaining of mindless monks who were 'careless of greetings and bows.'

"Former president Harry Truman had a sense of the fundamental courtesy that is more than simple politeness. His biography describes his daily walks, part of the routine he established following his retirement to his home in Independence, Missouri. Passing an enormous gingko tree on Maple Street, his biographer tells us, Truman would customarily speak to it. 'You're doing a good job,' he'd say.

"Truman's was not an act of superficial courtesy. Rather, it was an expression of the inherent, universal courtesy that exists everywhere, reflecting the understanding that everything is doing its best in accordance with everything else. Even though Truman was criticized for being unsophisticated and at times a bit crude, he knew how to 'greet and bow.' Years after he died, he was recognized as having been perhaps one of our best presidents.

"Thoughtful, selfless courtesy is more than a brief gesture, polite word, or forced smile. The eleventh-century Chinese Zen master Fuyo Dokai advised, 'Stop longing for fame and gain; regard everything you see as a flower growing on a rock.' This reverence for all things is a reflection of inherent courtesy. It is the ultimate expression of spiritual practice. It is compassion itself, extending beyond the transient meeting of the moment.

"Courtesy in its true, fundamental sense is not about making people like us. It is not meant to manipulate or seduce others to gain their approval. On the contrary, it is beyond gaining something for our self.

"Through spiritual practice, we can come to truly appreciate the meaning of selfless, fundamental courtesy."