February, 2004 NUMBER 13

The 28th Chapter of
Shobogenzo: Bodaisatta-Shishobo
The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions

Lecture (2)

Shohaku Okumura
Director, Soto Zen Buddhism International Center
(Edited by Koshin Steve Kelly)

Offering means not being greedy

First is offering or dana. Second is loving-speech. Third is
beneficial-action. Fourth is identity- action.

(1) [Offering]
Offering means not being greedy. Not to be greedy means not to covet. Not to covet commonly means not to flatter. Even if we rule the four continents, in order to offer teachings of the true Way, we must simply and unfailingly not be greedy. It is like offering treasures we are about to discard to those we do not know. We give flowers blooming on the distant mountains to the Tathagata, and offer treasures accumulated in past lives to living beings. Whether our gifts are Dharma or material objects, each gift is truly endowed with the virtue of offering or dana. Even if this gift is not our personal possession, nothing hinders our practice of offering. No gift is too small. But our effort should be genuine.

Dogen Zenji’s definition of offering (dana) is “not to be greedy”. I think this is a wonderful definition. The basic teaching of the Buddha is that our life is suffering and we transmigrate within the six realms of samsara because we live and act based on three poisonous states of mind : greed, anger/hatred and ignorance. All Buddhist practices are about cessation of suffering in samsara by being released from these three poisonous minds. This basic structure is also true in the case of the four embracing actions. Offering (dana) is a way to be released from greed. Loving speech is a way not to be caught up in anger and hatred. Beneficial action is a treatment for both greed and anger. Identity action is a practice to be free from the ignorance of self-centeredness through the wisdom of seeing the heart of being that is empty of self and interconnected with all beings. Commonly, the four embracing actions are considered to be methods of guidance used by bodhisattvas to lead people to become Buddhists. But in Dogen Zenji’s teaching, as it is clearly said in the section on beneficial action, the practice of the four embracing actions are not only the way to lead others, but also the way for the person practicing them to be free from the three poisonous states of mind. “Ignorant people may think that if we benefit others too much, our own benefit will be excluded. This is not the case. Beneficial-action is the whole of Dharma; it benefits both self and others widely.”

Not to be greedy means not to covet. Not to covet commonly means not to flatter.

“To be greedy” and “to covet” have almost the same meaning. To English speaking people, this sentence may sound like a repetition of the same word. In the original text, Dogen Zenji uses the Chinese word fu-ton () and he put the Japanese equivalent using hiragana (one of the two Japanese phonetic alphabets made by simplifying Chinese characters), musaborazarunari (). Structurally, this is the same as the English sentence,“Dana is offering.” Because dana means offering in Sanskrit, to say “dana is offering” seems repetitive. When we study Shobogenzo, however, it is important to understand that Dogen Zenji was writing in two different languages and sometimes playing with the Chinese words and expressions in a way only a non-native speaker can. Unfortunately when we translate his writings into English, we cannot show his subtle use of both Chinese and Japanese. Sometimes his sentences do not make any sense, and sometimes they look like childish repetition.

According to Dogen, “to flatter” is another expression of our greed. Typically, when we have enough power to get the things we want by ourselves, we covet them and just take them. But when we don’t have enough power to get things we want, we flatter someone who has the power to give them. By flattering the superior person, we try to satisfy our personal desires.

I think it is interesting that Dogen Zenji uses the negative expression in order to define dana instead of using a positive one such as “Dana is generosity. To be generous means such and such.” By doing this, I think he is urging us to reflect on our deeper motivation when being generous to others. Often we can see, even when we are giving something to someone who is in need and the action looks really generous on the surface, if we take a close look at our mind, we almost always see that greed is still working there. We may expect some return from the receiver or we covet the receiver’s gratitude. We may want to think we are generous or expect others to think that we are great people. Of course on the level of social morality, it is good to do good things. However, Buddhism is not merely a teaching of social morality. If the deeper motivation is greed, no matter how much we give, it cannot be dana paramita; perfection of offering. To practice dana is to be free from greed.

Traditional practice of Dana in takuhatsu (begging)

In India, since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, Buddhist monks were required to relinquish the bonds with their families, give up their livelihood and property and live with three robes and one bowl. Monks begged in nearby villages for food, eating only once a day before noon. Their begging was a practice to be free from desire for possessions and essentially from ego attachment. This tradition still continues in the Theravada Buddhism in South Eastern Asia. There are two sorts of offering in Buddhism: the offering of materials and the offering of Dharma. Lay people offer materials such as food, clothing medicine and other requirements to monasteries or monks. Also lay Buddhists offer things as charity to the needy people in society. And monks offer Dharma, the spiritual teachings they study and practice. Monks and laity support each other through the practice of these two kinds of offering (dana).

Takuhatsu at Antaiji

In modern Japan, almost all Buddhist temples are supported by temple members. Temple priests commonly do not practice takuhatsu except on certain special occasions. Only monks in training practice it while they are living at a monastery. And usually people at this time offer money instead of food, except when they do takuhatsu specifically for rice or some vegetables.

During the time I was practicing at Antaiji, because the temple had no members, our practice was supported solely by our takuhatsu. We monks did it a few times a month. We walked on the market streets in Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and other smaller cities and towns in the area. When we did takuhatsu, 3 to 5 of us walked together. Since most of us were in our early 20’s, it was fun, like taking a hike.

It was also very meaningful practice. At Antaiji, we focused on zazen practice and Dharma study mainly of Dogen Zenji’s teachings. When we practice in this way, we tend to feel like we are living a much more meaningful and higher way of life than the people who are working hard in society to earn money day after day. We may even look down on people by seeing them from our lofty position. But when we practice takuhatsu, we are just beggars on the street. We have a chance to see society from the bottom.

When doing takuhatsu we walk on the street wearing the traditional monks’ black robe, straw sandals and a bamboo hat. We hold a begging bowl (oryoki) and intone“Hooo (It refers to hau, the begging bowl)” in a loud voice. We usually stop in front of each house or shop on the street for a short while until the shop owner or other people give a donation or express their rejection with words or a gesture. If no one is there or people do not react, we continue on to the next shop.

When people make a donation, we recite the praising verse of dana that says, “Zaiho nise kudoku muryo danbaramitsu gusoku enman naishi hokkai byodo riyaku. (The virtue of two kinds of offering; the offering of materials and offering of Dharma, is boundless. The Perfection of generosity (dana paramita) is completed and it benefits all living beings in the entire dharma world.” When we are rejected or ignored, we simply and sincerely make a bow and walk to the next door.

Some people make a bow with gassho like they do to the Buddha when they put their donation into our begging bowl. Some people look down on us and put money in our bowls like they would with a beggar. Some people shout,“Go away!” Some people decline to make an offering by saying, “I am sorry but -----.” Some people just ignore us. Some people make fun of us. We encounter many different reactions from many different people; rich, mediocre or poor, tough, gentle or pious, etc. etc. We just see people’s reactions and keep the same respectful attitude toward everyone. We walk in this way about five to six hours a day.

When we first go on takuhatsu, we are taught several important principles of takuhatsu practice. The most important point is to keep the same respectful attitude toward all people. We should not skip any single house or shop on the street. Whether rich or poor, kind or not kind, we should not have any preferences toward people. We should not change our attitude depending upon the amount of donation or their way of treating us. We should be mindful not to disturb people working at a shop, people shopping or people walking on the street. Takuhatsu is a practice of equanimity, freeing us from self-centeredness and our discriminating minds. Through takuhatsu, our practice is connected with everyone in society.

Takuhatsu as a koan

In my early 30’s while I was living on takuhatsu, I had a question regarding this definition of dana by Dogen Zenji. From 1981 to 1984, I lived in a small nunnery in Kyoto as a care-taker. A friend of mine looks after the temple and because he had another temple, he generously allowed me to live there and practice. I also worked on translation of Dogen Zenji’s and my teacher’s books from Japanese to English with my American Dharma brother, Daitsu Tom Wright. I had daily zazen and monthly 5-day sesshin. Because I became a monk while I was a university student studying Buddhism and Zen and entered a monastery directly from school, I have no skills to make an income at all. All I knew was zazen practice and some knowledge of Zen Buddhism. But to be mature as a zazen practitioner takes a really long time, and in my 20’s and 30’s, I felt I had nothing to offer anyone. A few times a month, I practiced takuhatsu in the market streets in Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and other places just as I did while I was at Antaiji. In that manner, I received approximately 30,000 Yen ($300), just enough income to keep my practice and translation work going.

As I said before, when I practiced at Antaiji, I did takuhatsu together with other monks. It was not difficult. I enjoyed it like a hike. But doing takuhatsu alone was completely different. I was often intimidated and felt as if I was just a meaningless beggar.

Once I did takuhatsu alone in a market place in Osaka. Osaka and Kyoto are quite different cities. In Kyoto, since there are many temples and monasteries, people know about takuhatsu and respect Buddhist monks. Osaka, however, has been a city of merchants from the Tokugawa era, and consequently there is much less sympathy for monks. Actually, my family had been merchants in Osaka for the last six generations, about 300 years, and I knew the people’s attitudes towards monks there.

Once when I was begging, a boy about ten years old asked me, “You want money, don’t you?” I thought what he was really asking was whether I did takuhatsu for the sake of Dharma, or for the sake of money to live on. I could not give him an answer. It was a big and difficult koan for me. If I didn’t need money, I would not do takuhatsu. So, I could not say I did not want money. But, if money was really what I wanted, there are much better ways than takuhatsu to get it. Takuhatsu is not an easy way to make money. It was hot in summer walking wearing four layers of clothing – underwear, juban, kimono, and koromo. In the winter, walking with bare feet and hands was really hard practice. However, mentally it was even more difficult. I often felt I was a meaningless, valueless person in society and sometimes I really did not want to go. There were days I felt so guilty living on alms I quit begging and returned to the temple. I knew it would be much easier to do some work to make money. At this time, I thought of many good reasons to quit, not only takuhatsu, but also being a monk. Takuhatsu practice makes it very clear whether we do things for the sake of Dharma or for the sake of ourselves.

My question regarding Dogen’s definition of offering

Eventually my koan regarding Dogen Zenji’s definition of dana became clear to me: by trying not to be greedy, I felt like I had nothing to offer. As Sawaki Roshi taught, zazen is good for nothing. Although I was working on translation, Japanese people were naturally not interested in English translations of Zen texts. I really felt I just received money from people without offering them anything. As I have said before, to be mature as a zazen practitioner takes really a long time. As long as we are halfbaked, zazen practitioners are really good for nothing. Until we are quite ripe we are simply not edible, like an astringent persimmon.

Because I wanted to live without greed, I did zazen and takuhatsu. And because of that, I felt I had nothing to offer. I simply received donations from people. I often felt guilty. And my sense of unworthiness made me feel small and ashamed. I thought that my condition was totally contrary to Dogen Zenji’s definition of offering.

Ryokan the beggar

In my 20s, I wanted to live like Dogen Zenji and I devoted myself completely to zazen practice. In my early 30s, I thought I could not live like Dogen anymore and further I found that I didn’t want to do so. During that period, Ryokan (1758-1831) became my hero instead of Dogen. Ryokan was trained at a Soto Zen monastery and received Dharma transmission from his teacher. But after his teacher’s death, he never lived in a monastery or a temple. He traveled all over Japan for many years and went back to live in his home town. He built a hermitage on a mountain and simply practiced takuhatsu. He never acted like a Zen master. He wrote poems both in Japanese and in Chinese, made calligraphy, and played with children while on his begging rounds.

Ryokan also wrote many poems about his takuhatsu. When children found Ryokan doing takuhatsu in their village, they gathered together around him and urged him to play with them. Ryokan often did so and forgot about begging. Ryokan’s famous waka poems on takuhatsu show his attitude.

Playing ball
With the children in this village
Spring day, never let the shadow fall!

I was on my way to beg
But passing by a spring field
Spent the whole day
Picking violets.

In my begging bowl
Violets and dandelions are mixed together
Let’s make an offering
To all the buddhas in the three times.

On a spring day, while he was doing takuhatsu, children asked him to play with them. Ryokan played with the children tossing a ball or picking the wild spring flowers in the field. Sometime he forgot about takuhatsu completely.

Oh! My poor begging bowl!
I left it behind
Picking violets by the roadside.

I left my begging bowl behind
And yet no one took it.
No one took it! my poor begging bowl!

(Translations of poems by Abe Ryuichi and Peter Haskel, Great Fool - Zen Master Ryokan, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1996, with minor changes by the author).

My takuhatsu was not like Ryokan’s. I never played with children. During the day time I did takuhatsu, children were in school except Sundays. At Ryokan’s time, there were no schools or daycare for the children in a farming village. Playing with children was Ryokan’s offering.

Also, to me, takuhatsu was the way to support my zazen practice and translation work. I needed to do takuhatsu efficiently. Otherwise, I lost my time to sit and work on translation. I tried to do takuhatsu only a few times a month; just enough to support my practice. But for Ryokan, takuhatsu was not a method to support his practice. Takuhatsu itself was his practice.“In my begging bowl / Violets and dandelions are mixed together / let’s make an offering / to all the buddhas in the three times”.

Here, the begging bowl used to receive offerings from people became a container to make offerings of flowers from the spring fields to all buddhas in the past, present and future. This is because Ryokan has no desire to get anything for himself. Ryokan was completely free from any greed to gain anything for his own sake. His takuhatsu, playing with children, and talking with the villagers were all his offering. And even after his death, his way of life itself was an offering to people in later generations. Many people have been inspired and encouraged by his way of life.

Although this poem is without a title, I am pretty sure Ryokan wrote it about his takuhatsu.

With no-mind, the flower invites a butterfly
With no-mind, the butterfly visits the flower
When the flower opens, the butterfly comes
When the butterfly comes, the flower opens
I am the same
I do not know the people
And the people do not know me
Without knowing
We follow the heavenly emperor’s law.

I understood through Ryokan that receiving an offering can itself be an offering only when it is done without selfish concern. Once while I was begging in Kobe, a middle aged man riding a bicycle stopped in front of me and offered a 1,000 yen (about $10) bill, an exceptionally large donation to receive for takuhatsu, saying, “My wife died a few days ago, this offering is for her.”

During takuhatsu, we don’t speak much with people, but in this encounter without words, I felt a deep and powerful communication. I felt the virtue of takuhatsu was not only for me but also for the people making the offering. To receive offerings, I had to keep my attitude toward life free from my selfishness. I had to live and practice for the sake of Dharma, not for myself personally. To keep this attitude is extremely difficult. Doing takuhatsu is a hard yet wonderful practice to examine one’s way of life and life in society. This is a terribly difficult koan.

In studying Dogen Zenji’s definition of “Offering is not to be greedy”, I found a deeper meaning of offering. We exist only within the network of offering. We receive offerings from air, water, plants, animals, mountains and rivers and people. Our practice of offering is just to keep this cycle of offering circulating instead of only receiving and using it to satisfy my personal desires. The spring flower offers nectar to the butterfly. The butterfly carries pollen for the flower. Each are helping and supporting without calculating how much they get as a reward. To keep the network of interconnected origination pure is the true meaning of practicing Dana paramita. We really don’t need to gain things in order to offer them to others. The way of living without greed is itself an offering. The best example of this was Shakyamuni Buddha’s life. He gave up his position as a prince and all family wealth and became a beggar. That was the greatest offering. Not because someone else could get his position and wealth but that people after him could study his example that we can live without greed. This is what Dogen says in the second paragraph of Shobogenzo Shishobo: “When the Way is entrusted to the Way, we attain the Way. When we attain the Way, the Way unfailingly continues to be entrusted to the Way. When material things are treasured, these treasures actually become dana.”


Copyright © 1996-2004 by Sotoshu Shumucho.All rights reserved. No reproduction or republication without written permission.