Giving and receiving: Zen guidance

Giving is generally considered to be a good thing. Giving to support poor and sick is a duty of a pious Buddhist, and features in all major religions. There are ‘guidelines’ in a sense how much, what to give (money, time, expertise etc), reasons for giving (from the most selfish to utmost altruistic). However, how do we know to whom give? And when to give?

There are a lot of good causes clamouring for our attention: children, endangered species, destitute people, and environment to mention just a few. And that on top of less fortunate family members and friends. Even if we’re very rich and philanthropically inclined, eventually the available resources would dry up. So how to choose?

Let’s look at the heart of Buddhist spiritual life, be it monastic or lay one: puṇya (Pali: puñña). This term is translated into English as merit, and as stated in Oxford English Dictionary the noun means “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.”  Thus a meritorious action should bring about something good to the giver and create good karma which in turn – hopefully – will create even more good karma in the future. It has beneficent quality as persons doing good deeds will advance along their spiritual path. But… one can give only if there is another sentient being to receive, or something tangible, for example a temple, is created.

In the Buddhist tradition merit has a base in generosity (dāna), ethical conduct (sīla), and meditation (bhāvanā). Generosity is directed at anybody, though there are subtle nuances. It is considered more meritorious to give to monastics than to laity, thus supporting the Sangha (understood as religious community). In turn there is a sort of a contract that a receiver of a gift will lead an exemplary life, thus being worthy of a giver’s benevolence. This immediately raises a question: having to choose between two possible recipients, how can one know which one is more worthy? As soon as judgement of worth is involved, givers would be under suspicion of not giving generously and freely but trying to get the most merit for themselves. This defeats the object, and implicitly is expected of monastics that they will act as a ‘field of merit’ for the gifts of laity1.

Why is this important? It goes back to one of the principles of Buddhist ethics that a quality of one’s acts, wholesome or unwholesome, is affected by their object. Hence some concern with the gathering of merit.

The gathering of merit is not just Buddhist concern. In Catholic church, for example, it was customary to give alms to the poor directly, or give funds with strings attached. In a delightful church in Sutton Courtney there is a tablet in which the benefactor specified how the money towards six poor widows should be used: ‘Every Sabbath day each of them to have a penny Loaf and yearly a Gown and three certain days in the Year they are to have money to buy Meat.’ Another benefactor gave money for schooling of poor boys. This way merit was collected and displayed for all to see.

Another mechanism of collecting merit was indulgence. Originally meant to absolve sins, in medieval ages selling indulgence became a common practice. Arguably many good deeds came out of that as money was raised for building churches, the poor and sick would receive alms directly or via the church officials, etc. However, the abuse of selling was one of the reasons for the Protestant Reform.

Let’s turn to Zen now. While generosity of giving is as important as in other streams of Buddhism, there is no importance attached to the merit. Let’s look at the exchange between Bodhidarma, the 28th Indian patriarch who brough Zen from India to China:

The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall says that in 527, Bodhidharma visited Emperor Wu of Liang (Xiāo Yǎn 蕭衍, posthumous name Wǔdì 武帝), a fervent patron of Buddhism:

Emperor Wu: “How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?”
Bodhidharma: “None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit.”

Emperor Wu: “So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?”
Bodhidharma: “There is no noble truth, there is only emptiness.”
Emperor Wu: “Then, who is standing before me?”
Bodhidharma: “I know not, Your Majesty.”

This encounter – though only the second half of it – is included as the first koan of the Blue Cliff Record

During the koan study we have to answer all parts of this koan. Looking just at the first part, the message is clear: there is a clear distinction between good karma and merit. An insight why this is so can be gleaned from Engo’s introduction: ‘When you stopped the deluded activity of consciousness, then, whatever situation you may find yourself in, you enjoy perfect freedom, in adversity and prosperity, in taking and giving.’

How can we translate ‘no merit’ into Zen actions? This is a delicate question as on one hand we’d like to have a feeling that our hard earned money went to worthy recipients. On the other hand we’re aware of the ideal of no-judgement. No judgement – no bias – no merit. That means we shouldn’t bother about collecting merit, shouldn’t judge whether recipients are worthy our gifts. As a matter of fact the sooner we forget about the good deed, the better. If we act from the place where is no-self, who would collect merit?

It is a sliding rule: our expectations- our actions – forgetting and letting go. That’s fine – there is a saying that ‘practice makes perfect’. I’d prefer to see it as continuous improvement rather than achieving perfection.

The consequences are far reaching – the ideal of giving was always to give anonymously. In Japan monks who beg have very large hats so that their face can’t be seen but equally well they can’t see the person offering alms. A western version would be collecting money in the street using sealed tins or buckets. This way of fund-raising is becoming obsolete – however electronic donations can hardly be anonymous. At least if we want to avoid troubles with tax office…

How do we discern to whom to give? Several years ago Zen Master, Eizan Goto Rōshi, came for a visit to the UK. I was fortunate to host him for a couple of days in Oxfordshire. One day we were walking through town, an accompanying monk carrying his purse. There were people begging on the streets. While passing them he’d say to the monk: give to this one; and to that one; not to that one. To my eye all this people looked alike worthy receiving a small change. So I’ve asked the monk: How does Rōshi know to whom give? The answer ‘he just knows’ did not do much to dispel my puzzlement. However, this lesson stayed with me, and I don’t fret about recipients when I donate.

Another point worth consideration is the willingness with which we give. Purists would argue that there should be a free giving without a shade of doubt or self-interest. Now this is a lofty ideal which very few of us can fulfil. It’s not unusual to feel resistance, and maybe resentment or pressure of coercion if we’re asked to give. Behind these feelings could be an attachment to money as a guarantor of our safety and status or simple realisation of financial limits. Personally I think it does not matter as long as we recognise why we feel resistance towards giving in a particular case. This is an indicator where we are on the path, and it allows us to adjust and act judiciously.

There is another angle to giving and that is an expectation of gratitude on the side of the taker. There was a funny video on YouTube showing two Russian men who met a fox. The fox put his head into a jar and could not get it out. So our heroes managed to take the jar off, upon which the fox promptly ran away. One of the men was heard saying ‘A spasiba gdie?’ which translates as ‘Where is thank you’? How many times do we expect to be thanked, no matter how small the deed?

It is much easier to talk about giving than receiving. Especially in the Western culture, being independent equates with self-sufficiency. Brought to extreme, we would have to do everything ourselves, from farming through clothes making to generating electricity. It clearly is not possible for everybody, and there is no real need for it, either. We have to remember that we’re interdependent, so giving and receiving has a certain beautiful symmetry to it. Though not in a literal sense ‘I give you £100, and you give me an exact equivalent of this sum when your turn comes’. The life philosophy of Steven Covey provides an interesting insight here. His ethics raises above the Christian view of the world, and his concern is how to combine ideals with daily bread-earning activities2. In order to be highly effective in our action he advocates a development, from a dependent person through independence to interdependence. While being dependent implies more receiving than giving, independence would be the other way round. In interdependence these two actions are harmonised, and one does not exist without the other. But we need to look beyond the

surface: receiving training from one’s teachers, for example, does not imply we give it back to them. It is expected that we give to our students, who in turn will give to their students.

Some final points about giving and receiving: drop your expectations, don’t be judgemental in your choices. If you give something to somebody, and get abused – as it may happen – just let it go. ‘No good, no bad’ – we act from the point where we are. Which is always perfect. If you get something which you don’t need or want, accept it in good grace and consider carefully how it can be best used; if not by you then by somebody more in need.

It seems to me that often there are no clear-cut answers to whom to give or to which cause. It is a sliding rule: our expectations – our actions – forgetting and letting go. That’s fine – there is a saying that ‘practice makes perfect’. I’d prefer to see it as continuous improvement rather than achieving perfection.

Whatever you do if you act from no-self is ok. And of course it’s nearly impossible to be there 24/7. But we can always sit in zazen before making decisions – when the mind is clear and free of delusions, we act freely.

1 R. Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1998    2 S. R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press, 1989