At this time of year, the Buddha could have just walked down 34th Street, pointed to Macy's, and said, “Dukkha,” and everybody would have gotten the First Noble Truth without a second word needing to be spoken. But 'tis the season of giving. Bright, fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked children sitting lovingly on Santa's lap in the department store, the jolly Salvation Army bell-ringers with kettles overflowing with donations, peace on earth, good will toward men, fake snow on palm trees in Australia and Africa, and all the rest of the Norman Rockwell world that is the holiday season associated with Christmas. Religious or secular, here it is, the time when people give. I could go into the realm of conspicuous consumption, commercialism, what's ostensibly a Christian holiday (with possible pagan origins) being thrust upon the rest of the world as a capitalist orgy, and I guess I just did. But that's not news.
Reality may be slightly different than the greeting cards might imply. It's not all “peace, love, and crunchy granola.” Families get together for the first time since the last wedding, last funeral, or last Christmas. And quite often, telling the difference between Christmas and one of the other two may not be easy. There's a good chance of excessive consumption of alcohol, much wailing and gnashing of teeth, arguments, and resentments. And then there are the funerals. Along with all that, there is a sense of being placed sometimes forcibly, into the role of gift-giver. Maybe random names are drawn from a hat at the office, where you get to play “Secret Santa,” which invariably results in wondering what face that name goes with, or maybe worse, drawing your boss's name: “Don't want to look unappreciative, so it's gotta be nice, but it can't be too nice, or he'll think maybe I don't need that pay raise.” What do you get for the person who...you don't even know, much less know what s/he has and wants/needs more of, or something that shows you care, or that they'd even like?
'Tis the season of giving, of giving grudgingly, mandatory giving, guilt-laden giving and the occasional giving associated with warm feelings for someone, out of compassion, maybe just to see the smile on someone's face when they receive something donated anonymously, and of being OK with someone appreciating a gift or maybe not. There's probably some of all the above to varying degrees with all of us. There are some assumptions in all these situations: A) There's a giver; B) there is a gift; C) there is the recipient of said gift from the aforementioned giver.
The first of the Six Perfections (Paramitas) is dana, or generosity. By the very act of giving, we release attachment and clinging, at least in a best-case scenario. Generosity is a perfection, so it must be a good thing, right? The temptation might be to renounce all our worldly possessions, to assume a post-ghost Scrooge stance, showering the world with all the worldly goods we can. And that's fine, so long as it's done in the actual spirit of generosity.. If we are generous just to be generous, without any expectation of reciprocation, maybe anonymously, Wonderful! Even if we are generous with maybe a tinge of puffing ourselves up, maybe to get a little pat on the back, Wonderful! Do it anyway, with more practice, maybe that will wear off. Maybe not. I'd guess the homeless guy who just received a gift of food really doesn't much care about the motives of the giver. There's just, “Mmmmm.” Perhaps spending some time on the cushion, looking deeply at our motivations might be in order though.
Then there's the version of the recipient actually asking for a handout. The original Sangha, including the Buddha, relied on donations of food and shelter. It's common practice in many countries that there is a day set aside for the laity to make donations directly to the monks. I'm not fond of megachurches and ashrams demanding donations, especially when the clergy end up living lives of wealth and fame. That's fine, it's just not where I'd choose to send my generosity, any more than to the organizations who run the $1,000 per week meditation retreats. Go to any Zen center website, and more often than not, there's probably a “donate” button. That's fine too. The Dharma is free, but mats, cushions, incense, rent, etc. tend not to be. So go ahead, donate. The Zen Center probably needs donations to stay afloat, and trust me, being a Zen priest isn't exactly the way to wealth and fame. (If you'd like to further investigate the commodification of Zen in the West, Dōshim Dharma wrote a book entitled “Brand-Name Zen,” which details all this quite well).
In China, where the peasantry probably had virtually nothing to give, Master Baizhang Huaihai is attributed with having set up the dictum of, “No work, no food.” Apparently when his student monks hid his tools because a Great Sage shouldn't have to do such menial chores as planting and spreading manure, Baizhang essentially went on hunger strike. This wasn't out of some Zen Master pouting, it was his way of living the ethic of “No work, no food.” It could be said that the monks' generosity to the peasantry was that they didn't demand that they support the temple. Baizhang generosity was to set the example of no one being special. There's also the story of the monk living alone as a hermit being visited by robbers one night. He remarked to them that they must really be in need, so he gave them what possessions he had--the clothes on his back. The monk's generosity, much less the sight of a naked monk, did nothing to deter them from stealing however.
My writing this, instead of finding someone in need of something and giving is probably “self” indulgent. I can justify it in terms of the Dharma being a gift, that any insight I might have that saves all beings demands it must be shared. If I really looked on this cold wintry night at 1:00 AM, I could probably find someone who needs something. But maybe someone will read this and be moved to find that homeless guy and give him a sandwich. Whatever merit is accrued can be dedicated to some other sentient being. It does call for some time on the cushion to investigate this further.
As I mentioned previously, there are three grounds to generosity: the giver, the gift, and the recipient. If any of the three is missing, then generosity is merely a concept, not an action. And our practice is all about action. “It is better to give than to receive” is at best a miscalculation if not downright wrong. “Lie” might be too strong a term for it, due the three grounds of generosity, but it falls way short of the entire process of generosity. Someone gave me the idea to write this. That's right, gave me the idea. I accepted it. It was an entirely natural process, give idea, receive idea, no thought required. That's much different from “No, I couldn't possibly accept this from you.” That attitude does nothing but perpetuate superiority, the duality of self/other, and give rise to false humility. It's as “I, I, I, I” “want,” want,” “want” as one would see in Macy's any of these days.
One of the acts of generosity that can be performed is to receive. There's no, “Oh, I couldn't possibly” to it. There's no false “I”-based motivation to it, if done in the true spirit of generosity. The Second Precept is “Do not steal; do not take that which is not freely given.” A corollary of that is to graciously and without attachment accept that which is freely given. Not to do so is in effect stealing the opportunity from someone to practice the First Perfection. Who am I to deny you the opportunity to perform the Perfection of Generosity? Would I deny you the opportunity to meditate or act morally, or any of the other Perfections? So far as I'm concerned, the “I-ness” involved in that is potentially as dangerous to the well-being of all beings as being greedy. Self-lessly giving is best accompanied by self-lessly receiving. To paraphrase the Diamond Sutra, if you think of yourself as a Bodhisattva, and that are beings to save, and saving to be done, you're not a Bodhisattva. But regardless, we act as Bodhisattvas and save all beings. Giver, gift, and recipient are all subject to causes and conditions and characterized by emptiness as giver and gift, but in the spirit of the Bodhisattva, give a gift, and just as willingly, receive a gift. Now go out and find a homeless guy and give him a sandwich. Thank you. You're welcome.