A Gift to the Master

by Kuo Lin (Nancy) Lethcoe, Ph.D.
former assistant Professor
of Religious Studies,
Stanford University;
Editor, Dharma Flower Sutra,
BTTS, 1977, 1978.

Giving occupies a special place within Buddhist practice. Not only is it the first of the ten perfections accomplished by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but it is thereby, along with faith, one of the primary ways of getting started oneself or helping others to get started on the path to Enlightenment. In addition, giving, perhaps better than any other practice can be undertaken by lay people, although the way in which giving should be practiced by the laity is one of the questions raised in this essay.

Since the idea of 'giving' is hardly unique to Buddhism, we might briefly delineate the Buddhist concept from some others. Within other cultural and religious traditions, some of the roles giving may serve include: 1) establishing one's position in the community, e.g. the more wealth given, the higher (socially, morally, religiously) the person's position; 2) placing others in the debtor relationship to you so you can expect to be repaid by other favors (one of the reasons some people give for foreign aid), 3) serving as a symbolic expression of feeling towards deity or others (one Christian viewpoint on the exchange of Christmas gifts; in Buddhism this is more frequently expressed by puja). Within Buddhist teachings, giving is primarily seen as one of the practices necessary for gaining the Path to Enlightenment.

A Bodhisattva finds the Enlightenment-Path if, coursing in perfect wisdom, he courses through skill-in-means in the perfection of giving, but does not get at (upalabhate) a gift, donor, or recipient, and does not course in any dharma other than these.

Panca, 558, tran. By E. Conze,
The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom.

      Having identified giving's transformity role in changing the ordinary person into a Buddha, the Sutras then consider correct and incorrect ways to give.

Moreover, Subhuti, as to dharmas, a Bodhisattva should not dwell anywhere when he gives. He should not dwell in forms when he gives, nor should he dwell in sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, or dharmas when he gives. Subhuti, a Bodhisattva should give thus: He should not dwell in marks. And why? If a Bodhisattva does not dwell in marks when he gives, his blessings and virtues are immeasurable.

Vajra Sutra, Sec. #4. Explanation of the Vajra Prajnaparamita Sutra, by Dhyana Master Hsuan Hua, p. 43. Sutra trans. from Kumarajiva's translation. For a translation from the Sanskrit, cf. E. Conze, Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita, SOR XIII, p. 67.

The Larger Sutra on Perfect Wisdom describes how Bodhisattvas with skill-in-means give without getting at (upalabhate) a gift, giver, or recipient; give without being joined to (yojayate) or disjoined from (viyojayati) giving; and giving without grasping at or apprehending any dharmas which give, receive, or constitute a gift. (Panca 558-559). In other words, correct giving entails a mental state, which is non-discriminatory, unaffected by the event and free from attachment to any aspect of the practice.

Wrong giving, as practiced by ordinary people, involves the false discrimination of gift, giver, and recipient; a feeling of 'having done if or 'of having become a benefactor,' etc., and attachment to this self-image. A Bodhisattva's correct practice results from his awareness that all dharmas are ultimately non-existent and empty, and hence they are not something that can be either identified by their marks or appropriated by them. In addition, of course, he dedicates all the results of his giving not to his own Enlightenment, but to the Enlightenment of all beings. Ordinary people falsely conceive the true nature of their deeds, become attached to their perverted views, and seek their own advancement. Thus they need not only to learn to give, but how to perfect giving through the cultivation of the right mental state.

      Buddhist texts generally identify gifts as either material or dharmic (i.e. the teachings). Material gifts include such uncontroversial items as food, clothing, water, and medicine as well as more controversial ones, such as one's own body and relatives. A Bodhisattva's material gifts are never just to satisfy the immediate need of the recipient, but to place the recipient in such a condition that he may perceive the root cause of his condition (perverted views, etc.) and/or may begin cultivating practices which will lead to their cessation and his Enlightenment. To this end, instances of Bodhisattvas' giving material gifts are generally accompanied by the gift of Dharma.

Bodhisattvas give, not to benefit just one group of beings, but to all beings. This means not only does he give to Buddhists and non-Buddhists, etc., but in addition to the order of human beings, he also gives to hell-beings, animals, ghosts, and gods. He must not discriminate between them:

Having cognized all dharmas as undifferentiated, having given a gift without making a difference, he becomes one who has gained an undifferentiated dharma; i.e. knowledge of all modes. If in a Bodhisattva, the great being, when faced with a request from an animal, a thought is thus produced, the fully enlightened Buddhas are worthy of my gift, but animals are not; he would-not have the dharmas of a Bodhisattva.

Panca, 525 (Conze, trans.)

In addition, Bodhisattvas do not discriminate between acceptable and non-acceptable requests for gifts:

And if all kinds of folk entreat the Bodhisattva, the great being, to allow them to kill him, his thought should remain unaltered, he should not think 'to these I will give this, and not to those,' but with unshaken mind he should give this gift to all these folk. And why? For there he has set out for Enlightenment for the sake of all people.

Panca, 526 (Conze, trans.)

      Since the sutras' remarks are about Bodhisattvas, before deciding their applicability, we must decide how the term is to be understood. A Bodhisattva may be someone so spiritually advanced that he accomplishes all these deeds by mind alone without ever leaving his Buddha-field; or he may be quite an ordinary person, even a layperson like ourselves, who has just set out, a little uncertainly perhaps, for Enlightenment.

The more exclusive interpretation relieves us of the more difficult aspects of cultivating the path. Giving, with the right attitude, to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha may suffice for the laity.

For those who study the Buddhadharma, every anniversary of a Buddha or Bodhisattva's birthday, leaving home day, enlightenment or nirvana is an excellent time to make offerings to the Triple Jewel, as the meritorious virtue derived increases several thousand-fold...those who have money can give money, those who have strength can give strength. But one should not think about it. That is genuine giving.

Comm. By Dhyana Master Hsuan Hua
A General Explanation of the Vajra 
Prajnaparamita Sutra, BTTS, p. 45

The wider interpretation sees this as the beginning of a lay persons' practice which should extend to gifts, both material and dharmic, to all beings. In this sense, the perfection of giving becomes for the laity a practice parallel to the traditional role of begging, or in OUT time to the practice of "three steps one bow." Like these, proper giving provides innumerable daily opportunities to mindfully cultivate the emptiness of self and dharmas, even-mindedness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment while dedicating all one's efforts and merit to the full Enlightenment of all beings.

As beneficial as the practice of giving may be for us, we must also bear in mind the gentle admonition of the sages: the well-marked path is the monastic one; more obscured is the lay road. The layman's trail is not always well blazed.

Basically, we face two types of difficulties. The first, is the age-old problem of making one's deeds match one's intentions, which are based on right understanding. For example, the sutras provide ample precedents for Bodhisattvas satisfying the requests for their belongings and bodies. Instances such as these may serve as a model for donating blood, organs, etc. Here our problem consists in making our deeds match our understanding. The same is true for the innumerable trivial and trying requests most of us encounter daily. It is not a question of how to act and with what mental state, but of mindfully watching ourselves and doing it. The second difficulty arises when we lack correct understanding, such as in cases when a tension exists between two conflicting 'right' courses of action. For example, as lay people, we may be, asked to give to a cancer fund, which supports extensive and painful research on animals. The sutras, however, hardly mention instances of the Buddha fulfilling request for gifts where the gift may be used to the detriment of others.

If we say that the cancer society's use of the funds violates the principle of non-violence, are we then imaginatively discriminating a really non-existent researcher who by a really non-existent gift from a really non-existent donor acquires the means to slowly and painfully kill a really non-existent animal? Is this what is meant by constructing a perverted view and making distinctions between those to whom we should give and those to whom we should not? Or again, is it the Bodhisattva's way to hold that the act of fulfilling the perfection of giving without regard to the gift's repercussions in this falsely-constructed world is the correct action, because ultimately it is more beneficial to all beings if one attains Enlightenment and thereby superior powers to aid all beings than if that being stops to discriminate, debate, and waiver on each false question arising from what is basically an artificially-constructed way of viewing the world?

      The way, perhaps, is only very difficult to follow in cases where we ourselves might experience suffering; but when other beings, whom we should try to save, are involved, I find it almost impossible to overcome my doubts and confusion as to how we might best emulate the Bodhisattvas who perfect giving with skill-in-means

Vajra Bodhi Sea Editorial Comment:

The dilemma which Professor Lethcoe experiences in her giving is an example of the overlapping, often vague mixture of good and bad (karma) that is characteristic of the human realm. Our karma is more often than not a very subtle blend of the pure and defiled, the lofty and the lowly. Giving which brings good to some at the expense of harming others is but one of a myriad moral issues people must face. As the Venerable Master expresses it in his poem "The Ten Dharma-realms are not Beyond a Single Thought":

The way of men is harmony,

With merit and error interspersed.

On virtuous deeds you rise, offenses make you fall,

It has nothing to do with anyone else at all.

The Master comments: "People are harmonious beings who are capable of forming relationships with anyone. Beings who become people are neither completely good nor completely bad. When a person's merit is greater than his offenses, at the very least he will be born into a rich and distinguished family, but with small merit and heavy offenses he will be born into a life of poverty. Between these extremes are a thousand differences and myriad distinctions. People are neither extremely yin nor extremely yang; beings with a preponderance of yin become ghosts, and those with a lot of yang become gods. Your destiny lies in your own hands. What you create you must endure."