Circulating the Gift

From a talk for the Zen Center of Denver, Oct. 30, 2018.

Today we’re investigating the Eighth Grave Precept, Not Withholding Spiritual or Material Aid, also translated as Not Sparing the Dharma Assets. At our center we frequently add, “but giving them freely where needed.”

Robert Aitken Roshi describes the Dharma assets as “energy and its tendencies.” He further notes that this precept is intimately tied to karma, to the cycle of cause and effect. Energy circulates; we give and receive in turn, over and over again. Nowhere is this more evident than in ecological cycles. Trees grow fruit, which is eaten by animals; animals spread the seeds, and more trees are planted. The wind picks up moisture from seas and lakes; the rain falls; the water returns to its source. Dogen said, “This exertion, too, sustains the sun, the moon and the stars.” Everything is part of this circulating gift; nothing is left out.

There are many stories, not just in Buddhism but in nearly all religious traditions, about the generosity of sages. Perhaps the most famous in Zen is how Ryokan, who lived as a hermit in a simple hut, one night was visited by a thief. Of course, Ryokan had nothing to steal. He said, “You may have come a long way to visit me, and shouldn’t return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” Bewildered, the thief left. Afterward, Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused. “How I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

This story may be apocryphal, but I doubt it much exaggerates the paucity of Ryokan’s possessions. Sometimes he would write letters to friends in the winter, begging for a little miso paste or other food, on the edge of starvation. Yet his spirit of generosity knew no limit. Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the genuine, all-pervading Dharma, not being stingy about a single thing is called the Precept of Not Sparing the Dharma Assets.”

Traditionally Zen monks own almost nothing, just a robe and a set of bowls. Everything else is shared; at the same time, all one’s physical needs are cared for. This is, I think, a beautiful model – everyone giving and receiving as one.

Yet as anyone can see, we also have individual needs, and in our lay lives, those needs are rather more complex than in a monastery. If you give away your car, you may not be able to get to work; give away your house, and you’ll be on the street. No doubt you can live without a job or a house; but what about those depending on you for support? So, we create boundaries. We say, “This is mine, and that’s yours.” But be careful. Build up your borders too much, and you’ll find you’re trapped within them. This is the delusion of self and other.

If we have a national failing, I’d say this is it. We have enormous wealth, yet perennially seem unwilling to provide for those less fortunate. What we think we need for ourselves expands forever outward, while what we are willing to give shrinks accordingly. We build walls around ourselves, trying to protect an entirely illusory security. Comfortable circumstances too often result in hard hearts. Who hasn’t observed tycoons who hoard their wealth, while the homeless on the street share their last crust of bread with their neighbor? It’s for this reason that Zengetsu said, “Poverty is your treasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.”

Once on TV I saw a comedian interviewing a Muslim imam. Islam has a strong tradition of giving, especially to guests; testing this, the comedian grabbed a book at random off a shelf and said, “What about this book? It’s mine now.” And without a trace of hesitation, instantly, the imam said, “Yes, it’s yours. It’s a gift.”

Some say that all religions are the same; and while I don’t really believe this myself, it does seem to me that most religions are alike in at least one way: they all encourage a sense of devotion in their followers, which is to say, a sense of combined generosity and gratitude. This is both critical to cultivate in spiritual practice, and is the natural fruit of that practice. In giving and in giving thanks, we reflect and encourage the generosity of others, the generosity of the whole universe. In our iconography, this is depicted as the Bodhisattva Kannon, endlessly pouring out the waters of compassion upon the seas of the world, endlessly giving.

Please don’t think, also, that materialism is the sole concern of this precept. It’s just as easy to be stingy with our time, our empathy, or our effort. We may be stingy with ourselves – failing to recognize our own needs, or allowing our fear of failure or fatigue to prevent us from really exerting ourselves. Don’t hold back!

Dogen said: “One phrase, one verse – that is the ten thousand things and one hundred grasses; one dharma, one realization – that is the Buddhas and Ancestral Teachers. Therefore, from the beginning, there has been no stinginess at all.” What is there to hold onto, after all? Seeing this clearly, we are free to respond to others unreservedly, without a single thought of you or me.

This is Dana Paramita, the perfection of giving, of generosity. Dana is relinquishment, and as such is at the heart of our practice. Every day we sit down, straighten our backs, calm our breathing, and let go of everything. We loosen our grip; we give ourselves to the practice; and in giving ourselves, we give everything. Then we find that the universe gives back; it fills us up to the brim and more, it overflows with gifts: the sweetness of an orange, the clatter of the autumn leaves, a smile from a friend. Really, everything is a gift, all life is a gift. In this light, even our pain and discomfort are transfigured. If you can see this clearly, then as Dogen said, “The treasure-house will open of itself, and you will be able to enjoy it to your heart’s content.”

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