Here's where I attempt to explore an approach to zen buddhism that is firmly rooted in naturalistic, scientific, empirical understanding. It's a true non-dual 'spirituality' that has no need for the supernatural. Whether you do or do not believe in the supernatural, there's still a place for you here. What I am saying, is that if you do NOT believe in the supernatural, here's a zen that says, "you're home!"
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
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
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
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
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
“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.