First 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.