February, 2005 NUMBER 15

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

Lecture (4)

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

The Buddha said, “When a person who practices dana comes into an assembly, other people watch that person with admiration.” We should know that the mind of such a person quietly reaches others. Even if we offer just one word or verse of Dharma, it will become a seed of goodness in this lifetime and in other lives to come. Even if we give humble things — a single penny or a stalk of grass — we plant a root of goodness in this and other ages. Dharma can be a material treasure, and a material treasure can be Dharma. This depends entirely upon the giver’s vow and wish.

In this paragraph Dogen Zenji says that our practice of dana influences our personality and creates a peaceful and supportive atmosphere for other people’s practice. If we have a tendency to take advantage of others and to try to gain something from everyone we meet, our greed and aggressiveness will make others feel defensive in our presence. Yet one who practices dana allows others to feel safe and peaceful in his presence. “We should know that the mind of such a person quietly reaches others” means that people will respect one who practices dana and her practice will quietly influence others, allowing them to be friendlier. This happens because the virtue of dana is boundless, reaching beyond the separation of self and other.

In Buddhist philosophy, “perfuming” (Jap. kunju, , Skt. vasana) is an important concept that refers to the influence of our actions on our personality. It is a keyword in the philosophy of the Yogacara school and is used in the teachings of Mahayana Buddhist texts such as The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana ( Daijo-kishinron).

In D. T. Suzuki’s translation of The Awakening of Faith (the version translated to Chinese by Cikshananda) we read;

By “perfuming” we mean that while our worldly clothes [viz., those which we wear] have no odor of their own, neither offensive nor agreeable, they acquire one or the other according to the nature of the substance with which they are perfumed.

Now suchness is a pure dharma free from defilement. It acquires, however, a quality of defilement owing to the perfuming power of ignorance. On the other hand, ignorance has nothing to do with purity. Nevertheless, we speak of its being able to do the work of purity, because it in its turn is perfumed by suchness.” (The Awakening of Faith The Classic Exposition of Mahayana Buddhism, Asvaghosa, translated by Teitaro Suzuki, Dover Publications, New York, 2003. This translation was originally published by the Open Court Publishing Company, 1900.)

Dendokyoshi Kenshusho participants going out for takuhatsu

According to this text, perfuming is the way suchness and ignorance influence each other and either defile or purify our lives. In quoting an ancient, Dogen Zenji says in Shobogenzo-Zuimonki 4-4, “Associating with a good person is like walking through mist and dew; though you will not become drenched, gradually your robes will become damp.” Here Dogen is talking about the equivalent of “perfuming”. He is saying that if we keep practicing the four embracing actions, we become influenced by these actions and become “damp” with the “moisture” of our own activities. Our own activities as well as the activities of others perfume self and other, and in this way our lives and this world evolve together. Together we may create for ourselves either samsara, which includes heaven and hell, or nirvana.

The Awakening of Faith also explains how suchness, in a concrete way, perfumes ignorance and in turn reduces the delusive desires of the three poisonous minds, which are the root of the suffering experienced in samsara:

“All beings since their first aspiration (cittotpada) till the attainment of Buddhahood are sheltered under the guardianship of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who, responding to the requirement of the occasion, transform themselves and assume the actual forms of personality.

Thus for the sake of all beings Buddhas and Bodhisattvas become sometimes their parents, sometimes their wives and children, sometimes their kinsmen, sometimes their servants, sometimes their friends, sometimes their enemies, sometimes reveal themselves as devas or in some other forms.

Again Buddhas and Bodhisattvas treat all beings sometimes with the four methods of entertainment, sometimes with the six paramitas, or with some other deeds, all of which are the inducement for them to make their knowledge (bodhi) perfect.

Thus embracing all beings with their deep compassion (mahakaruna), with their meek and tender heart, as well as their immense treasure of blissful wisdom, Buddhas convert them in such a way as to suit their [all beings’] needs and conditions; while all beings thereby are enabled to hear or see Buddhas, and, thinking of Tathagatas or some other personages, to increase their root of merit (kucakamula). (P.91-92)

In saying that buddhas and bodhisattvas transform themselves to appear as our parents, friends, enemies, etc., the text tells us that all activities of all beings in our lives are the functioning of buddhas and bodhisattvas. These activities are intended to help us awaken to the reality of all beings and to help us see and hear the Dharma so that we may be liberated from the suffering of samsara. From the other point of view, when we engage in practices that are in accordance with the bodhisattva vows, we can help others to reduce their pain and sorrow and to be liberated from delusion. Practices such as offering dharma teachings can become the functioning of buddhas and bodhisattvas and help those around us to attain the Buddha Way. Thus we can all help each other by participating in the buddhas’ and bodhisattvas’ liberating work for all beings. In a sense, all people and all beings are working to liberate each other, and all people and all beings are constantly revealing the reality of life to each other in order to liberate all people and all beings. This is what Dogen Zenji describes in his Jijuyu-zanmai as the function of our zazen practice.

The words “four methods of entertainment” in the text above are Suzuki’s translation of Shishobo (four embracing actions). These practices are not simply intended to help and guide other people, but they also help to liberate us as we work together with all beings.

Even if we offer just one word or verse of Dharma, it will become a seed of goodness in this lifetime and in other lives to come. Even if we give humble things — a single penny or a stalk of grass - we plant a root of goodness in this and other ages.

To practice dana in this way, we may offer either dharma teachings or material gifts, depending upon our vows and our conditions. Traditionally, Buddhist monks study, practice, set an example of Buddhist living, and offer the Dharma to lay people, while lay people support monks’ practice by offering them material goods. Depending upon our vow, we can be either a full-time practitioner or a lay practitioner. However, today many lay people are well educated and can therefore share their knowledge of the Dharma. Such offerings can be dana if given as part of the practitioner’s bodhisattva vow, and even a practitioner’s most simple actions can be dana as well. Even if we don’t have formal knowledge of the Dharma or if we don’t have material goods to offer, a simple offering such as a smile can be very helpful dana in certain situations.

For example, the second of the four embracing actions is loving-speech. Loving-speech can be a great practice of dana, as I once learned in the 1970’s when I was practicing at Pioneer Valley Zendo and working at a tofu shop in a nearby town. We worked in the evening, and since I did not have a driver’s license I had to sleep at the shop after work rather than go back to the zendo. Because it was the warmest spot in the shop, I slept next to the furnace on a pile of bags containing soybeans. This spot was warm but noisy, and consequently I could not sleep well. One cold winter morning I awoke and decided to stop by a coffee shop before beginning to hitchhike home. I did not feel particularly bad but I had not slept well the night before. The waitress at the coffee shop, a woman in her sixties, looked at my face as she served me coffee and said, “Smile! It is a beautiful day!” For a while I did not understand why she had said such a thing. I just said, “Thank you!” Later, because of the waitress’ words I noticed that although it was very cold, it really was a beautiful day. When I started to walk after having the coffee, I thought, “When she looked at my face, she thought I was desperate”. Now I feel that her words were one of the greatest offerings of dana that I ever received. Whenever I am having a hard time and forget to smile, I remember the kind words of that waitress.

Offering by a Chinese Emperor

Offering his beard, a Chinese emperor harmonized his minister’s mind. Offering sand, a child gained the throne. These people did not covet rewards from others. They simply shared what they had according to their ability. To launch a boat or build a bridge is the practice of dana-paramita. When we understand the meaning of dana, receiving a body and giving up a body are both offering. Earning a livelihood and 12 managing a business are, nothing other than giving. Trusting flowers to the wind and trusting birds to the season may also be the meritorious action of dana. When we give and when we receive, we should study this principle: Great King Ashoka’s offering of half a mango to hundreds of monks was a boundless offering. Not only should we urge ourselves to make offerings, but we must not overlook any opportunity to practice dana. Because we are blessed with the virtue of offering, we have received our present lives.

Here Dogen gives examples of the practice of dana. The first is a story of a Taiso, the second emperor of the Tong Dynasty [597-649]. He was the second son of the founding emperor of Tong, who with the help of Taiso united China. Taiso skillfully governed his country with benevolence for twenty-three years, and later generations considered his administration to be an ideal model of Chinese sovereignty. Dogen Zenji refers to stories of Taiso four times in Shobogenzo Zuimonki. For example, in section 2-3 of that text we read:

During the reign of Taiso of the Tang dynasty, Gicho (Wei Zheng), one of the ministers, remarked to the emperor, “Some people are slandering your Majesty.” The emperor replied, “As a sovereign, if I have virtue, I am not afraid of being slandered by people. I’m more afraid of being praised despite the lack of it.”

Dogen commented on this passage saying, “Here is an example of how even a lay person had such an attitude (about virtue). Monks should, first of all, maintain this attitude.”

According to another story, when one of Taiso’s ministers was sick a doctor recommended roasted bear to cure him. Hearing this, the emperor slaughtered his own bear and gave it to the minister. I am not sure if roasted bear is truly a good medicine, but in this story it is probably a symbol of the emperor’s authority. Even if the roasted bear did not really cure the minister’s body, the fact that it was the emperor’s bear, prepared by the emperor himself, touched the minister and increased his loyalty to the emperor.

Offering by the Indian King Asoka

Dogen Zenji also refers to two stories from the Sutra of King Asoka [ Jap. Aikuo-kyo, Taisho:50] about the offerings of the king. One is the story of a boy who offered a handful of sand to Shakyamuni Buddha, and the other tells of King Asoka’s offering half of a mango to the sangha.

According to Japanese scholarly references, King Asoka was the grandson of Candragupta, the king of India who fought against Seleukos, the retainer of Alexander the Great. Alexander invaded India in 326B.C.E. and conquered its northwestern region before returning to the West in 325. Alexander died in the year 323B.C.E. in Babylon, but Seleukos who established his empire in Syria in 306B.C.E., invaded India in 305. After the war with Seleukos ended, Candragupta destroyed the kingdom of Magada and founded the Maurya Dynasty in its place. King Asoka, the grandson of Candragupta, reigned between 268-232B.C.E. He fought against his brothers to become King after his father’s death, and after he was enthroned he conquered many kingdoms. It is said that he was a very violent ruler who was good at making war. In the 9th year of his reign, he defeated Kalinga in a battle that united most of India but produced more than 100,000 casualties and caused much suffering for many people. The king experienced great sadness upon witnessing such vast suffering, and as a result he came to believe that war was wrong. He is said to have come to the realization that only the truths of Buddhist teachings (dharma-vijiya), rather than war and competition, can produce real victories in life. After King Asoka took refuge in Buddhism, he lived near a Buddhist sangha for more than a year and practiced enthusiastically. The king worked to spread Buddhism by ordering the building of stone pillars inscribed with Buddhist teachings, and many of these carvings have been discovered. He declared that he would govern his kingdom based on the paramita teachings of the Dharma: affection (daya), few delusive desires (alpasrava), generosity in giving (dana), truth (satya), purity (sauca), and gentleness (mardava). King Asoka sent Buddhist envoys to Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, and other countries, and his son, Mahinda, and daughter, Sanghamitta, established Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Thus Buddhism traveled to many places outside of India because of King Asoka’s support. Yet the king’s Buddhist policies and excessive financial support of Buddhist orders eventually caused the decline of his government. His son and ministers eventually turned against him and his empire disappeared shortly after his death.

The following are stories about King Asoka that Dogen Zenji introduces from the Sutra of King Asoka. Of course these stories are merely traditional images of the great benevolent king (cakravarti-raja) who supported Buddhism rather than presentations of historical facts.

The first story from section one of the sutra creates a connection between King Asoka and Shakyamuni Buddha by relating an event from a past life of the king:

While the World-honored One was begging for food on a big street, he met two boys there playing with sand. The boys saw the 32 features on the Buddha’s body, and the first boy took a handful of sand and put it in the Buddha’s begging bowl as an offering. The second boy did a gassho and joyfully composed a verse about the Buddha; “With natural boundless compassion, a circle of light ornaments my body. Having already departed from life-and-death, now I wholeheartedly concentrate my mind”. And of the first boy he recited, “Because I think of the Buddha, I offer this sand with reverence.”

At that time, the first boy made a vow saying, “I vow to do Buddha’s work within Buddha’s dharma. Because of this root of goodness, please make me the king of a country.”

Shakyamuni Buddha penetrated the boy’s mind and saw that the boy’s vow would bear excellent fruit because it was a seed planted in Buddha’s field of happiness (fukuden). Shakyamuni then accepted the sand with compassion.

Then he said to Ananda, “One hundred years after my entering Nirvana, this boy will be born in the city of Pataliputra and be named Asoka. He will be the Quarter Wheel-Turning King. He will take refuge in the true Dharma, make offerings to Buddha’s relics, build Eighty-four thousand stupas, and he will be beneficial to numberless people.”

Then Shakyamuni Buddha handed the sand to Ananda saying, “Mix this sand together with cow dung and put it on the ground where the Buddha practices walking meditation.”

This was King Asoka’s first practice of dana for the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Although he only offered a handful of sand, because of his wholehearted vow he received an excellent reward in being reborn as the wheelturning king.

The second story is from Chapter 5 of the Sutra of King Asoka:

When King Asoka was an old man, a minister said to the prince, “The great King Asoka will pass away soon. Now the king wants to donate forty thousand gold pieces to the Rooster Temple. For all kings, their source of power is their material wealth. Prince, you should prevent the king from wasting such a huge amount money.” The prince accepted this advice and seized control of government money from the king, who was then forced to cancel his donation to the temple.

Now King Asoka’s only remaining valuable was a golden plate he used for dinning. After finishing his meal, the king sent the golden plate to the Rooster Temple, leaving himself with only half of a mango as his last possession. At that time the King summoned his ministers and said, “On behalf of all people in this country, tell me who is the lord of this land!” A minister stood up, did a gassho and said, “Heaven is the only lord of the land. No particular person can be lord.” Upon hearing this, King Asoka shed tears like rain.

The king then called one of his close attendants and said to him, “Now I have lost my power and my freedom. Please do a final favor for me now--do just this one thing; take this mango half to the Rooster Temple and tell the monks, “King Asoka prostrates himself at the feet of the monks of the assembly. In the past he owned all the land of the continent; now he only owns half of a mango. This mango is his last offering; monks, please accept this offering. It is small but this offering’s virtue will benefit the monks’ assembly boundlessly.”

The monks accepted the mango half from the king, cut it into tiny pieces, and put the pieces into a stew to serve the assembly. At that time, the aging King Asoka was nearing death. From his bed his attendants propped him up so that he could look around in all four directions. Then the king faced the direction of the temple, did a gassho and said, “Now, in addition to the treasures I have given, I offer the entire Earth and its great oceans to the Sangha.”

These two offerings of the Great King Asoka, the first made as a boy and the final made as a dying man, were worthless by the standards of society’s market value. But because these small offerings were made with purity of heart, Dogen Zenji praised them more than the incalculable number of offerings the King made as a powerful ruler.

We can also find praise for this spirit of offering in the teachings of Jesus Christ:

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12/41-44)

These people did not covet rewards from others. They simply shared what they had according to their ability. To launch a boat or build a bridge is the practice of danaparamita. When we understand the meaning of dana, receiving a body and giving up a body are both offering. Earning a livelihood and managing a business are, nothing other than giving.

When I read this story about King Asoka, I think that when he had great power he gave Buddhist temples more than was required and more than he was capable of. Because of his immeasurable donations, Buddhist temples became wealthy and prosperous and Buddhism spread throughout India and beyond. However, as a result of the Kings contributions, the genuine spirit of practice began to decline in his kingdom because many people joined the Sangha seeking wealth and status rather than true spiritual practice. The financial condition of his government and of his nation also suffered as a result of the king’s actions. Since he had responsibility as a ruler to govern the nation, he should have managed his country’s resources more carefully. If he had governed the nation according to the teachings of the Dharma, his work as a benevolent ruler would have been the practice of dana. This is what Dogen Zenji meant when he said, “To launch a boat or build a bridge is the practice of dana-paramita.” To make those very large material donations to the Buddhist order may have been excessive or even contrary to the genuine spirit of the Dharma. If the king wished to make contributions to the Dharma beyond his means as a ruler, he should have resigned the throne and became a Buddhist monk. It must be very difficult for a person with great power and wealth to know his own limitations, and this is why King Asoka “shed tears like rain” when his ministers turned against him in his final days. But the King truly rose to excellence when he kept his faith in the Dharma after losing his power as a ruler. I feel fortune, as Ryokan did, that I do not have such a problem. One of Ryokan’s waka poems echo’s the great King’s words during his final offering of the Earth and its oceans:

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

The final three lines of this poem were inspired by Dogen’s poem entitled “Original Face” (Honrai no memmoku ):

In Spring, the cherry blossoms, In summer, the cuckoo’s song, In autumn, the moon, shining, In winter, the frozen snow: How pure and clear are the seasons!

This is what Dogen meant when he said, “Trusting flowers to the wind and trusting birds to the season may also be the meritorious action of dana.” Just living together with all beings without trying to possess them is the meritorious action of dana. It is truly important to understand that Dogen Zenji did not praise King Asoka as the great patron of Buddhism simply because of the king’s great monetary contributions. There are many examples of great patrons of Buddhism who, like Asoka, hindered the Buddhist Sangha with their excessive donations while creating problems for their societies. That is why Dogen says that Asoka’s offering of a handful of sand and his giving half of a mango were the king’s greatest practices of dana.



Copyright © 1996-2005 by Sotoshu Shumucho.All rights reserved. No reproduction or republication without written permission.