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
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
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
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
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
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
One drop of water in the bottom of the dipper
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
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
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
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.