The Art of Giving
[Excerpted from a conversation with Genpo Roshi recorded Dec. 18, 2015.
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In Buddhism we have what we call the Paramitas, from the Sanskrit word meaning going to the other shore, the Paramitas being practices like vessels that can bring us to the other shore, from samsara to nirvana, or from the suffering and the dissatisfaction we have in life to a more satisfying and joyful life, and the first of the Paramitas, sometimes counted as six, sometimes as ten, is giving, generosity.
I don’t believe it’s by accident that giving is the first vehicle to the other shore, because everything really centers around our willingness and ability to give, to give with our whole heart, to give generously, even to the point of enlightenment, because enlightenment is really giving away the self. It’s like giving the self over to others, to the planet, to the world at large, to all beings. It’s like not being so egocentric and so set on our own gain, our own acquisitions.
This time of year has become so much more about receiving – what am I going to get? – when really the art, in my opinion, is the other end of it, it’s the joy that we get from giving and being generous. That’s what leads to a more fulfilling and a happy life. Most of the time when we give we have a hidden agenda, we want something in return, we want something back. Even if it’s just a thank you card, a thank you email, some notice that we’ve been noticed, some way that we feel recognized and seen and appreciated.
But the truest giving is when we’re not looking for anything in return. In Zen practice it’s to really give the self away, without having any expectations or gaining ideas. So when we meditate, the truest form of meditation is what we call shikantaza which simply means, as many of our listeners know, to just sit. And when we can learn to meditate mushotoku, a Japanese word which means without any expectation of what we’re going to get from our sitting, we learn the art, and it is an art, of not having expectations and hopes about what we give or what we do — what we do for others or even for ourself.
We have the opportunity at this time of the year to give gifts, to give to others. And you know, even though very often we think it’s the amount that we spend, or how much effort we put into it, sometimes the best gift is just a loving greeting, or saying Hi, or I appreciate you. It could even be as simple as a gesture, or email or whatever, a phone call, where we just give of our heart to another. But most of us really don’t know how to give in the way that we were talking about earlier, without having an expectation.
Most of the time when people meditate, we’re not really meditating, we’re trying to reach something, whether it be a blissful or quiet state, or a state of well-being, or maybe even enlightenment. We’re trying to get something. That’s not true meditation. At least in my understanding, and in Zen understanding, true meditation is where there’s no idea of gain in our meditation. Not for self, and not even for others.
Now the next level, just below the highest level, is for others. We meditate for the sake of others, but there’s still a gaining idea there, of helping to awaken all sentient beings, which is certainly higher than some other levels that precede it, but it’s not the highest. The highest level is where there’s no gaining idea.
When we practice meditating in this way, what happens is it starts to permeate every aspect of our life. In other words we begin to learn how to give, how to be generous, and how to be supportive when we’re not expecting something in return. Is it even possible? I think until we learn the art of meditation and the art of what I call shikantaza, it isn’t possible. There’s always some self-involvement and wanting something back.
It goes all the way back to Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu. As our listeners probably know, Bodhidharma is considered the founder and the father of Zen, the one who came over from India to China around 500 AD as the 28th Patriarch. The Emperor asked him, What do I get in return for all that I have given to the Buddhist monks that have preceded you here to my country? I’ve given land, I’ve given money, I’ve given jewels, I’ve built monasteries. What do I get in return? He’s still looking for something. Here he was, the Emperor, he had everything, right? But he’s still looking for something, some merit, something that he’s going to be blessed with. And Bodhidharma says, You’re not going to get anything, there’s no merit. In other words, he’s trying to teach him that true giving is not looking for something in return. Because if you’re looking for something in return, it’s going to be unsatisfactory, you’re going to be dissatisfied.
It’s when the giving itself is done from the heart and it’s done with generosity and selflessness, that it IS the merit, in the act of the giving itself. And so this season, this Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year season, if we can give, and truly give from the heart when we’re not thinking what am I going to get, what’s this person going to give me back, we are actually going to feel more joy, more satisfaction, more pleasure, happiness, in our very act of giving than in anything that we might get back.