Earning a Living

“Earning a living and doing productive work are originally nothing other than free giving,” Dogen Zenji says in an essay called Four Elements of a Bodhisattva’s Social Relations

This essay can be found on-line in book three of the Nishijima/Cross translation of Shobogenzo, or in volume one of the Kazuaki Tanahashi et al translation. Hubert Nearman’s translation of the essay for Shasta Abbey can be found on-line here. I paraphrased the essay in my book It Came From Beyond Zen. I also commented on this essay in my book Sit Down and Shut Up.

This line by Dogen meant a lot to me at a time when I was going through a bunch of turmoil and conflict about what to do with my life. Which was basically most of the time I’ve been alive. I’m in my fifth decade of having that guy from the Twisted Sister video constantly shouting, “What are you going to do with your life?” in my head.

The phrase that Nishijima and Cross translate as “earning a living and doing productive work” is jisei-sangyou (sometimes pronounced chisei sangyou). The blogging program I’m using won’t allow me to use Japanese/Chinese characters so I’ve put them into a JPEG for you to see. Tanahashi et al translate the phrase as “making a living and producing things.”

The first part of Dogen’s essay is all about the Buddhist concept of dana, which is a word you’ve probably heard if you’ve ever gone to a Buddhist center. When Buddhists pass the collection plate around they like to call the money you put in there dana. It’s a little like the word donation in English. It’s also translated as “generosity.” The Japanese term Dogen uses is fuse, which is often translated as “alms-giving” or “charity.”

When I think of words like “charity” and “generosity,” I usually have a very specific sort of image of those things. Charity is when I magnanimously give all I can to the poor and the needy. Generosity is when I slip a hundred dollar bill into a homeless person’s begging cup, even if it means great hardship for me later on. When I looked up generosity on the Interwebs just now I got this inspiring article from CBS News about ten wonderful acts of altruistic kindness.

Dogen does not deny that such acts of generosity and charity are nice things to do. But he greatly expands the meaning of these words. My dictionary program defines the word generous as, “showing a readiness to give more of something, such as money or time, than is strictly necessary or expected.” But many of the acts Dogen cites as examples of free-giving are not at all the types of things I would have thought of as generous. In fact, much of what Dogen describes as free-giving would be thought of by most folks as simply doing what is necessary or expected.

“We give ourselves to ourselves,” he says, “and give the external world to the external world.” He talks about “leaving flowers to the wind and leaving birds to time,” meaning, basically, allowing things to be what they are, and says that these are also examples of free giving. He talks about giving to parents, wives, and children. He talks about the merit in giving up even a single speck of dust. And, most shockingly of all to me, he says that even doing a regular old job to earn a paycheck is also an example of free-giving.

Before I worked for Tsuburaya Productions, makers of Ultraman, the company founded by the guy who invented Godzilla, I worked for the Summit County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities in Akron, Ohio. There I did the often arduous work of assisting mentally handicapped adults train for jobs that, quite frankly, most of them would never be able to get in the outside world. Instead, they worked in what were called “sheltered workshops” doing piecework for local factories. Half the time, instructors like me did the actual work, although we gave our mentally handicapped clients credit.

You could hardly get a more virtuous job than that. What made it even more virtuous was that my wages barely covered rent on one room at the Kent Zendo and enough Top Ramen to keep me from starving. Talk about free giving!

I felt enormously guilty when I finally got a job that I liked and that paid well, a job that had nothing at all to do with helping the needy. I felt like I had totally failed as a Buddhist.

Our culture really praises the idea of giving everything you have as the only truly acceptable way of being charitable. In the New Testament Book of Acts, chapter five, verses 1-11, we’re told the story of a guy named Ananias who God strikes dead because even though he gave a whole bunch of money to the early church he held back a little bit for himself. Then God kills Ananias’ wife too!

I’d never heard that section of the Bible until recently, but from a very young age I was aware of the idea that a truly moral person must give absolutely everything in order not to fall short of what the virtuous life requires. I felt like a real scumbag for enjoying my job.

A few days ago, Roshi Joan Halifax of Upaya Zen Center tweeted out a line from one of her books. The line went, “This gift of life that I call ‘wise hope’ is rooted in our vows and is what Master Dogen means when he admonishes us to ‘give life to life’ even if it is one dying person at a time, one refugee at a time, one prisoner at a time, one life at a time, one ecosystem at a time.”

I think she got that phrase “give life to life” from a different translation of the same essay I’ve been referencing in this article. But she seems to have taken Dogen’s advice in a way that’s more like what we find in the Book of Acts than what we find in Dogen’s writings.

Sure. It is absolutely wonderful to give magnanimously to dying people, to refugees, to prisoners, and it’s really great to do whatever you can to try to help out our beleaguered ecosystems.


I would never deny that, and neither does Dogen.

But everyone says that. Where Dogen differs from everybody else is that he adds to this definition of generosity and expands it.

“Both receiving the body and giving up the body are free giving,” Dogen says. To Dogen, even being alive and dying are examples of free giving. Even the mere fact that you are alive and someday you will die are ways that the universe gives itself to the universe.

It’s good to give to charity. It’s good to work to improve the environment. It’s good to leave a bag of coats and blankets next to the homeless encampment in your neighborhood.

All of that stuff is great.


No doubt.

But there are many other ways we can give. Infinite other ways, in fact. When I learned to see my work at making movies about rubber monsters as free giving, I started to be able to see free giving everywhere.

When you do that, the mind that believes in self and other begins to fade away. Literally everything you do can become an example of generosity.


Nishijima Roshi’s blog on this essay by Dogen 

My friend Zuiko Redding’s article about Dogen’s essay 


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