105 - Dogen's Shishobo: The Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings - Part 1
107 - Active Hope 1: Finding and Enacting Our Best Response to the World's Suffering

In the last episode I introduced an essay by Zen master Dogen called Bodaisatta-Shishobo, or the Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings. I briefly defined the bodhisattva’s four embracing actions: Giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and “sharing the same aim.” Then I started working through Dogen’s essay line by line. In this episode I finish the section of the Shishobo on giving.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Giving as Open-handedness and Willingness
Expanding the Definition of Giving Still Further
The Power of Giving Works Across Space and Time
Rejoicing in Our Acts of Giving
Giving Transforms the Mind

 

Giving as Open-handedness and Willingness

Note: Unless I indicate otherwise, I’ll be quoting from the translation by Lew Richmond and Kaz Tanahashi, which can be found Tanahashi’s book Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo.

Dogen writes:

The Buddha said, ‘When a person who practices giving goes to an assembly, people take notice.’ Know that the mind of such a person communicates subtly with others. This being so, give even a phrase or verse of the truth; it will be a wholesome seed for this and other lifetimes. Give your valuables, even a penny or a blade of grass; it will be a wholesome root for this and other lifetimes. The truth can turn into valuables; valuables can turn into the truth. This is all because the giver is willing.”

As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, we’re all familiar with the power of giving. Whether we make a sincere offering, receive one, or just witness giving, it melts away our sense of separation from other living beings and strengthens connection. Similarly, we’re able to perceive one another’s inner attitudes even when nothing is said or nothing obvious is done. “When a person who practices giving goes to an assembly, people take notice.’ Know that the mind of such a person communicates subtly with others.” Is it body language? Energy? Who knows, but when we tune in to one another with all six senses (the five senses plus the mind), we can tell whether someone has a generous heart or whether their giving is constrained by greed, fear, competitiveness, a sense of inadequacy, etc.

In the previous section on giving in the Shishobo, Dogen said “The question is not whether the gift is valuable but whether there is genuine merit.” He continues with that idea here, saying that because giving has such a strong effect on people, “give even a phrase or verse of the truth; it will be a wholesome seed for this and other lifetimes. Give your valuables, even a penny or a blade of grass; it will be a wholesome root for this and other lifetimes.” Giving in this sense is open-handedness and, as discussed in the last episodes, non-greed. Therefore anything positive we experience – a teaching, idea, or practice that has helped us, even a small amount of money, or even just something we see and appreciate, like the dew on the end of a blade of grass – flows naturally to others when the opportunity arises.

What about Dogen’s words, “The truth can turn into valuables; valuables can turn into the truth?” Again, I invite you ponder and translate this for yourself. What could it mean? It occurs to me that Dogen is inviting us to drop the usual distinction between material gifts and the “spiritual” gift of the truth, or the Dharma. We usually decide we’re willing or able, in any particular situation, to give one or the other. Maybe we say it’s most important to support people in a material way, that it’s a prerequisite for happiness, let alone spiritual practice. Maybe we say what we offer is spiritual support, the material isn’t our business. But I think we know from our own experience how one kind of gift can turn into the other – how a sincere material gift can help someone feel connected and supported, and better able to embrace the truth, and how a sincere spiritual gift like being unconditionally accepted in the Sangha can facilitate tangible, material changes in someone’s life. Again, all of this “giving magic” happens not so much because of our willful and noble intentions to create benefit by giving, but rather because of our attitude: “This is all because the giver is willing.” That is, willing to let beneficial things flow through our life, without grasping or hoarding.

Expanding the Definition of Giving Still Further

Dogen continues:

“A king [Emperor Tai of the Tang Dynasty] gave his beard as medicine to cure his retainer’s disease. A child offered sand to Buddha and became King [Ashoka] in a later birth. They were not greedy for reward but only shared what they could. To launch a boat or build a bridge is an act of giving. If you study giving closely, you see that to accept a body and to give up the body are both giving. Making a living and producing things can be nothing other than giving. To leave flowers to the wind, to leave birds to the seasons, are also acts of giving.”

The first two lines of this section refer to traditional stories that long predate Dogen. In China at one time it was believed beard hair could produce a particular kind of medicine, and when Emperor Tai found out one of his subordinates was in need that medicine, he readily cut his beard in order to offer the ingredients. At an earlier time in India, it was said, the Buddha was on his daily alms round, carrying his begging bowl. A little child wanted to make an offering, so he ran up and put sand in the Buddha’s bowl. As the stories goe the Emperor Tai’s family was rewarded in future lives and the child that offered sand was later reborn as King Ashoka, but Dogen emphasizes these instances of giving had such power precisely these were sincere acts without hope of reward.

In previous sections of Shishobo, Dogen has been trying to stretch our ideas about giving, and here he continues that process, calling attention to the many ways we may already be giving and not even realizing it: Launching a boat, building a bridge, making a living, producing things – all of these are giving. Because many of the things we do also benefit ourselves (i.e. making a living), perhaps it is difficult to think of our actions as giving. I don’t tend to think of producing this podcast as giving, for example. It’s just what I do, expressing my training, and I do it in the hopes that it can be part of my livelihood someday. But according to Dogen I am giving… and, I suppose, if we drop our attachment to the distinction between self and other – my benefit versus your benefit – it’s possible to recognize any of our daily activities that bring benefit – to anyone or anything – as giving. Benefit, joy, ease, and understanding flow around within this interconnected web of beings.

Dogen says even to “accept a body” and “give up a body” are giving! Now Dogen even turns the idea of willingness upside down, because we certainly don’t think of accepting or giving up our body as events we have much say about. What does he mean? Perhaps it is easier to think of what it means not to accept our body – to devalue and judge it, fail to appreciate or take care of it, to long in some way to be free of the body – and what it means not to willingly give it up – to fear the end of our life and struggle to postpone aging and death at all costs. To instead be grateful and comfortable in our physical manifestation, and to gracefully let go of it when the time comes – these are gifts to self and other.

Even “leaving the flowers to the wind” and “the birds to the season” are giving. Maybe this is asking us to reflect on how we participate in a universal cycle of giving just by being alive. We don’t even have to be personally aware of, or consciously appreciate, all of life’s wonders in order for them to flow freely and be of benefit.

The Power of Giving Works Across Space and Time

Dogen continues:

“Great King Ashoka was able to offer enough food for hundreds of monks with half a myrobalan fruit. People who practice giving should understand that King Ashoka thus proved the greatness of giving. Not only should you make an effort to give, but also be mindful of every opportunity to give. You are born into this present life because you originally embodied the merit of giving [in the past].”

According to the myth of King Ashoka, this ancient Indian ruler lived about 250 years after the Buddha. (I talk about King Ashoka in Episode 49 and 50; the historical facts about the king likely differ significantly from the myth, but the myth is an important part of Buddhist lore.) So according to the story, Ashoka was a devout Buddhist and wanted to go down in history as the biggest donor to the Sangha – the community of Buddhist monks – ever. Toward the end of his life, Ashoka had so depleted his royal treasury that his grandson and ministers took away his access to it. Determined to give anyway, Ashoka received half a myrobalan fruit for a meal (a fruit believed to have medicinal properties) but he sent it to the Sangha to be put into a soup so all the monks could benefit from it. Thus, Dogen says, “Not only should you make an effort to give, but also be mindful of every opportunity to give.” What if we asked ourselves, throughout our daily lives, can this thing be shared?

Dogen also says, “You are born into this present life because you originally embodied the merit of giving [in the past].” Most Buddhists throughout history have believed in rebirth – that in some sense you are reborn in the world, life after life, and the conditions of your rebirth are based on your actions in the past. Therefore, if you were born into relatively fortunate circumstances in this life, it was because of good actions, such as giving, you did in previous lives. It’s not necessary to believe in rebirth, however, to appreciate what Dogen is saying here. If, as we did earlier, we let go of the hard distinctions between self and other, then what does it matter who performed the past good actions that led to your fortunate rebirth. If you have experienced fortune in this life – the care of parents and family, health, love, freedom, resources, relative peace – it is due to the generous activities of people in the past.

Rejoicing in Our Acts of Giving

Dogen continues:

The Buddha said, ‘If you are to practice giving to yourself, how much more so to your parents, wife, and children.’

“Thus, know that to give to yourself is a part of giving. To give to your family is also giving. Even when you give a particle of dust, you should rejoice in your own act, because you authentically transmit the merit of all buddhas, and begin to practice an act of a bodhisattva.”

What does it mean to give to yourself? We’re complicated beings. We often have competing ideals and desires. We judge and berate ourselves, hold expectations for ourselves, and deny ourselves things. What is something beneficial we might refuse to give to ourselves? Perhaps something like forgiveness for our mistakes, or permission to just be part of the human race, like anyone else. Maybe we can give ourselves a break, taking time to simply appreciate being alive without having to constantly be productive or useful. Ironically, it’s often when we practice some generosity with ourselves that we notice how others could use a little of the same treatment! If you practice giving to yourself, you’ll certainly be inspired to give to those you love.

“Even when you give a particle of dust, you should rejoice in your own act.” What does it mean to rejoice in your own act? We’ve already talked about how giving doesn’t require us to be conscious and deliberate about the transfer of some kind of benefit from you to another being. We can give just by letting things be, by acceptance, by cultivating gratitude and allowing things to flow in and out of our lives freely. Wouldn’t rejoicing in our giving be introducing an extra level of self-consciousness, or even self-congratulations? Maybe what Dogen means is to rejoice in our opportunity to participate in giving – including the fact we were mindful enough to notice the opportunity, and open hearted enough to be willing to give.

Even though there’s all this giving go on, everywhere (according to Dogen), we know from experience that it makes a big difference when there is a consciousness on our part about the process of giving. Maybe making a living and leaving the birds to seasons are giving, but it’s also possible to be self-absorbed and miss out on that fact, and thereby miss out on at least some of the power of giving to reveal the reality of our interconnectedness. I think this is why Dogen encourages us to rejoice in our acts of giving.

Giving Transforms the Mind

Finally, Dogen writes:

“The mind of a sentient being is difficult to change. Keep on changing the minds of sentient beings, from the moment that you offer one valuable, to the moment that they attain the way. This should be initiated by giving. Thus, giving is the first of the six paramitas [realizations].

Mind is beyond measure. Things given are beyond measure. And yet, in giving, mind transforms the gift and the gift transforms mind.”

I think we’d all agree that “the mind of a sentient being is difficult to change.” Nevertheless, that’s what a bodhisattva vows to do – to change her own mind, and the minds of others, in favor of greater wisdom, compassion, and skillful action. Dogen recommends, as have Buddhist teachings throughout time, that we initiate the process of change by giving. Giving is powerful, as we’ve discussed in our exploration of Dogen’s Shishobo so far, and it’s one of the simplest and most straightforward things we can do. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, of course. When we’re feeling scarcity instead of abundance, it’s difficult to be open-handed. When we’re feeling at a disadvantage and defensive, the last thing we’re inclined to do is look out for the welfare of others.

It may seem like we need to feel pretty safe, fortunate, and blessed before we can participate in giving in the sincere and open-hearted way Dogen describes. And yet the act of giving – even if initiated more or less grudgingly or dutifully – can actually cause us to feel safer and more fortunate. Remember, the karma of giving is to create – or manifest – our interconnectedness, so it can have this affect even if our hearts aren’t entirely into it at the outset. I think this is why Dogen writes, “in giving, mind transforms the gift and the gift transforms mind.”


References

All Dogen quotations from Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2010.

 

105 - Dogen's Shishobo: The Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings - Part 1
107 - Active Hope 1: Finding and Enacting Our Best Response to the World's Suffering
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