Thursday, November 23, 2017

Danaparamita: The Perfection of Sharing

In one of the most important and influential Mahayana sutras, The Diamond Sutra, is found one extended response from the Buddha to Subhuti who asks him:

“On what should a bodhisattva base themselves? On what should they base their minds?”

A bodhisattva is an "awakening being" committed to awakening for the sake of all life. The first thing the buddha reminds Subhuti is that the bodhisattva’s vows include the aspiration to help all beings awaken. However, he adds the caveat that a real bodhisattva takes such a vow while remaining uncaught in egoism, thinking that she is a being helping other beings; that in fact, though they vow to liberate all the numberless sentient beings, they must understand that in truth there are no such beings.

Then, he continues to say that the bodhisattva “ought to practice generosity (dana) without basing it upon anything…. Subhuti, when the generosity of a bodhisattva is not based upon any signs, her goodness is as immeasurable as the vastness of space throughout the ten directions.” Signs, or lakshana, are concepts that refer to something else. In The Diamond Sutra, the signs that we get attached to that must be seen through are perceptions, cognitions and emotions that arise and pass away. The problem is we often identify with these signs, creating a false identity.

He could have begun his extended answer with any number of profound teachings, and yet he begins with what on the surface can seem pretty mundane: “What’s so special about generosity? Anyone can do that!” And that is specifically the point! Whenever the buddha taught to a new audience, he began with the importance of generosity: “If you understand as I do the power of generosity, you’d not partake in a single meal without sharing it with others.” What the buddha also pointed out is that anyone, no matter their circumstances, can share with others, whether it is time, energy, or material resources; whether it’s the offering of a helping hand or a non-judgmental ear, a gentle smile or simply bearing witness, we can practice danaparamita, the perfection of sharing.

It is with danaparamita that the buddha’s teaching on interdependent origination becomes mutual inter-support. The important thing to take note of is that there isn’t a single thing specifically buddhist about danaparamita. Emerson refers to the interdependence of life when he says “The wind sows the seed, the sun evaporates the sea, the wind blows the vapor to the field…the rain feeds the plant, the plant feeds the animal.” Reading this, I am reminded of the poem, variously attributed to Hafiz, Rumi or Daniel Landinsky:

Ands still, after all this time
The Sun has never said to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.

This is the understanding that nothing ever really "belongs" to us; everything is recycled again and again: the water of our tears may have once been dinosaur piss. Every breath you take is said to contain, on average, one molecule from Caesar's last dying breath.

In traditional societies, all of life was seen as a kind of natural generosity or sharing and so the first form of economics was the ‘gift economy’ with various customs of gift giving and circulating the gift kept primal human society fluid and healthy. In it’s earliest form, the potlatch ceremony of northwestern America was a grand ritual of giving away precious possessions by the tribe on the occasion of naming a new chief.

In Pali Buddhism, there were several categories of dana. One dual categorical model distinguished sharing that is unconditional, looking for no reward or recompense and the other sullied by the motivation for personal benefit. Another categorical model was three-fold: sharing of goods; teachings; and services: we can share time, energy and material resources.

There’s a zen story about dana:

A monk asked Hui-hai, “By what means can the gateway of our school be entered?”
Hui-hai responded: “By means of dana-paramita.”
The monk then said, “But there are six paramitas. Why do you mention only the one? How can this one alone provide sufficient means for us to enter?
Hui-hai then answered: “Deluded people fail to understand that the other five all proceed from the danaparamita and that by its practice, all the others are fulfilled.”
The monk then asked, “And why is it called ‘danaparamita?’
Hui-hai said: “Dana means relinquishment.”
The monk asked: “But relinqusihment of what?”
And Hui-hai then said: “Relinquishment of the dualism of opposites; relinquishment of self and other.”

It is this relinquishment that Dogen means when he says with intimate awakening “body and mind drop away.” He’s not talking about some non-physical, dis-embodied state of transcendence. He’s talking about the relinquishment of our limited self-centered orientation. Now, this isn't to say there isn't the unique individual with necessarily permeable boundaries; there is still a ‘center,’ but it’s relational and effusively outflowing: we eat and nourish ourselves in order to be present to all life. Self-care taken with this understanding can never be selfish. For instance, as an older parent wishing to be present to my daughter as she grows up, I feel the need to do what I can (exercise, eat well and moderately etc.) in order to support her development. This is not the outflow of “obligation” nor is it “self-sacrifice.” It is rather the effusive outflow of love. Recreation or “re-creation” is a necessary practice to prevent the bodhisattva’s outflow from drying up!

For dana to become danaparamita, we must move beyond the dualistic view of separation; of binary opposition and see how the giver and receiver are equally empty of any self-nature. There is the awareness that in giving we receive and in receiving we give. It becomes a living dynamic practice of interaction; of mutual action. When thinking of dana, of sharing, we may over-consider the role of the giver, but the receiver is also practicing dana in her sharing.

Receiving a share of something, receiving a gift, we get to practice grace, gratefulness, while also giving the person sharing with us the gift of an opportunity for generosity. And acts of generosity bring joy to the giver, so we are also giving the gift of joy in our graceful and grateful reception of the gift. AND, when we give, we are receiving this precious opportunity to go beyond ourselves by the one who receives our gift.

Dogen Zenji has this to say about giving:
“When one learns well, being born and dying are both giving. All productive labor is fundamentally giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, birds to the season, also must be meritorious acts of giving… It is no only a matter of exerting physical effort; one should not miss the right opportunity.

Giving is to transform the mind of living beings… One should not calculate the greatness or smallness of the mind, nor the greatness or smallness of the thing. Nevertheless, there is a time when the mind transforms things, and there is giving in which things transform the mind.”

The root of danaparamita is bodhicitta, the aspiration and action towards awakening for the sake of all beings. This is not the self-centered motivation for our own peace and joy, but the realization that at the most fundamental root, none of us is free if all of us are not free.

The thing to keep in mind, as we look to practice danaparamita, is that we do not need to wait for some big realization or experience. You and I can practice dana, the sharing of trust and respect just as we are. Do so as if it were perfected, and it is indeed perfected. We practice “as if” even in the smallest acts, opening the door for someone, answering the phone, volunteering at a soup kitchen,  listening deeply to others, demonstrating in the streets. The only prerequisite is the will do to so.


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