Given the many stressful and sad things happening in the world right now, I thought it would be nice to spend a couple episodes on a beautiful and inspiring essay by 13th century Zen master Dogen called “Bodaisatta-Shishobo,” or the “Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings.” (I briefly mentioned this Dogen essay in my Nine Fields episode on Opening the Heart, Episode 99).The bodhisattva’s four embracing actions are giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and sharing the same aim. In this episode I’ll briefly introduce the text and define the four actions, and start delving more deeply into Dogen’s essay, section by section.
Quicklinks to Content:
Introduction to “Bodaisatta-Shishobo”
The Four Embracing Actions Defined
Giving as “Nongreed”
Turning Your Ideas about Giving Upside Down
Is Giving Something You Do, Or Something That Happens When You Get Out of the Way?
Introduction to “Bodaisatta-Shishobo”
“Bodaisatta-Shishobo” was written in 1243 and, probably because it’s such a short and sweet text, there are many translations of it. Nishijima and Cross call the essay “Four Elements of a Bodhisattva’s Social Relations;”[i] Kaz Tanahashi calls it “The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance,”[ii] Thomas Wright calls it “Four Dimensions of a Living Bodhisattva Spirit,”[iii] and Shohaku Okumura calls it “The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions.”[iv]
I’m going to call Dogen’s essay “The Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings” – this name is a little interpretive, but I’m basing it on Shohaku Okumura’s explanation of the title’s Japanese characters.[v] Bodaisatta, of course, is the Japanese for bodhisattva, a being who has vowed to awaken and free all living beings. In the Mahayana view, we’re all aspiring bodhisattvas. The “Shi” part of “Shishobo” means four. “Sho” means embracing, unifying, or integrative. “Bo” means way, or method. Technically, then, Dogen’s essay is “the bodhisattva’s four ways of embracing” or “unifying,” but I don’t think it’s a stretch to add “living beings” in there, as living beings are clearly the object of the bodhisattva’s concern.
It turns out Dogen’s formulation of the bodhisattva’s four ways of embracing or caring for beings is not something he made up. Various Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra, reference the “four social teachings,”[vi] and the list dates all the way back to the Pali Canon. In the Sangaha Sutta it says:
“There are these four grounds for the bonds of fellowship…
Giving, kind words, beneficial help,
& consistency in the face of events,
in line with what’s appropriate
in each case, each case.
These bonds of fellowship (function) in the world
like the linchpin in a moving cart.”[vii]
Interestingly, these “four grounds for the bonds of fellowship” or “four social teachings” are different from the Four Brahmaviharas, or divine abidings, of good will, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The Brahmaviharas are about the state of heart-mind we should cultivate with respect living beings – an internal practice – while the four embracing actions are about what we actually do.
The Four Embracing Actions Defined
In a bit I’ll start going through the Bodaisatta-Shishobo more or less line by line, so these episodes will be focused on what Dogen has to say about the four embracing actions – and if you’re at all familiar with Dogen, you know what he has to say isn’t going to be a straightforward prose explanation of them, or practical advice about how to work with them in daily life! Briefly, then, I’ll define each of the four actions so you get a sense of where we’re going.
The first three embracing actions are what you’d probably expect to see on a list of things good bodhisattvas do. The first action is dana (Sanskrit) or Fuse (Japanese), which can be translated as generosity or “free giving.”[viii] The second action is Aigo (again, Japanese), loving words or kind speech, which Dogen says means we at the very least refrain from rude and unkind speech. The third action is Rigyo, “beneficial action” or “helpful conduct,” which Dogen defines as acting “skillfully to benefit all classes of sentient beings; that is, to care about their distant and near future, and to help them by using skillful means.”[ix] Note that beneficial action is much more involved than simply responding compassionately in the moment if you happen to encounter someone in trouble, although of course it would include spontaneous actions as well.
The fourth action in Japanese is Doji, and this one is a little harder to translate. One of the great things about the Shobogenzo translation by Nishijima and Cross is the very detailed footnotes, including explanations of many of the Japanese characters Dogen uses. These translators explain that “do” means same, and “ji” means “thing,” “matter,” or “task.”[x] Therefore, they suggest a number of different translations of Doji, saying it literally means “identity of task,” but could be translated as “identity of purpose,” “sharing the same aim,” or even the colloquial expression “being in the same boat.” Personally, I love this somewhat-subtler embracing action, “being in the same boat,” and find myself wondering what the world would be like if we all practiced it! Note that when Bodaisatta-Shishobo is translated, Doji is usually called “cooperation” – which I don’t feel quite conveys enough intimacy and connection – or “identity action,” which might be accurate but isn’t a phrase we typically use in English and therefore it’s a little obscure. When it’s not too awkward to do so, I’ll refer to the fourth embracing action as “sharing the same aim.”
A final note before we delve into the text: Depending on what title we use for Bodaisatta-Shishobo, we can more or less be left with the impression that the essay is about the most skillful ways for bodhisattvas to treat ordinary beings if they want to save them. After all, if you’re trying to help someone break free from their suffering, you want to act in ways that will encourage them to trust you, listen to you, and follow your guidance. You want them to feel confident you have their best interests in mind – that you share the same aim as they do. However, this way of looking at the bodhisattva’s four embracing actions suggests they are something we do only for the sake of others, as if bodhisattva activity is divorced from practices that lead to awakening – as if kindness and generosity are a nice side-benefit of awakening, or the icing on the cake of our real practice. Indeed, this understanding of Buddhism is rooted in the original teachings, where practices like the Brahmaviharas are presented as beneficial for the practitioner, but not as means to awakening in and of themselves. In other words, you can’t gain enlightenment just by being nice to people.
“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”[xi]
In the Nishijima and Cross translation, it says “Helpful conduct is the whole Dharma” instead of saying it is an “act of oneness.” I think either translation challenges us to consider wholehearted bodhisattva activity as a direct path to awakening. After all, the whole idea is that there is no real separation between self and other, so surely we can encounter that reality by enacting giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and sharing the same aim as all living beings. Shohaku Okumura agrees with me, as he wrote in a long commentary on Shishobo in the journal “Dharma Eye:”
“…these four actions are the ways a bodhisattva helps living beings to enter the Way of Buddha and abide in the truth. In this sense, the translation used by Kaz Tanahashi in Moon in a Dew Drop, “Methods of Guidance,” is a good translation. However, when Dogen Zenji expounds these four practices as “Shobogenzo”, I think, he does not merely mean that these are methods [for] guiding people to enter the Buddhist path. Dogen teaches that these four practices allow the bodhisattvas themselves to be free from the three poisonous states of mind: greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance. These practices benefit both the person practicing and living beings at the same time.”[xii]
The Shishobo: Giving as “Nongreed”
Now on to Dogen’s words… 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. Note that, in this translation, the fourth kind of bodhisattva activity is called “identity action.”
“The bodhisattva’s four methods of guidance are giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and identity action.
“‘Giving’ means nongreed. Nongreed means not to covet. Not to covet means not to curry favor. Even if you govern the Four Continents, you should always convey the authentic path with nongreed.”[xiii]
It is significant that Dogen first defines giving negatively, as nongreed. This is consistent with the Buddhist view that we cause harm because we are not yet liberated from the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion. Through practice, we become aware of the poisons and our karmic patterns of self-attachment, and eventually we’re able to let them go – and once we do, no problem! It’s not that our true nature is greedy, hateful, and deluded, and therefore it’s an unending struggle to keep it in check and cultivate positive qualities like generosity instead. An awakened being has liberated their true nature, and is naturally kind, generous, and selfless.
In the case of the embracing action of giving, Dogen seems to imply, it’s more fruitful for our practice if we focus on recognizing and letting go of greed – on practicing nongreed – than if we dream up all kinds of ways we could practice some kind of noble “giving.” We can recognize the truth of this in our own experience. How often have we deliberately offered something we think will be greatly appreciated or beneficial, and yet the results weren’t nearly as positive as we expected? On the other hand, how often have opportunities for giving arisen in our lives, but we didn’t take them because we thought first about ourselves? Our greed for time, money, resources, and status can manifest as stinginess. Can you imagine practicing nongreed when a car cuts you off in traffic, a friend has fallen on hard times and needs money, or someone else ends up getting credit for something you did?
Dogen offers two additional versions of greediness for us to consider: coveting, and currying favor. Clearly, we’re meant to reflect on the various ways greed manifests in our lives. Fundamentally, greed is craving for more than we currently have, and usually more than we actually need in order to be happy. There are many actions we may take in order to fulfill our greed, including amassing and holding on to wealth, buying lots of stuff, or getting into power struggles at work. The word “covet” suggests an obsessive envy, longing, or fantasizing as we contemplate something we don’t yet have. “Currying favor” points to a manipulative use of other people for our own gain. If we want to “convey the authentic path,” or benefit living beings as a bodhisattva, Dogen says, none of these greed-centered actions will do. “Even if we rule the four continents” – that is, even if we have great power and influence and resources – our bodhisattva activity will be severely limited if we do not let go of greed.
The Shishobo: Turning Your Ideas about Giving Upside Down
[Nongreed] “is like giving away unneeded belongings to someone you don’t know, offering flowers blooming on a distant mountain to the Tathagata [the Buddha], or, again, offering treasures you had in your former life to sentient beings. Whether it is of teaching or of material, each gift has its value and is worth giving. Even if the gift is not your own, there is no reason to abstain from giving. The question is not whether the gift is valuable but whether there is genuine merit.”[xiv]
When studying Dogen it’s important to remember that his writing, like much Chan and Zen literature, is more akin to poetry than to explanatory prose. It’s symbolic and evocative – so you should tune into what thoughts, feelings, or images arise in you when you read or hear his words, without worrying so much about whether you “understand” them, or whether they make logical sense.
In this passage on giving, Dogen turns our ideas about what giving means upside down. We think giving involves one person owning or controlling something, and then transferring that ownership or control to some else. Meaningful acts of giving generally entail sacrifice on the part of the giver, significant benefit to the receiver, the accrual of merit to the giver, or the strengthening of the relationship between giver and receiver. But Dogen says the embracing action of giving is like giving away unneeded belongings (no sacrifice) to someone we don’t know, and presumably continue not to know (no merit, and no strengthening of relationship). Giving can be offering flowers blooming on a distant mountain – but they aren’t “yours,” so what does it even mean to give them? If the flowers are far away on a distant mountain, what benefit are they to the Buddha? Dogen says you can offer treasures you had in a former life to sentient beings, but those treasures aren’t even here anymore!
Yet Dogen says, “Even if the gift is not your own, there is no reason to abstain from giving. The question is not whether the gift is valuable but whether there is genuine merit.” It’s tempting, here, to interpret Dogen’s words to mean “giving” amounts more or less to the Brahmavihara of goodwill with the added practice of imagining the subject of our goodwill enjoying something nice, like treasure or flowers. However, Dogen talks about very concrete acts of giving in the subsequent sections of Shishobo, so I think what he is doing in this first passage is asking us to open our minds. What is giving if doesn’t involve one person owning or controlling something, and then transferring that ownership or control to some else? What merit is there in giving if the act doesn’t necessarily entail sacrifice on the part of the giver, significant benefit to the receiver, the accrual of merit to the giver, or the strengthening of the relationship between giver and receiver? At this point it is simply useful to be asking.
Is Giving Something You Do, Or Something That Happens When You Get Out of the Way?
“When you leave the way to the way, you attain the way. At the time of attaining the way, the way is always left to the way. When treasure is left just as treasure, treasure becomes giving. You give yourself to yourself and others to others. The power of the causal relations of giving reaches to devas, human beings, and even enlightened sages. When giving becomes actual, such causal relations are immediately formed.”[xv]
Here’s a prime example of the way Dogen takes poetic leaps in his writing. We may expect him to keep going on about the mechanics of giving, but instead he offers a series of sentences that not only suddenly introduce new concepts but may seem to go in nonsensical circles. However, many of the instances where English translations of Dogen’s writings give this strange sense of circularity are where he’s actually playing with kanji, or the Chinese characters used for writing Japanese. Essentially, Dogen is putting various nouns and verbs in a sentence and then suggesting their interpenetrating and interdependent relationships by moving them around.
In this passage, Dogen is playing with the relationship between you and the way (alternatively, the truth, or the Dharma), and the relationship between leaving alone and attaining. Who or what gets left alone, or allowed to be just as it is, and who or what gets attained? In what sense do we attain something when we simply allow things to be just as they are? Shohaku Okumura and Thomas Wright use the word “entrusting” rather than the phrase “leaving alone.”[xvi] What does it mean to entrust the way to the way? As crazy as it might sound when expressed in prose, this is our actual experience of the Dharma. When we really get it, nothing has been added. The only thing that’s changed is that we’ve temporarily dropped all the extra stuff we usually pile on to our experience because of our lack of trust.
So, what does it mean to leave a treasure “just as a treasure,” and how does this enable the treasure to become giving? Okumura says a more literal translation of this line of Shishobo is “When material treasures are entrusted to the material treasures, the material treasures without fail become dana.”[xvii] When I contemplate the meaning of these kinds of apparently obscure Dogen phrases, I find it useful to try guessing what I think he means and then putting it into my own words. Try it – you’ll probably find out you understand more about what Dogen’s saying than you may initially think.
In this case, I offer: I entrust treasures to treasures when I fully appreciate something precious, valuable, or beneficial without immediately relating it to my self-concern. I experience the blessing of the treasure without longing for it if I don’t have it, or scheming to hold on to it – or get even more of it – if it’s something I have. Gratitude naturally arises, and inevitably I will encounter beings with whom I will want to share my blessings. This raises the question: Is giving something we do, or something that happens naturally when we get out of the way? (Note: I’m not saying that’s what Dogen means, this is just my interpretation at the moment.)
Then there’s the line, “you give yourself to yourself and others to others.” Dogen’s back to challenging our ideas about giving. Perhaps he’s inviting us to trust ourselves, because in so doing we settle into our true nature. We may think striving to improve, and being hard on ourselves, is how we benefit others, but radical acceptance of ourselves can be an act of generosity. Accepting and embracing others for just who they are is a gift, and may allow them to similarly make peace with themselves and blossom into who they’re meant to be.
Finally, “The power of the causal relations of giving reaches to devas, human beings, and even enlightened sages. When giving becomes actual, such causal relations are immediately formed.” Again, we encounter sentences that may immediately defy understanding but start unfolding if you spend a little time with them. Sometimes, of course, an alternative translation helps. I like this one, by Shohaku Okumura: “The karma of giving pervades the heavens above and our human world alike. It even reaches the realm of those sages who have attained the fruits of realization. Whether we give or receive, we connect ourselves with all beings throughout the world.”
We all have direct, personal experience of the karma of giving. A sincere, no-strings-attached gift – of support, time, resources, kindness, patience, understanding, food, space, anything – warms and softens the heart of both giver and receiver. Giving melts away our delusion of separateness and increases the amount of good in the world. Simply witnessing giving evokes hope and connection, and the essence of giving isn’t dependent on the neediness of the receiver, because even “sages who have attained the fruits of realization” are touched by giving. From a Buddhist perspective, as expressed by Dogen, this power of giving is a natural law. Giving creates connection – or, more accurately, it allows the reality of our connectedness to be revealed and manifested.
[i] Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994. https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Bodaisatta.html
[ii] Dogen, Zen Master. Kaz Tanahashi, ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Shobogenzo: Bodaisatta Shishobo, True Dharma Eye Treasury: The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions Lecture (1) by Shohaku Okumura, in Dharma Eye. https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/dharma/pdf/de12/de12_10.htm
[vi] Ibid, and Reeves, Gene (translator). The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008. (pg 249)
[vii] The Bonds of Fellowship: Saṅgaha Sutta (AN 4:32) https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/AN/AN4_32.html
[viii] Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994. Footnotes, Volume 3, pg 29.
[ix] Dogen, Zen Master. Kaz Tanahashi, ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[x] Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994. Footnotes, Volume 3, pg 29.
[xi] Dogen, Zen Master. Kaz Tanahashi, ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[xii] Shobogenzo: Bodaisatta Shishobo, True Dharma Eye Treasury: The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions Lecture (1) by Shohaku Okumura, in Dharma Eye. https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/dharma/pdf/de12/de12_10.htm
[xiii] Dogen, Zen Master. Kaz Tanahashi, ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[xvi] Many translations of Shishobo: https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Bodaisatta.html
[xvii] Shobogenzo: Bodaisatta Shishobo, True Dharma Eye Treasury: The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions Lecture (3) by Shohaku Okumura, in Dharma Eye. https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/dharma/pdf/de14/de14_09.htm