Tag Archives: generosity

Gifts that Pass Through Your Hands

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Pleasant Hill view

At the time of the dawning of the Mahayana the paramitas were described as six lights on the awakening activity of a Buddhist practitioner. This was near the beginning of the Common Era (CE), and it was a period in which the Mahayana was neither a school nor a sect of Buddhism. Instead, it was a clarification of the path of a practitioner whose aspiration is to turn all beneficial karmic activity into the ultimate gift, the gift of awakening. The Mahayana was an exposition of the practice of a bodhisattva.

The Sanskrit paramita is often translated as “perfection,” though to understand it as a final objective is to miss the mark. The paramitas are actually mutually interdependent activities that inspire and inform any being dedicated to awakening, just as much as they benefit others. Thus, to expect that the paramitas might one day be completed is to forget the virtuous circle of practice in which the giver also receives, in which the giver is also the gift.

Perhaps for that reason the first of the paramitas is dana (pronounced like “Donna”). This word means giving or generosity, and it is said to encompass all of the other paramitas which are: sila or morality, kshanti or patience, virya or energy, dhyana or concentration, and prajna or wisdom. In fact, it can be said that each paramita is a complete practice because each paramita includes all of the others. Taken as whole, I see the first two paramitas as based in compassion, the last two as based in wisdom, and the entire path balanced by allowing what is and applying oneself wholeheartedly.

Returning to dana paramita, it was traditionally understood that the laity gave material goods and the monastics gave the teaching of Dharma. In many ways this is a balanced approach when monastics are renunciates who depend on others for their food, clothing, medicine and lodging. However, over time this distinction was blurred as monastics came to own land and other material goods, and lay practitioners became respected as disciples and teachers. In China, for example, alms collection was not as well received as in India, and Ch’an monasteries began tending rice paddies to sustain themselves. Also at that time, roughly estimated to be the 8th and 9th Centuries, Layman Pang and his daughter Ling Zhao became renowned as examples of profound and playful Dharma.

jizos 2006

Today when I think about giving, the underlying intention seems at least as important as the thing given. Giving might be motivated by a desire for one’s own benefit – such as to accumulate merit, or to influence someone to like you or to give you something in return. It might be motivated by a wish for another’s well being or progress on a spiritual path. Or it might be motivated by the wish to benefit everyone.

However, it is not until I see that the gifts I give are not mine that dana paramita can be practiced.  Even the teachings or material objects which I seemingly produce temporally arise out of interconnectedness, and therefore cannot truly be seen as my own. Knowing this I can give because all of life is a gift. I can give because these gifts must pass through my hands. I can give because I understand that karma is the only gift that persists, the only true legacy anyone leaves.

So please let the many gifts pass through your hands that they might awaken the whole world.

Nothing to Gain, Nothing to Lose – continued

Continuing on yesterday’s theme…

The beauty of this teaching of no gaining mind is that no gaining also means no losing. That is, you have nothing to lose if no one recognizes your most generous acts, your most selfless words, your most harmonious gifts. You have nothing to lose if there is no discernible reward for being your best self. This can be said because you are already one with all things, so the recognition is intrinsic.

It reminds me of the parable of the Bodhisattva Never Disparage. It’s a tale from the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Pundarika Sutra) and it tells the story of a being who had vowed to never disparage other beings. It’s said his practice was to tell people that they too would be Buddhas, as is predicted in the Lotus Sutra. However, some people didn’t like this, and would shun him, yell at him, or even throw rocks at him. At those times, when his safety was at risk because people not only didn’t appreciate his compassion but disagreed with it, the story tells us that the Bodhisattva would “run away to a safe distance and continue” telling folks that he could see their buddhanature.

And so it is with each of us. We are called to bring compassion into the world, called to see the best in others and to “do good,” and perhaps we meet with some resistance or we are ignored. But a practitioner who truly sees non-separation, truly sees nothing to gain and truly sees nothing to lose.

Hide and Seek c. Center for Media and Democracy


Nothing to Gain, Nothing to Lose

One of the most misunderstood and misused teachings in Zen is that of “no gaining” mind. It is often quoted, typically without context, and suggested as an exhortation for a practice which takes “no goal” as its goal. This is a misunderstanding, quite far from the meaning of this phrase and the application it has to Buddhist practice.

In Japanese the term is 無所得 pronounced “mushotoku.” Taking each character separately; “mu” is a negation, “sho” means place, and “toku” means advantage, gain, profit. So the literal meaning is “the place where there is nothing to be gained” or nothing to which we can be attached. From there it is easy to understand that “no gaining” is a teaching of “no false discrimination,” or you might say abiding in the non-separation between subject and object. That is, “no gaining” mind refers to that mind which sees emptiness and interconnectedness as one.

For Zen Master Eihei Dogen this phrase appears in relation to egolessness, particularly in “ShobogenzoZuimonki,” a collection of pithy sayings by Dogen, as recorded by his disciple Koun Ejo in about 1234 CE. In this short compilation we hear Dogen’s constant exhortation to zazen, and to practice that fully engages body and mind without the expectation of gain. He says,

Simply do good without expectation of reward or recognition, be truly gainless, and work for the sake of benefiting others. The primary point to bear in mind is to drop your ego. To keep this mind you have to awaken to impermanence.

Thus, Dogen’s idea of the goal of practice is quite clearly described – awakening to impermance. This echoes the opening lines of the Heart Sutra in which it is said that Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, was relieved of all suffering simply by “seeing” that body and mind are empty of permanent existence.

Sitting in zazen, experiencing our fundamental non-separation from all things, coming from the place where there is nothing to be gained, we also come to understand that there is nothing we lack. There is no need to look outside of ourselves for acknowledgement, no need to hope that our teacher will give us something special, no need to grasp at things that are always flying away. Instead, we can fully express, from within, harmony and the wish to benefit others, because they are none other than us.

Walk to Feed the Hungry Sokoji



The One who is Really Busy

It is so easy these days to get caught up in thinking that you are busy. Maybe you feel there are lots of chores to do, or emails piling up in your inbox, or texts arriving on your phone. Maybe you feel that you simply don’t have time for everything, that you simply can’t keep up with all of the people who need or want something from you. When this happens, the thought, “I don’t have time for that” can arise even when “that” is something you want to do, like answer the phone when your loved one calls or clear a space on your desk. But the pressure you feel is too high, so you cannot connect to the positive in that moment. As Zen Master Dogen says:

You fail to experience the passage of being-time and hear the utterance of its truth, because you learn only that time is something that goes past.

Messy Desk by Robin Wulfsson M.D.

Messy Desk by Robin Wulfsson M.D.

What Dogen is pointing at here is the fact that we live in each moment, and the moment is expressing the truth of interrelatedness, the truth that we are actors in our world. So your experience of time could be entirely different. You could turn that thought of not having time into your helper. You could see “not having time” as something of a tool for discerning what is skillful in your life. This is called “turning on the basis,” a practice of shifting perspective so that it aligns more closely with the Dharma. You could have a shift that enables you to live within the moment now, with all the results of the past and the possibilities of the future.

A shift in the view of not having time often happens to those who are diagnosed with a terminal illness. Suddenly a person comes to the realization that life is precious, and that they must be thoughtful about the way in which they live. Many times, for the people I visit, this creates a sense of sadness as well. If you have been postponing the things you really want to do for a long time, when you find out that you no longer have the time or the health to do them, it can be a big disappointment.

Yet you don’t have to wait for that moment to begin changing your perspective on “not having time.” You can simply take up a practice of acceptance, discernment and skillful response. Seeing clearly the moment as it is, you hold it up to the light of the Dharma, and then make a conscious choice about whether and how to respond.

For example, how would it be if you simply said, “I don’t have time for that worry” or “I don’t have time to watch violence for the sake of entertainment.” Or “I don’t have time to be angry with that person that just walked too close to me,” or “that person who took the parking place I had my eye on.”

So you can see that, with a bit of a twist, not having time can begin to open up new potential for presence, patience and for letting go of pettiness. It can help you stay focused on responding, rather than reacting. It can put things in perspective – which reminds me of a saying that a friend of mine who is a nun mentioned many years ago:

“In Zen three minutes is an eternity.”


The Gift for All Seasons

The “Paramitas,” sometimes translated as “perfections,” are six in number and they can be thought of as different perspectives of life – like looking at a jewel, in this case the jewel of life, through six different facets. The first of these facets is Giving (in Sanskrit “Dana”), and it is the first because all practice must begin with generosity. In particular, I believe that all practice must start with the gift of generosity toward oneself.

bamboo image croppedTo some this might seem to be a narcissistic way of thinking, but it’s really necessary if you are to persevere at Buddhist practice. This is because, if you are practicing the study of the impermanent self, then you will encounter over and over again the gap between your intention and your actions. You will be faced, time and time again, with the difference between your ideal and what you are trying to accomplish; between your vision of practice and the actuality of how you think, act and don’t act; between your idea of true self and your mundane reality. If you don’t apply generosity for yourself in those moments, it can be devastating.

Turning this around, it seems to me that this dynamic is also behind the tendency to criticize others. That is, you can look at others and see their gaps, their failure to live up to your ideal or their own ideals. And seeing that happening, you want to criticize them because that’s what you do with yourself. You find that want to be stingy with them for not being the person they could be.

It reminds me of something that occurred when I was new to Tassajara, the Zen monastery and retreat center in Carmel Valley, California. I had been given a job that included bringing in and taking out the garbage cans to prevent racoons from making a mess during the night. So, in the evening, I brought the trash cans to the shack where they were kept. However, in the morning, when I went to take them out again, they were already out. trash canSuddenly I was irritated. I didn’t focus on the fact that someone might have been trying to be helpful, or someone might have been impatient about having them out at a certain time. Instead, I had the thought that someone thought I wasn’t competent to do the full job. Or that someone assumed I’d forget, and didn’t give me a chance to get it right. I sat on my cushion and considered this series of events. I even thought of making a community announcement. It was then that I was struck by the absurdity of it all. To think that I might make an announcement complaining about someone having helped me, however intentionally or unintentionally. Then I had the thought, “Oh Sweetie! Look at what you are thinking. How silly is that?!” So, for me, those moments are now called “Oh Sweetie” moments, the moments of realizing how comparing mind takes my thoughts, feelings, actions and inaction, and creates suffering. And I’ve learned that even just naming them “Oh Sweetie” moments is a form of generosity toward myself, allowing me to hold lightly the so-called mistakes.

In truth there is no gap between our actual and our true self. Whether you are perfectly equanimous or you are “messing up,” your true self is always expressing itself as the you of that moment. It’s just that in the mundane reality of day-to-day life, you can and should discern between skillful and unskillful actions of body, speech and mind. This act of discernment is the second Paramita, Ethics (in Sanskrit “Sila”). It is the activity that helps to reduce the hindrances. In his “Instructions to the Tenzo,” Zen Master Dogen says that the Head of the Kitchen of any practice center must have joyful mind, vast mind, and nurturing mind. While vast mind is expressing the way of sameness, nurturing mind is expressing the way of difference.

Therefore, watching over water and over grain, shouldn’t everyone maintain the affection and kindness of nourishing children?

So, even as you disappoint yourself, please be generous with yourself – just as you would be kind to water and to grain and to children. This is the true gift for all seasons, and one which we would do well to give ourselves and others.

Those Old Shoes

In recent days I’ve had quite a few encounters with the inescapable sufferings of illness, aging and death. While there are many Buddhist teachings about these experiences, one in particular stands out to me lately. It is the koan of Master Ma. The case goes likes this:

Master Ma was unwell. The Head Monk came to him and asked, “How is your venerable state these days?” Master Ma replied, “Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha.”

Moon over Mt. Diablo

The student’s question can also be understood as, “What is your condition?” or “How are you?” It may be an inquiry into the Master’s health, into his awakening, or into his enlightened nature. The Master’s response incorporates a reference to the Sutra of Buddha Names in which it is said that the Sun-face Buddha lives for 1800 years, and the Moon-face Buddha lives for one day and one night. So it’s easy to interpret this dialogue to mean that the Student is inquiring about whether the Master’s awakening is intact, and the Master responds with a phrase that means that whether he lives for a long time or a short time, he will always be a Buddha.

However, that view might not reflect the teaching of this dialogue. First, it’s helpful to investigate the practice of a Buddha. What is the practice of a Buddha? Whether long-lived or short-lived, a Buddha’s practice is to point all beings toward their true nature, and to embody true nature. This means that a Buddha is practicing all the time, demonstrating an awakened life by living an awakened life.

Then, it’s helpful to investigate sickness and death. What is the practice that is appropriate to sickness and death? Shakyamuni Buddha instructed his disciples to study sickness, aging, and death as a means of developing insight. Specifically, he encouraged them to study corpses and places where cremations took place. To what end? According to the Buddha, studying the inevitable decay of the body would offer insight into impermanence and, therefore, into the teaching of no self.

So, putting all that together, I believe that Master Ma’s reply actually means something like, “Whether for a short time or a long time, illness is simply something else to practice with when you are a Buddha, which is right now.” That is to say, any kind of suffering is simply something else to practice with because you already are a Buddha.

This kind of insight is invaluable. This is Right View. The problems of your life are simply the material for your practice. It is up to you to turn them in that way.

Van Gogh’s “A Pair of Shoes Black”

It brings to mind a time many years ago when my daughter taught me a lesson. She was about seven years old, and had taken to giving her best friend her belongings. Shoes, toys, books, clothes – all ended up at Alicia’s house. And I, as the purchaser of those items, was a bit distressed about it. I wondered why my daughter didn’t have enough shoes, when I’d gone to the trouble of buying her plenty of pair. So, one day, I sat her down and asked her why she was giving away her things. Without saying so, I wondered whether she didn’t like the things I was buying her, or whether perhaps Alicia’s family didn’t have enough money to buy her shoes. But my daughter’s reply was astonishing. She said “Mommy, to me, those are just my old shoes or toys that I don’t even play with anymore but, to Alicia, they are a gift. It makes her happy.” I was speechless. Here was my daughter talking about practicing sympathetic joy, one of the four Brahmaviharas, while I worried about the details! In one sentence my seven year old had reminded me that I could choose to see life as a problem or as a practice.

And so it was with Master Ma, who told his disciple not to worry about his illness, but to practice with it. I try to walk in his shoes even today.

Going Beyond the Rainbow

Last night I attended the dharma talk at SFZC City Center. The speaker was an invited guest, Ayya Anandabodhi. As one of the first nuns to be ordained in America in the Theravadan tradition she, and Ayya Santacitta, have received quite a bit of attention. Myself, I’d been inspired by their vision of starting a practice place for women, and had been meaning to visit the Vihara for a while. It’s just down the road a piece, near the ocean at the edge of San Francisco. But, this nun’s life was full enough that I never quite made it there.

Still, as sometimes happens, our paths crossed. What a lovely, unexpected arising. I’d gone down to visit another nun, Sister Santussika, who has even more recently begun a nunnery, this one in Millbrae. When I arrived, I found that the Ayyas were there, as well as Anandabodhi’s attendant and other women who give generously of their time to the two sanghas. I was quite pleased to make all of their acquaintance. As it happened we, together with Ajahn Guna, Santussika’s son who is also a monk, gathered together in front of the main altar and chanted a bhikkhuni blessing for the new temple. We chanted in both Pali and English, and despite the fact that it was all a new form for me, I felt comfortable and integrated.

A Visit to the Karuna Buddhist Vihara
August 2012

So it was with a sense of anticipation that I went over to City Center, to visit with a new friend, in way. And a truly fascinating thing happened. I’d had a late dinner due to waiting on another friend. When I went up to Blanche’s apartment to change into my robes, I noticed that Anandabodhi and Maria, her attendant who will soon be ordained sangha too, were waiting in the usual place to go down to give the talk. Stepping past them into Blanche’s room, I became aware that the sky in the window seemed to be a bit more colorful than usual. I pulled back the curtain only to find a broad, wondrous rainbow arching over the entire city, framed by a rose-colored sky. It was stunning, and I motioned to the nuns to come have a look. Then, the most amazing thing happened. Ayya Anandabodhi looked at the rainbow and said, “Oh, it’s for a woman we know. The rainbows seem to come out for her.” Even though it had just appeared, even though it could be seen in this place where she was waiting, even though, as Maria pointed out, there hadn’t even been any rain that day and it was nearly twilight, Anandabodhi didn’t think that the rainbow was for her. Her first thought was that it was for her friend.

Rainbow 6 c. Entheos

Rainbow 6 c. Entheos

This was, for me, a teaching in generosity and selflessness – a way of seeing the world that didn’t being with “me” or “mine.” She saw the world as a gift for others and smiled in gratitude for my having shown it to her. Reflecting on this moment, I’m reminded of the 10 Oxherding Pictures, wherein the practitioner, represented by a boy growing up, goes through two phases of realization about his relationship to the world. In one phase, he experiences the joy of releasing the deluded view of the world as being about him or related to him. Later, that same practitioner sits down to ponder the stillness of releasing the sense of himself as defined by the world. For me, Ayya Anandabodhi demonstrated at least the first and maybe also the second when she, in a fleeting instant, declined to accept the rainbow as a gift to herself. Beautiful!