Dana Paramita – Generosity As Buddhist Practice

Robert TiltonFirst off, tomorrow, July 14, 2012 I will be hosting Dogen Sangha Los Angeles’ monthly day-long zazen thing. The location as 237 Hill St. Santa Monica, CA 90405 at the intersection of Hill and Second Streets. It starts at 9:50 AM (come at 9:30 if you need zazen instructions), ends at 3:30 PM and there’s a lot of sitting down and looking at a wall followed by a group discussion. The schedule is available at http://www.dogensanghalosangeles.org/dsla/schedule.html. Beginners are welcome and you can come for any part of the day as long as you enter and exit quietly. Those who show up late will miss the instructions. But if you know what to do already, just come and do it.

At the end of the last installment of this blog I put up a little plea for readers to take note of the donate button I’ve had on this blog and its forerunner for the past two years or so. This is one of only a few times I’ve called attention to that button. The response was very encouraging. Writing a blog is a lonely job. I really don’t know who’s reading it. For a while it felt like nobody was reading it at all. It almost seems like people were just using the comments section to create their own micro-blogs to tell the world how lame they think I am (then why were they reading?) as well as argue with each other.

Getting some donations makes me feel like maybe some of the effort I put into this thing isn’t being completely wasted. Thank you very much. It really helps.

The standard thing to do in the Zen world when you want some donations is to make a speech about dana paramita. Dana means generosity and paramita means perfection and is used to indicate cultivating certain values. The Lotus Sutra lists six paramitas that are considered to be the most important in Mahayana Buddhism. They are:

Dana – generosity

Sila – morality

Ksanti – patience

Virya – diligent effort

Dhyana – meditation

Prajna – wisdom

One could be cynical about this and say that dana is the first because Buddhist monks depend upon the support of lay people and so they want to ensure that support by putting generosity at the top of the list. I’ve always tended to be cynical about such things myself. Whenever I see some television evangelist in some gargantuan fancy-pants church soliciting contributions from the faithful it makes me cringe.

But then again, I can kind of understand that. The people who support those guys want to have a beautiful cathedral to go to. They want to listen to a preacher dressed in fine clothes. They want to be part of a massive gathering of like-minded people. And so they ought to pay for it. It’s like paying to see the New York Knicks. If you want the experience of seeing top athletes play in a huge arena, you pay for it. If you want to see a guy with a weekly hairspray bill that’s bigger than your monthly take-home pay harangue you about hell in a mega-church, you have to pay for that as well.

All of us, no matter what it is we do for a living, depend upon communal support for our livelihood. All of us are begging monks at some level. I used to work for a company that made superhero TV shows for children. During that time, my livelihood was supported by the people who watched those TV shows (thus providing the numbers necessary for advertisers to pay the networks who in turn paid us to make the shows) as well as by those who bought the many toys, games, DVDs, candy products, and other sundry items based on the characters we created. I was part of a kind of sangha whose efforts were directed at creating fantasies. No matter what you do for a living there is some kind of system you take advantage of in order that the larger society can support you.

In religious communities the lines of economic support are often more direct than is the norm. The wandering ascetics of Buddha’s time lived or died according to what was put in their bowls. Buddha created a community, which served to make things a little easier on individuals. If the more cheerful monks got more in their begging bowls than the sullen ones, they could all share. If you work for a company, that’s just a way of spreading the donations out more and hiding the lines between giver and receiver.

Like the guys who go to the mega-churches, those who are interested in keeping Buddhism available have got to support it. Generosity is an important part of making Buddhism happen.

So generosity supports the community. But it sometimes feels like it might weaken the individual. You give your money to the sangha or to a teacher you want to support. And they end up with your money while you end up with a little less in the bank. What kind of a deal is that? Sure you get to hear the teachings and join the meditations as well as enjoy the building you helped buy if there is one. But maybe you don’t think you need that stuff.

I tend to feel like money represents the circulation of vital energy within the body of society. It’s good for the body as a whole and for the organs individually when blood circulates everywhere. If one organ gets greedy and keeps all the blood to itself this does no good for the body or for the organ in question. Human society is messed up right now because this is pretty much what’s happening. The folks among us who have managed to amass too much may think they’ve won the game. But that’s only because they don’t understand what’s really going on. They’re actually damaging the larger community and thereby damaging themselves.

So on an individual level, it’s also important for our own spiritual health to give. There’s a line in the Zen meal chant that goes, “May we realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver and gift.” Which is a cute sentiment. But it’s often hard to put that into practice, especially when the economy takes a downturn.

Still, one very easy way to realize emptiness is by giving. I wrote about getting rid of stuff in order to move out West. It’s not easy to give away things that mean a lot to you. And I just gave away a ton of things that meant a lot to me. It felt really hard sometimes to do that. Yet when that stuff was gone, it was just gone. It was no big thang. It made me feel better, lighter, happier. It made me see how empty that stuff was.

All of the paramitas are steps toward realizing the fundamental emptiness of everything. By emptiness I do not mean non-existence or unreality. I mean that the concepts we carry around about what things are, are entirely mistaken. Each of the paramitas is a way of understanding that.

By giving, we understand that our possessions are empty. By acting in a moral way we understand that our ideas about separation from others are empty. By being patient we understand that the urgency we feel to get what we want is empty. By making diligent effort we understand that our desire to be lazy is empty, and that doing work makes us happier than being idle. By meditating we understand that our so-called self is empty. By gaining wisdom we see that the fundamental ground of everything is empty.

This emptiness isn’t darkness or bleak despair. It’s not lack or absence. It’s emptiness that is light, joyful and free. It’s emptiness as the true source of our being.

Or something like that. Anyway, you guys bought me a bit more time in California. So thank you.

75 Responses

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  1. Hungry Ghost
    Hungry Ghost July 18, 2012 at 12:42 am | |

    Not much for words, just created an account to let you know I read your blogs and have for as long as I’ve known what a blog was (shamefully not too long ago). This is the closest thing I have to a connection with like minded-ish people, I’ve tried the whole chanting the Heart Sutra with the wide-eyed idle rich thing and it feels fake to me so please keep this up. I will donate to you when I can, I’m selling off my Firebird and P-bass (painful lesson in attachment and impermanence) to pay tuition though so it may be a month or three.

  2. Ted
    Ted July 18, 2012 at 1:36 am | |

    BY, I’m not telling you what to do or what to think. I’m telling you what I think.

  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 18, 2012 at 1:59 am | |

    Some Kobun stuff:

    ‘Long-time student Martin Mosko recalls, “I did my ngondro practice under Kobun, in retreat. He used to emphasize, “You go into retreat to come out. Your practice is for the benefit of others.”‘ (from http://www.cuke.com/sangha_news/Kobun%20Chino/kobun%20gallup.html)

    And again:

    ‘The other thing Kobun taught me, regarding, the first year I was here and I was living in a little retreat cabin, he pulled me out of there for a couple of reasons: he said, “You can’t stay in retreat forever. Don’t forget them.” And he pointed out to town.’ (from http://sweepingzen.com/ian-hakuryu-forsberg-interview)

    I know, different strokes for different folks. Interesting, though, especially considering Kobun’s role in the establishment of Shambala.

    One more, from the interview with Ian Forsberg quoted above:

    ‘But, what I’ve learned in these recent years is that for me taking refuge in the Sangha has been the hardest. Buddha and Dharma sound pretty glorious and Sangha is not as glorious with all the day-to-day interactions. But I realized that Kobun’s way was that, well, we’re practicing with everyone. The whole world is our Sangha. And even within that immediate group of people you revolve around, in the zendo practice part, these people are not necessarily more enlightened than the rest of the world. He didn’t…look at it that way, as sangha exclusive; it’s everyone together, is practicing (whether they know it or not). (Laughs)’

  4. Senjo
    Senjo July 18, 2012 at 4:33 am | |

    Broken Yogi is right when he recounts some of the corruption inherent in parts of the Tibetan system. Who can forget our own beloved Steven ‘Seagal Rinpoche’ who was miracuously declared a great reincarnated tulku, a fact entirely unconnected to the large donations of money he had recently made to the monastery involved. When I read Alexander Norman’s history of the Dalai Lamas, there seemed to be a lot of examples of tulku’s being ‘discovered’ amongst the families of wealthy patrons (to the extent that some rich families had 2 or 3 tulkus in them). Then there were the recent events in India when the 17th Karmapa’s monastery was raided by the police and huge amounts of cash were discovered.

    Tibetan Buddhism has a hugely rich contribution to make to Buddhism, but like all systems it has its particular weaknesses and cash unfortunately is one of those.

  5. koderken
    koderken July 18, 2012 at 5:21 am | |

    OFF TOPIC. Q: Is there a way I can talk about my practice with friends who ask, without giving them anything to cling to mentally? If I tell them I practice zazen or shikantaza, people tend to think they know something about what that is, without having ever experienced it. (Sometimes it seems to me that Zen is one of the most misused words in our language, in this regards. People toss it around fairly thoughtlessly.)

    I’m thinking of telling friends that I practice “bleh” meditation, in order to sidestep the habit of people thinking that they can get a handle on it simply because it is named.

    Names for things are not the actual things themselves, but just recently I’ve been thinking this has become a problem for me. Things are empty and names are empty, so how then do we talk with each other?

  6. anon 108
    anon 108 July 18, 2012 at 5:32 am | |

    I don’t really get BY’s problem with Ted’s approach. Sounds to me like Ted’s just thinking out loud what it means for him. I don’t think he’s trying to control anyone or any group’s action. He’s just pointing out what he thinks are some important issues to consider. Everyone can decide for themselves what to make of Ted’s opinions. It’s not like he’s trying to get BY – or anyone else – to shut up about it all.

    BY – I think you took Ted’s “you”s rather too personally. Try reading them generically…if you fancy.

  7. anon 108
    anon 108 July 18, 2012 at 5:46 am | |

    Damn. Missed this page. Didn’t see Ted’s reply to BY. Feel free to ignore my last comment.

  8. anon 108
    anon 108 July 18, 2012 at 5:55 am | |

    On second thoughts, it’s a rather good comment. Read it and agree.

  9. Noah
    Noah July 18, 2012 at 9:34 am | |

    Interesting discussion, not withstanding what seemed to be some stirred emotions. But I think Ted and BY have eloquently articulated two sides of an debate I know I often have with myself internally.

    I donated some money to Brad recently. I come to this site regularly, enjoy Brad’s unique and uncut take on practice and Buddhist philosophy, and so I get some kind of entertainment benefit from this blog. It’s also kind of inspiring from a practice viewpoint. So why not give pay for that, notwithstanding that the traditional pay-for-service model isn’t in place? I pay for other kinds of entertainment and inspiration.

    On the other hand, I think it’s important that Brad address what I think was one of Broken Yogi’s points, which is that Brad can’t properly call this Dana and at the same time disclaim liability (or whatever) for giving actual teachings as opposed to “writing about about being a Zen teacher” or however he typically makes that distinction. Which distinction I take to be a bit of nonsense anyway – I could pull out maybe 30 different posts over the years that are without a doubt “Dharma teaching”.

    But maybe I misunderstand the concept of Dana as relating to giving in support of spiritual teaching, as opposed to just more general giving?

  10. Fred
    Fred July 18, 2012 at 10:15 am | |

    “Things are empty and names are empty, so how then do we talk with each other?”

    The air vibrates and the inner ear picks it up. The vibrations are interpreted in
    terms of previous socio-cultural conditioning, which could be anything. Social
    psychologists use to call this the myth of communication.

    To say that things are empty refers to the Unborn and the Undead. The Tao
    that can be stated is not the real Tao. There is no need to talk about it. It must be
    experienced on some level. The question is what is doing the experiencing.

  11. King Kong
    King Kong July 18, 2012 at 10:51 am | |

    AWESOME !!!

  12. Noah
    Noah July 18, 2012 at 11:21 am | |

    btw Brad, there was a glitch when I tried registering using google chrome – it said I had to provide a valid email, which I was. Had to switch over to firefox to get it done.

  13. Ted
    Ted July 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm | |

    Dana Paramita means the Perfection of Giving. It’s relevant to any act of giving, whether it’s to a Dharma teacher or anyone else (and how do you know that the person you are giving to isn’t teaching you Dharma, anyway?). What makes it the perfection of giving is not who you give to, but how you understand the act of giving. If you think you are giving in payment, that’s not the perfection. If you think you are giving because the recipient will definitely benefit in the way you have in mind, that’s not the perfection. If you are giving because you want people to see you giving, that’s not the perfection. But you can practice the perfection of giving with pigeons in the park—it doesn’t have to be Brad, and I don’t think Brad’s point was that giving to him is the PoG.

  14. King Kong
    King Kong July 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm | |

    Rock on Ted !!!

    What’s *not* a Dharma teaching?

    Have a banana :)

  15. Jinzang
    Jinzang July 18, 2012 at 8:52 pm | |

    Wow, everyone’s hating on the Tibetans, aren’t they? Looks to me like the usual tribalism. It’s easy to see the faults of the people we disagree with, harder to see our own faults or those who think like us.

  16. Jinzang
    Jinzang July 18, 2012 at 9:07 pm | |

    Rudolf Steiner talked a lot about the importance of the gift economy. I’m sure others have as well. The idea that the only real economy is the “exchange of value for value” (as Ayn Rand put it) is a mistake. Every day at work someone is bringing in donuts or similar, and I’m sure most places are like this. The free software movement created the software that powers this site and most of the Internet. People need to broaden their view of the possible and actual.

  17. Ted
    Ted July 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm | |

    The irony of the Free Software movement is that it’s just restoring the pre-artificial-monopoly status quo. Oh wait, now I’ve outed myself… :)

    Seriously, though, Jinzang (Tibetan much?) is right. The criticism that tulkus come from rich families is belied by the current Dalai Lama’s own family’s circumstances—they were very much enriched by their Tulku children, although I get the impression that it was a mixed blessing even before the Chinese invasion.

    And as for the women who spent her life’s savings on a recital of the Kangyur, I’m sure she would have been much happier with a new iDevice every year. Honestly, that story makes me cringe too, but I can’t really seriously claim that the way I spend money makes me any happier. Sponsoring rituals isn’t usually my bag, but I do plenty of weird things that don’t make economic sense with worse motivation, so who am I to judge? $111/day in New York is a pretty substandard wage, so it’s not like the monks who did the recital are getting rich.

  18. Ted
    Ted July 18, 2012 at 11:01 pm | |

    (I should add that if I am not much mistaken, Jinzang means “giving purely,” which is another way of saying “Dana Paramita.” :)

  19. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 19, 2012 at 1:05 am | |

    Hey Brad, you can delete the one awaiting moderation, I’ll redo it here without active links.

    Some Kobun stuff:

    ‘Long-time student Martin Mosko recalls, “I did my ngondro practice under Kobun, in retreat. He used to emphasize, “You go into retreat to come out. Your practice is for the benefit of others.”‘ (from http://www.cuke.com/sangha_news/Kobun%20Chino/kobun%20gallup.html)

    And again:

    ‘The other thing Kobun taught me, regarding, the first year I was here and I was living in a little retreat cabin, he pulled me out of there for a couple of reasons: he said, “You can’t stay in retreat forever. Don’t forget them.” And he pointed out to town.’ (from sweepingzen.com/ian-hakuryu-forsberg-interview)

    I know, different strokes for different folks. Interesting, though, especially considering Kobun’s role in the establishment of Shambala.

    One more, from the interview with Ian Forsberg quoted above:

    ‘But, what I’ve learned in these recent years is that for me taking refuge in the Sangha has been the hardest. Buddha and Dharma sound pretty glorious and Sangha is not as glorious with all the day-to-day interactions. But I realized that Kobun’s way was that, well, we’re practicing with everyone. The whole world is our Sangha. And even within that immediate group of people you revolve around, in the zendo practice part, these people are not necessarily more enlightened than the rest of the world. He didn’t…look at it that way, as sangha exclusive; it’s everyone together, is practicing (whether they know it or not). (Laughs)’

  20. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 19, 2012 at 1:11 am | |

    I tried to repost a comment leaving the “http://” off of my reference links, but what do you know: WordPress added the “http” back in, and now I have two entries awaiting moderation (although only one of them actually says it’s awaiting moderation).

    So I will post my comment again without any links, and Brad, please delete both of the other posts. My apologies, everybody, if the dupes come through.

    Some Kobun stuff:

    ‘Long-time student Martin Mosko recalls, “I did my ngondro practice under Kobun, in retreat. He used to emphasize, “You go into retreat to come out. Your practice is for the benefit of others.”‘

    And again:

    ‘The other thing Kobun taught me, regarding, the first year I was here and I was living in a little retreat cabin, he pulled me out of there for a couple of reasons: he said, “You can’t stay in retreat forever. Don’t forget them.” And he pointed out to town.’ (from sweepingzen, ian-hakuryu-forsberg-interview)

    I know, different strokes for different folks. Interesting, though, especially considering Kobun’s role in the establishment of Shambala.

    One more, from the interview with Ian Forsberg quoted above:

    ‘But, what I’ve learned in these recent years is that for me taking refuge in the Sangha has been the hardest. Buddha and Dharma sound pretty glorious and Sangha is not as glorious with all the day-to-day interactions. But I realized that Kobun’s way was that, well, we’re practicing with everyone. The whole world is our Sangha. And even within that immediate group of people you revolve around, in the zendo practice part, these people are not necessarily more enlightened than the rest of the world. He didn’t…look at it that way, as sangha exclusive; it’s everyone together, is practicing (whether they know it or not). (Laughs)’

  21. Fred
    Fred July 19, 2012 at 11:53 am | |

    There is no tribalism Jinzang; there is seeing the way it is.

    Creating new illusion is not penetrating the illusion with awareness.

    While the way out, if there was a way out, is through the obstacle.

    Tibetan Buddhism is contaminated by Bon and magical rites.

    An added layer of superstition and conceptual dogma anchoring the ego in
    samsara.

    There may be many paths up the mountain, but some lead deeper into samsara.
    Mr. Thorsen dropped off a lofty cliff face, Lama Christie lost her way in the mists
    of a fairy tale, and Mr. Roach confused self transcendence with preaching
    nonsense from a pinnacle.

  22. boubi
    boubi July 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm | |

    Hi Brad

    This post of your leaves me with a sense of déjŕ vu.

    First of all you the good things, your blog contributed to help me kill the buddha, arhats, patriarch and masters (Rinzai way, you know that “dark side”, that branch of the family, which seems to haunt Sotos good folks imagination). You helped me to understand better the everyday “thing”, but a few everyday things contributed to the same effect.

    Thanks Brad.

    On the other side.
    In another blog you complained that the “dharma establishment” didn’t invite you to some come-toghether despite the fact that you are a teacher, author, lineage holder and so on. But you spent a lot of time criticizing them (maybe rightly) … and they were so ungratefull not to invite you?

    In another occasion (at least) you talked about “kensho smensho”, “kensho machine” after not having the experiences that Kapleau described in his book. On my opinion for lack of practicing koan. Try and maybe you’ll feel in your mouth the texture of what is in front of your eyes. It’s not a foundamental experience, it’s a way like a few others.
    This leads to the fable of the fox and the grapes
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fox_and_the_Grapes

    Now you complain that nobody seems to give enough money, and what startle me the most is this apology of giving, after criticizing the dharma cash machine of some questionable “masters”.

    Close this blog if the financial drain is too much, restrict the access to paying folks, use advertising, start ministering funeral ceremonies to the asian buddhist folk (you should have your shio somewhere) …

  23. Senjo
    Senjo July 20, 2012 at 4:11 am | |

    My comment about some of the corruption in Tibetan Buddhism certainly wasn’t tribalism as I practice at a Tibetan centre under a Tibetan Geshe (although in the past I have practised a lot with a Soto group). I just think that all forms of Buddhism (like all forms of anything) have particular weaknesses and potential faultlines, and money seems to be one of the vulnerabilities of the Tibetan system. As this blog has discussed a lot in the past, sex seems to be one of the faultlines of the Zen systems.

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