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Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance - On Generosity

By Alan Block | Sep 09, 2010
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In topic: Dogen
A talk by shuso Alan Block, on Dogen's Shisho-Ho, "Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance."


Generosity is something we all experience all the time. Helping people and being helped by others is as basic as human life.  There is no other way to live. You have shown me the kindness of generosity in coming here tonight and I have shown you the generosity of preparing a talk and arriving to give it to you. Generosity is the first paramita of manifesting our way. It is seen as the first door to enlightened living.

But let's get a few things straight. Generosity takes on many forms. We have all known generosity that appears under the guise that says, "I gave it to you, and now you owe me." That's no fun but it happens all the time.

Generosity is not specifically about material things even though it can include material things. As discussed by Dogen in this essay, generosity is much larger than material exchanges-it includes as well the symbolism of the gift, the deeper meaning that may not be stated but is nonetheless present.

The following story illustrates this point: In the early days of Tassajara, the author Herb Gold came to visit. After a talk with Suzuki Roshi he decided to give him the shiny Jaguar car he was driving. I think he said that Roshi was more deserving of this fine car than he was so of course he should give it to him. Years later I asked Herb Gold about this event and he replied, "doesn't everyone do that?"

The gift was the car but the statement was more like, you are an honored teacher of a deep teaching and I wish to generously honor you by making a gift of this car. The car was just the surface manifestation of a much deeper gift of respect and honor. Roshi accepted the car and promptly traded it in on a green Dodge truck.

Another aspect of the giving of material things that I was hearing in last week's discussion was giving linked to self-sacrifice. Sort of like, if we have so much, we should be generous and give some to the less fortunate. That is a great idea but also not quite what Dogen is trying to get at.

Now that you know that Dogen probably wouldn't remember or care to deliver or receive a birthday gift, I will discuss what I think he is saying in Shisho-Ho.

He is addressing each of you directly because you are a bodhisattva. Maybe if you are here for the first time you can escape that title but for the rest of us it is probably too late. If we were Theravada Buddhists we would only be concerned with our own awakening but because we are Mahayana Buddhists it is our vow to help others reach the other shore together with us. Hence we chant: "Beings are numberless, I vow to save them." So, the generosity of your way-seeking mind has been aroused and it is probably too late to go back.

Dogen's view of life is expansive. He believes that we are all potentially awakened beings--all we have to do to become awakened is to reach out and practice the qualities of awakened beings. Generosity, it turns out, is the first door to awakening.

For Dogen, it is critical to go beyond words--towards actions, attitudes and relations with others. Dogen's view of generosity is something different than we are used to and he is encouraging us to focus on it in a larger way that we haven't considered before. He is concerned with how we approach the big issue of our own realization and how we can develop our generosity as part of that bigger picture. This is expressed in everything he writes. To see our selves and the world of everyday human interactions in a larger context is Dogen's inspiration.

One of my favorite stories illustrates this point well. It concerns the first entry gate to Eihiji, the monastery that Dogen founded in Echizen Province in 1244. At the entrance to Eihiji there are two stone pillars that mark the gate. The pillars are called the "dipper gate" as they mark the place that Dogen preached a sermon to a drop of water in the bottom of the dipper before he released the water back to the stream. The poem on the stone pillars says:

              One drop of water in the bottom of the dipper

            One hundred billion people dip into the stream

What I like so much about this poem and why I think it represents so well the perspective that Dogen is offering us in Shisho-Ho is that it shows a very big appreciation of our connection to all people but it begins with something very small-a drop of water. It links the smallest act with the effect that act has on the universe.  To believe this link exists is inspiring. Dogen's perspective beautifully ties together our deepest intention with benefit to the whole world. That is his genius.

To return to the text, Dogen's intent is to get us to think about generosity in a way that is both easily touchable by each of us but at the same time world-wide in its proportions. He is attempting to develop our view of ourselves in the world and to cultivate our presence in relation to others.

He says to us that giving is as natural and as common as breathing. We can't avoid giving to others and being given to by others so we might as well realize that reality of life and change our assumptions about how life works. He writes in the Bendowa, "We open our hand and it is filled."

He says we can give away unneeded belongings or flowers blooming on a distant mountain. We can give away things we don't even own. The value of the gift doesn't interest him; just if there is merit, which goes to the attitude underlying the gift which is what this essay is about.

So if we are already doing it all the time, why even bother to talk about it? Because he wants to make sure that we are aware of our interdependence with all people and show us the way by relating our smallest act of good intention to the universe.  If we can understand and appreciate the place of giving in our lives we can realize how we are aligned with all beings.

Getting us to be more generous, though a worthy endeavor, is not his foremost concern. More importantly, he wants us to realize we are already generous all the time. By recognizing this we can cultivate and grow the generosity we already possess. We don't have to invent it; it is already ours.

So what are the conditions we can use to cultivate generosity? In practical Buddhist terms, we can become more aware of what is happening in our lives so that we can have a more conscious hand in developing generosity in ourselves. We call this mindfulness.

So, we now understand that the gift itself is not the most important thing but rather, whether there is an attitude of generosity underlying the giving of the gift which he refers to as merit. To understand how merit occurs we must look more closely at the act of giving. The generous act has three elements: giver, receiver and gift. When these elements come together we are turning the wheel of the dharma. Realizing that we are turning the wheel is how we practice. Dogen would probably say that we are always turning the wheel of the dharma but we just don't know it. If it is only a blade of grass or even a good wish for someone's welfare-it is the attitude of generosity that matters.

The attitude of generosity amazingly even applies to giving to ourselves.  Dogen talks about "giving yourself to yourself and others to others." In a 21st century interpretation of this 13th century I think he means that we become more ourselves in the process of being generous. Dogen writes that "causal relationships are immediately formed," meaning that our turning of the wheel of dharma affects all levels of being over all of time. "And the truth turns into valuables," he continues, "...because the giver is willing."

Giving to yourself: this is an example of Dogen turning things on their heads to make a point. Had someone introduced the notion of giving to yourself in the Boy Scout troop I belonged to as a kid, they would have been accused of boy scout treason or of being a disciple of Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall where graft was the norm. But giving to our selves has, in fact, a major place in this discussion.

It is an idea I was first introduced to by Reb Anderson thirty some years ago. At first it seemed foreign and a bit suspicious to me. Yet, the idea that in order to help others involved creating balance in one's own life made sense. If you are leaning way over to help someone else you can easily tip over. Working to achieve stability and sanity in our own lives benefits everyone we come into contact with.

Dogen is gentle with us in this essay. He never confronts but leaves us with the thought that "things given are beyond measure. In giving the mind transforms the gift and the gift transforms the mind." The wheel of the dharma is turning right now in this room as we study this essay. We give to our selves and to each other by expanding our awareness of what we are trying to do as practitioners of the Way. We are moved along the road from ignorance toward illumination.

Thinking about the Shisho-Ho has been a rewarding experience for me. I believe it has enlarged my personal view and feeling of generosity. Dogen ahs helped me to do that and as a result I have become a more generous person. Thank you for the opportunity to turn the wheel of the dharma together.