Dharma Talk

The Practice of Unsurpassable Giving

by Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao

In Mahayana Buddhism, we practice the way of the paramitas. The Sanskrit word param means "the other shore," and ita means "to have reached." In other words, we have already reached the other shore. The other shore is this shore. It is always here, right now, beneath your feet. There is nowhere else.

Somehow, this "nowhere else" is difficult to realize. We seem to be always looking somewhere else for our life. So these paramitas are a raft to cross over from somewhere to here. We are crossing over from experiencing the life we are living now as a life of suffering to experiencing the life we are living now as the life of peace, the life of perfection. It is the same life, and, yet, it is a different life.

During this month of intensive practice, we are focussing on the six paramitas (there are actually ten) of giving, discipline, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. The first is dana or "giving," the practice of generosity. This paramita -- as well as all the others -- has prajna paramita, unsurpassable wisdom, as its basis. Without the realization of prajna wisdom, our life is nothing but suffering.

Maezumi Roshi taught that another meaning of paramita is "the unsurpassable, the very best." In considering dana paramita, what would be unsurpassable giving, the very best giving?

We say that the giver, receiver, and the gift itself are empty and peaceful. This is our standard for dana paramita: the giver is empty of self, the receiver is empty of self, and the thing given is empty of self. Simply selfless. Without this wisdom, giving is an ego trip. How can we cross over to a life where benefiting others is more important than our own self-interests? Unsurpassable giving is realizing that there is no one who possesses and that there is nothing to possess. When we realize this, giving and receiving is done without any thought of loss or gain.

Giving and receiving are not based on any conditions or self-consciousness. There is only giving. When we live in this way, our generosity flows from the unlimited treasure house that is our intrinsic nature. I am sure many of you have had the experience of giving things and having them return to you in even greater measure. When I ordained as a Zen priest, someone gave me a poem by Saigyo that read in part, "everything given up for another comes back again." How true that is! Indeed, we cannot give fast enough because we simply have so much.

So how can we use our unlimited treasure house to benefit others? What do we give? We speak of three kinds of giving: the giving of material goods, the giving of the dharma, and the giving of no-fear.

. . . When one learns giving well, being born and dying are both giving. All productive labor is fundamentally giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, birds to the season, also must be meritorious acts of giving. . .
-- Dogen Zenji

When we give material things, we consider whether these things benefit others. You might know the story of the enlightened Chinese Layman Pang. One day, he piled all of his belongings into a boat, rowed out into the ocean, and dumped everything overboard. When he returned to shore, his angry neighbors shouted at him, "Why didn’t you give those things away to others?" "If they are not good for me," Pang replied, "then how can I give them to others?" Possessions in and of themselves are not harmful when we use them without attachment. When we are selfless, we can use things according to the situation to benefit others. Such giving is dana paramita.

In a way, the giving of material things is the easiest form of giving to practice, although for some people this is quite difficult. "I have nothing to give, or I can’t afford to give, " people sometimes say to me. "It’s because, you are stingy." I tell them. "Practice generosity with body, speech and mind." Start with something small. A small gift is not at all small. The young woman Sujata saw a starving man and gave him a small bowl of milk. She did not know that this man was Shakyamuni, or that her gift would lead to his enlightenment. This is the spirit of true giving, that our giving may lead another to awakening.

When we look closely at life, we see that giving is always present. Maezumi Roshi would often say, "My life is made possible because of your life. I really mean it." All of our lives are possible because of each other’s life. People often say how difficult it is to receive from others. In fact, we should really see how every moment of our life is nothing but receiving. The other shore of the receiver is right here, now, as giver. And what is being given and received? Life! No matter what the gift, it is simply our life.

The giving of the Dharma is to live the mind of compassion. In order to give it, we must have it. We can cultivate our compassion by touching what Trungpa Rinpoche called our "soft spot." For most of us, this is the spot we expend our energy protecting. Masking our soft spot is problematic because it is this wound that is an opening for the seeds of compassion to take root. Giving the Dharma means that genuine human interaction is possible because we ourselves engage in the possibility of our own awakening and commit to the awakening of others.

The third kind of giving is the giving of no-fear. This is knowing that our life as we are living it now is a door to liberation. How can we help each other see that the very situation we are in is workable, an open space? I remember many years ago when Maezumi Roshi asked one of our members, a person skilled in sewing, to mend an old rakusu given to him by his revered teacher, Yasutani Roshi. When the expert mending was done, she pressed the rakusu and unfortunately burned a hole in it. Upset and crying, she showed the rakusu to Roshi. We all gasped. But he gave no fear by simply putting his arm around her saying, "It’s all right. There’s nothing to be upset about."

There are so many things to say about giving: who to give to, what to give, how much to give, when to give. What comes to mind is a visit I made years ago to Spencer Abbey in Massachusetts where the Trappist monk Father Theophane gave a brief talk to his visitors. "What do you give," he asked, looking at us with his piercing and blazing eyes, "when you have nothing to give?" Oh, how I puzzled over that question. Still today it is alive for me. What do we give when there is nothing to give? This, I suspect, is the unsurpassable gift of dana paramita.

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