August, 2004 NUMBER 14

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

Lecture (3)

Shohaku Okumura
Director, Soto Zen Buddhism International Center
(edited by Rev. Zenshin Bradley)


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 of the Dharma or of 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.

Last time I discussed Dogen Zenji’s definition of offering, or dana, as a practice of paramita. Dana is an offering made and received without greed. When we are truly free from the three poisonous minds of greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance, our activities of either giving or receiving are dana. If we act based on the three poisonous minds, even charity, an act of justice, or act of love can create twisted karma. Dana is a practice that allows us to be free from self-clinging based on the three poisonous minds. This practice benefits both giver and re ceiver, and the gift is also free from the three poisonous minds. Thus, our activities simply become one with the circulation of the myriad dharmas that are always coming and going within the Dharma world. We simply refrain from blocking such a circulation by ceasing to create a wall between ourselves and all others.

This is why Dogen says, “Even if we rule the four continents, in order to offer teachings of the true Way we must simply and unfailingly not be greedy.” The ideal king in Buddhism, Chakravarti-raja (the Wheel Turning King with the golden wheel), governs the four continents located in the four directions around Mt. Sumeru. Everything in the world belongs to the king. If the king wishes to give, he can give anything he wants. But Dogen said that “not being greedy” is the best and greatest offering to give as a teaching of the true Way. This Way is the Way of true Dharma, the Buddha Way or the Bodhisattva Way. Here the word “Way” also has a connotation of awakening or enlightenment inherited from the Chinese Buddhist use of Dao (Way) as a translation of the Sanskrit word bodhi. So, to give a gift to someone we love or to someone in need is, of course, a good thing. Yet such a gift does not necessarily help us to wake up to the reality of emptiness and impermanence but may rather strengthen our ego clinging and make us arrogant. In such a case the gift is not an offering of the true Way.

It is like offering treasures we are about to discard to those we do not know.” Here Dogen Zenji shows us a concrete example of the kind of attitude we should maintain if we wish practice dana as a paramita. I hope this doesn’t seem strange but I will offer here an example of this practice from my own life. When my family and I moved to Minneapolis from Japan, my daughter was five years old and my son was one-and-a- half years old. Since we could not bring lot of things from Japan, members of the sangha gave us many things as gifts. One of the sangha members gave us a rocking horse for our children. The rocking horse stayed in our home for ten years while our children became too big for riding it. During those ten years the horse experienced many difficulties as a result of the children’s playing and two family moves. Some parts of it were broken, and when we moved from Minneapolis to Bloomington last year, we felt that it was not worth giving to someone else. So, we decided to put the rocking horse on the sidewalk in front of our apartment, and within 10 minutes someone had taken it. We did not need the horse and we did not think it was even worth giving away. We just put it on the sidewalk by a street in order to discard it. We had no attachment to it and we did not expect anything in return from the unknown person who took it. The person who took it did not know who put the horse on the street, and there was no need for the person to pay us or even say “thank you.” Still, the rocking horse moved from one family to another and served other children.

It is not so difficult to offer with such an attitude of nonattachment and non-expectation in the case of a broken rocking horse or something we don’t really need. But Dogen Zenji urges us not to offer only unimportant things with such an attitude. He says that all activities of offering, giving, or donation, whether of the Dharma or of material things, should be made in this way. If we closely examine our minds, we see that when we make some offering we almost always find we have some expectation of return from the action. This expectation might be of a material return, some gratitude from the person who receives, a good reputation from other people, or a better image of oneself.

In light of this point, takuhatsu (Buddhist begging) is a very precious practice. The people who give donations to monks don’t really know who they are or whether they are really sincere practitioners of Buddha’s teachings. Although there are some fake monks practicing begging in Japan simply to make money, people on the street, many of them merchants who are making money to support themselves, make donations without making such judgments. They simply trust the monks’ robes. When I practiced takuhatsu, my fellow monks and I felt people were giving to the Buddha rather than to us as individuals.

We give flowers blooming on the distant mountains to the Tathagata.” Those flowers blooming on the distant mountains are not ours. We have no sense of possession of those flowers. They grow by themselves and by blooming they decorate the mountains and make us feel good. The beauty of the flowers on the distant mountains is a generous gift from nature. Yet we don’t cling to the flowers or their beauty. If we keep the same attitude towards the flowers inside our garden that have received a lot of our time and energy, our time and effort spent helping those flowers grow can be true dana. But it is very difficult to practice in this way. We usually want to enjoy the flowers we help to grow by ourselves, or we want to share our joy in them with only our loved ones.

When a woman asked Ryokan to give her a poem as a keepsake, he wrote this verse:

What have I to leave as a keepsake?
In spring, the cherry blossoms
In summer, the warbler’s song
In autumn, the maple’s crimson leaves.

There is another of Ryokan’s poem about takuhatsu:

Clouds billow upward
skies are clear
I go out to beg
And receive heaven’s gifts.
(Translations from Great Fool by Ryuichi Abe and Peter Haskel, University of Hawaii Press, 1996)

Ryokan was living truly without greed and therefore he was one with everything within the entire world. He had nothing to attach to and nothing to covet. He lived within the network of the offerings of heaven and earth. The flowers in the distant mountains are keepsakes of Ryokan and he offers them to those of us who appreciate his poems and his way of life. He received the gifts of heaven and earth, and his poems as well as his way of life are his gifts to us.

A gate at Eiheiji

“…and offer treasures accumulated in past lives to living beings.” Bodhisattvas arouse bodhi-mind to attain buddhahood and to save all living beings. They practice throughout many life times. Because of the power of their vows and the practices on which they base those vows, we can practice this life time. Our lives are the result of our efforts in past lives. Even if one doesn’t believe the reincarnation of individuals, she knows that the air was created by primitive living beings, that soil is a mixture of sand and the residue of living beings, and that petroleum and coal are also gifts from living beings that lived billions of years ago. Languages we study and use in our cultures are gifts from people who previously lived in our societies. Various rich cultures are also legacies of people of the past. We cannot live without all these gifts from the first most primitive living beings on the earth, and if we awaken to this reality we cannot avoid trying to offer something to benefit other beings. Dana as a practice of paramita comes from such an awakening.

“Whether our gifts are of the Dharma or of material objects, each gift is truly endowed with the virtue of offering, or dana.” Each and every thing in the universe is within the network of interdependent origination. Each being is connected with all other beings. Therefore by simply being as it is, each thing is participating in the network of offering. But for some reason human beings try to take only good things into “my” territory and make them “my” possession. We use all beings in nature as resources to satisfy our desires and make us happy. Even when we try to help others, our intention may have some subtle defilement created by some underlying selfcenteredness. But even when we live in such an egocentered way we are still one of the knots in Indra’s net of interdependent origination. Awakening to interconnectedness and making efforts to live peacefully with other beings allow us to live in harmony with others. Such awakening allows us to take the bodhisattva vow, “Beings are numberless, we vow to free them.” In order to free other beings we need to free ourselves, and the practice of dana (offering) is a practice that frees us and other beings simultaneously.

In Buddhism, traditionally it is said that there are three kinds of offerings. The first is the offering of material things, the second is the offering of Dharma, and the third is the offering of fearlessness. Within the Buddhist sangha, laypeople usually offer material things to support the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and the practice of offering to people in need has been encouraged in order to benefit society. The Buddha and monks offer Dharma in order to benefit peoples’ practices and cultivate their spirituality. Also, Buddhists practice offering fearlessness by avoiding harming others and by taking good care of others with a compassionate heart.

Even if this gift is not our personal possession, nothing hinders our practice of offering.” In the very beginning of the Heart Sutra it says, “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when deeply practicing prajna paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering.” Dana paramita is a practice of offering that is based on the insight or wisdom (prajna) that the five aggregates are empty. The five aggregates are form (rupa, or material), sensation, perception, formation and consciousness. These five aggregates are the elements of all beings. Avalokiteshvara saw that there is nothing that exists other than the five aggregates, and he also clearly saw that even those five aggregates are empty. “Empty” means there is no inherent nature that makes things fixed, substantial, or permanent. Things are only collections of the five aggregates that are coming and going, arising and perishing, and gathering and scattering. But the five aggregates themselves are also empty and have no self nature. When we see the reality of the emptiness of the five aggregates, that is (in the case of human beings), of our bodies and minds, we can be free from attachment to them. The body is composed of rupa and the other four elements constitute the functioning of our minds. Nothing exists other than the body and mind that are conditioned and always changing.

We suppose that there is something that does not change within or outside of our bodies and minds. Since I was born my physical condition has been always changing, and my mental condition is also always changing. But we assume there is something that is not changing and we call it identity. When I was a baby, my body was much smaller than it is now, and in my twenties, my body was much stronger. Now I am in the middle of my fifties and my body is losing strength. Some of the things I could once do easily are now difficult for me. Still, when I was a baby, when I was a teenager, when I was in my twenties, when I was in my thirties, and when I was in my forties, Shohaku was always Shohaku, as he will be when I reach my seventies and my eighties. Although both my physical and mental conditions are changing, it seems there is something that continues without change as I age. In Buddhism this something that does not change is called atman, and the Buddha taught that there is no such thing. He said that the atman is merely a product of our minds, that is, a concept. If we see ourselves and all other beings thoroughly in light of this prajna (wisdom) paramita, we cannot say that there is an “I” that possess “this thing.” We therefore cannot say that because “I” am the owner of “this thing”, I have authority to give “it” to “that person.” In reality there is no such thing called “I”, “my possession”, and “that person”, but still we can make our offerings. In fact it is precisely because we possess nothing that things can be endowed with the virtue of offering.

No gift is too small, but our effort should be genuine.” The worldly value of things has no significance when we practice dana. Whether or not our intention to offer is sincerely for the benefit of others is most important. For example, Ryokan and his child playmates picked spring flowers such as violets and dandelions and placed them in his begging bowl. In the same way that Ryokan made this offering to the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, a baby’s smile can sometimes be the most precious dana.

In his book “Awakening to Prayer” (ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1993), a Japanese Catholic priest, Father Ichiro Okumura, introduces a story he found in a newspaper about a four year-old-girl. The heading of the article, written by the little girl’s aunt, was “Kami sama, gomen-ne”; “Dear God, pardon me.”

One day my little four-year-old niece came to visit me. Since there were only boys in my family, the visit of this little girl was like a ray of sunshine, or the opening of a flower. The public gardens are nearby, so I brought her there, and when the time came to return home I took her by the hand and showed her how to cross the park, in which there is a small temple in honor of Jizo Bodhisattva, protector of children and the poor. My niece noticed it and led me there saying, “Let’s go and pray.” Since the door was closed, I thought we would pass by, but to my shame, the little girl opened it herself and began to pray fervently. I prayed too, and then asked her, “What did you say?” “I said, ‘Kami sama, pardon me; I have nothing to offer.’” I was deeply moved, since all I think of saying to the God or the Buddha is, “Give me this; do that….” Happily, I did not tell this child to ask Jizo Bodhisattva to make her good, or other such things. If I had been that clumsy I would never have felt the purity of the innocent heart. I just squeezed her little hand.
(Translated by Theresa Kazue Hiraki and Albert Masaru Yamato, with minor changes)

Father Okumura comments on this story:

“Unless you change and become like children, you will
never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). A
story like this should awaken the hearts of adults who
no longer know the meaning of pure prayer. “Pardon
me, I have nothing to offer.” As St. John of the Cross
said, “This awareness of our nothingness (nada), of
our poverty, at the very moment we come emptyhanded
before God who is all (todo), is possible only if
we take time out for reflection during the day.”

Usually people bring some offerings to an enshrined Buddha or Bodhisattva of a temple and pray for their wishes to be fulfilled. Such an offering is a kind of trade or “give-and-take” offering. The person offering says, “I give offerings to the Buddha and then the Buddha will give me something I want in return”. But the girl in this story had nothing to offer and she just apologized instead of asking God to give her something she wanted. The little girl’s prayer was her precious offering to her aunt and all other people who read this story. Father Okumura interprets her prayer as expressing her awareness of the nothingness of the self before God.

This is the same spirit of Ryokan’s offering to the Buddhas of wildflowers in his begging bowl. He and the children had nothing to offer except those wildflowers that were not theirs. Ryokan’s empty begging bowl that was made to receive offerings from other people became a bowl for him to make an offering to the Buddhas.

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. We offer ourselves to ourselves, and we offer others to others. The karma of giving pervades the heavens above and our human world alike. It even reaches the realm of those sages who have attained the fruits of realization. Whether we give or receive, we connect ourselves with all beings throughout the world.

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.” I think this is the same thing that Dogen said in the Genjokoan; “Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice/enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice/ enlightenment through the self is realization.” When the Way is entrusted to the Way, the person refrains from making judgments and controlling all things according to his personal view and system of values. This is what we do in our zazen by letting go of thought, or to use Uchiyama Roshi’s expression, by “opening the hand of thought.” When we try not to deal with all things based on our personal views and desires, the reality of all things as they are is made manifest. This is the same as the four-year-old girl saying, “I am sorry I have nothing to offer.” When we practice with an empty hand, the Way manifests itself. This is what Dogen meant when he said, “we attain the Way.” But actually when the Way is attained, we hold nothing. We simply continue to entrust all things, including ourselves, to the Way. In this sense, Ryokan’s practice of offering, the little girl’s prayer, Dogen Zenji’s zazen, and John of the Cross’s awareness of the nothingness of the self, are all the same thing. Only with an awareness of the reality that we have nothing to offer, or even more radically, that there is nothing to grasp as “me”, can we practice dana, or offering, as a paramita.

When material things are treasured, these treasures actually become Dana.” A more literal translation of this sentence is, “When material treasures are entrusted to the material treasures, the material treasures without fail become dana.” As is so with the Way that is awakening or enlightenment, when material things are entrusted to themselves, that is, when we do not deal with them with our personal and selfish views and desires, all things become dana. Air as it is an offering. Water as it is an offering. Trees’ being as they are is an offering. Flowers’ being as they are is an offering. Butterflies’ being as they are is an offering.

Ryokan expresses this truth, I think, in another poem about begging:

With no mind, the flower invites the butterfly.
With no mind, the butterfly visits the flower.
When the flower opens, the butterfly visits.
When the butterfly visits, the flower opens.
I also don’t know him.
And also he does not know me.
Without knowing we follow the principle of the Emperor [of the Heaven].

When we don’t deal with things according to our personal desires and try not to use things only for fulfilling these desires, all things appear as they are. Otherwise, we only see the image created in our minds by our own conditioned thoughts and desires. That realm of letting go of thoughts and desires is the common ground of interdependent origination in which all things are sustaining each other. Simply being a knot in the network of interdependence is already an offering.

We offer ourselves to ourselves, and we offer others to others. This means we entrust ourselves to ourselves and entrust others to others. We refrain even from controlling ourselves as well as others. This is what we do in our zazen. In zazen, the self settles down within the self and others become as they are. This is much different from our usual way of seeing ourselves with greed and anger or hatred. Zazen allows us to give up our usual struggle between whom we are and who we want to be, and it frees us from our expectations of how others should behave.

The karma of giving pervades the heavens above and our human world alike. It even reaches the realm of those sages who have attained the fruits of realization. Whether we give or receive, we connect ourselves with all beings throughout the world.

“The karma of giving” is a translation of in-nen-riki, or dana. “In” is cause and “en” is conditions. “Riki” is power. So in-nen-riki literally means “the power of causes and conditions.” “Causes and conditions” in this case is one of the “ten suchnesses” mentioned in the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The ten suchnesses are: (1) the suchness of form, (2) the suchness of nature, (3) the suchness of body, (4) the suchness of power, (5) the suchness of function, (6) the suchness of primary cause, (7) the suchness of secondary cause (conditions), (8) the suchness of effect, (9) the suchness of recompense, and (10) the suchness of the complete fundamental whole. Each and every thing is endowed with these ten suchnesses. My understanding is that the first five suchnesses comprise the uniqueness of each thing. The next four show us that each and every thing occurs and exists within relationship to everything else in both time and space. The suchness of primary cause (6) and the suchness of effect (8) are relationships within time. Cause (6) is a relationship with the past. Effect or result (8) is a relationship with the future. For example, a flower has a relationship in the past with its “parent’s” seed as the flower’s “cause”, and its own fruits or seeds give it a relationship in the future with the next generation of flowers. The suchness of secondary cause (7) and the suchness of recompense (9) are relationships within space at the present time. Flowers can bloom because of numberless conditions that sustain it such as moisture, sunlight, and insects like butterflies and bees. The recompense or secondary result (9) in this illustration may be, for example, that the flower gives butterflies or bees nectar and brings joy to human beings. Finally, the suchness of the complete fundamental whole (10) expresses the truth that all of the previous nine elements in this list are actually one unified whole rather than nine independent items. Thus, each and every thing is connected with everything else within time and space and within a network of causes and conditions.

The lotus Sutra does not discuss the ten suchnesses in order to teach principles of nature, but rather it aims to teach us the principles of bodhisattva practice. Each and every action we perform as a practice of the bodhisattva vows is connected to everything in the past, present and future. Therefore, even our small offerings given with sincere hearts have a connection with all beings in all the six realms, including heaven realms, human realms, and the realms of all sages such as buddhas and bodhisattvas. Each and every action, no matter how small, resonates with all beings in the past, present and future. This is what Dogen means when he says, “Whether we give or receive, we connect ourselves with all beings throughout the world.” When either giving or receiving, by letting go of egocentricity and being giving or receiving, we go beyond the separation of self and all other beings. We then actively participate in the network of interdependent origination.


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