Better to Give

Naam Phoo making offering to Thai monk on Mae Klong

“The meaning of generosity is very clear.  All human beings have possessions.  But why do you obtain and keep these things? Are they only for your own pleasure, or do they help you to help others?”  So begins Zen Master Seung Sahn’s discussion of the Six Paramitas in The Compass of Zen, his compendium of the essential teachings of the three main schools of Buddhism [1].  In the Mahayana tradition,  the virtue of generosity is generally regarded as foundational to the path of liberation.  In his introduction to a collection of essays titled Dana: The Practice of Giving, Bikkhu Bodhi explains that “in the Pali suttas, we read time and again that ‘talk on giving’ was invariably the first topic to be discussed by the Buddha in his ‘graduated exposition’ of the dhamma.” [2]   Why such strong emphasis on this quality of behavior that isn’t explicitly regarded as a component of the Noble Eightfold Path in its own right?

The answer to this question is pretty simple: the practice of generosity is the most direct route through the all-pervasive delusion of separation between me and all other human beings to the reality of oneness.  This delusion, created by thinking, can not be dispelled by more thinking;  it can only be cut through by action.  “When you help someone else,” Zen Master Bon Haeng has told me, “you’re really helping yourself.  There’s no separation.” I’ve seen him demonstrate this principle more than once. There’s a traffic island at the intersection of Route 2 and Alewife Brook Parkway where panhandlers usually stand; we pass it on the way to the Cambridge Zen Center. Without missing a beat in the conversation happening in the car, he’ll roll down the window and hold out a dollar bill for the homeless man or woman to take. No fanfare, no “teaching” involved, just simple, spontaneous, appropriate action for the sake of someone else.

I recently returned from Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country where the concept of “merit” is deeply entrenched in the local rituals. I’ve long disparaged this idea of gaining merit as reeking strongly of the Catholic religion in which I was raised, where good deeds done in this life are considered karmic money in the bank to ensure a comfortable position in the next. “The true Buddhist practitioner,” insists the Righteous Judge in my mind, “has no thought of self. Action is taken for the sake of others, not for the sake of one’s own future well being.” Merit-seekers, it logically followed, are deluded. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d never actually witnessed religious Buddhists in the act of meritorious offering. In the 12-Step Tradition, this is commonly known as “contempt prior to investigation.” Thankfully, my trip to Thailand afforded me the opportunity to investigate.

On our first night there, my wife, Jennie, and I, stayed with her family in a traditional Thai riverside house in the village of Amphawa. In the morning, a monk from a monastery farther down the Mae Klong canal paddled by in a wooden boat while making his daily alms rounds. We stood on the concrete walkway along the canal in front of the guesthouse to await his arrival, but the Mae Klong is a tidal waterway, and the tide was out; the monk’s boat could come no closer than 30 feet away from us. I observed all of this, wondering how the situation was going to play out… How would our donations make it from the shore to the boat?

It went line this: Naam Phoo, a young woman who manages the guest house, gathered up the packages of food, envelopes of money, and flowers that we’d amassed for the occasion and put them into a large basket. She kicked off her sandals and walked down the concrete steps to the mud exposed by the receding tide. Sinking deeper with each step, she was almost knee-deep in sludge by the time she’d reached the boat. Bowing, the monk accepted the offerings. Naam Phoo bowed back. Words are not exchanged in the formal practice of alms giving.

Witnessing this act of selfless sacrifice, it occurred to me that merit is not something gained at some future time, but rather something experienced in the moment by a human being who is available to act for others. It also occurred to me that as I speculated about how the scenario was going to “play out,” the possibility of me crossing the mud flat to the monk’s boat hadn’t presented itself… My “how can I help” mind was nowhere to be found in the situation. Perhaps I was too concerned with indicting the concept of gaining merit to act for someone else’s sake. Zen Master Seung Sahn warns us not to “check other people’s minds.” In 12-Step parlance, the admonition is “don’t take others’ inventories.” Where is my mind in this moment?

As our trip continued, we visited several temples, making customary offerings of incense, flowers, and money before entering. Following Naam Phoo’s example, I tried to make my offerings with an empty mind and a full heart. True merit has nothing to do with expectation, and everything to do with intention.

Making an offering at a temple outside the Royal Palace, Bangkok

[1] Zen Master Seung Sahn (1997). The Compass of Zen, Shambhala: Boston & London, p.198.
[2] as quoted from Tiramit’s blog

That Doesn’t Sound Like Much Fun


Hindus performing morning ablutions on the ghats of the Ganges, Varanasi, India

A guy named Swami Magalananda once invited me to attend a day-long retreat he was leading. He’s a practitioner of Bhakti yoga, or the Hindu path of devotion. The colorful, love-filled gatherings of devotees tend to have very high energy, with lots of music, ecstatic chanting, and dancing in the spirit. Unfortunately, my spiritual dance card was full that weekend, as I’d already registered for a retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center. I told Swami Magalananda a little about our practice; completely silent save for the monotone chanting that’s markedly different from what goes on in the kirtans that he’s used to, a zen retreat consists of numerous sitting sessions punctuated by walking meditation, ritual-style meals, and a work period.

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” Swami Magalananda remarked.

“No, it kind of isn’t,” I replied after brief reflection. But then again, it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a spiritual practice that isn’t about me having a good time. It actually has nothing to do with me and my personal preferences, unless I choose to make it about me and my personal preferences. That’s when it gets difficult, because that’s when my ego is threatened.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said that when my thinking stops and your thinking stops, our minds are the same. Zen practice has the power to cut through the delusion of “self” and “other” by uniting the sangha in the “together action” of chanting, walking and sitting. When I choose to let my ego get involved, however, I have the power to do exactly the opposite. It’s a strict practice, and although most Temple Rules are outlined our manual of practice guidelines, it’s pretty much a big game of follow the leader. Just show up, watch what senior sangha members are doing, and try to follow suit. This affords tremendous opportunity for mistakes.

I don’t like to be corrected. I’m pretty sure that most people don’t, so there’s nothing special or unique there. The important question is: how do I respond when my practice form is corrected? Do I resent the person who is trying to help me? Do I feel ashamed at having made a mistake? I could spend post after post psychoanalyzing myself, researching my past to locate the root of those feelings, but that’s not entirely useful. As Pema Chodron says, while it can be helpful to look at our lives to see how mental and emotional patterns may have developed, if we consider the possibility of reincarnation, these are likely “ancient wounds.” Lacking the backstory of all those past lives, all we’re left with is moment to moment awareness of those feelings as they arise, and a recognition that we have a choice of how to respond. It’s nothing more or less than an opportunity to change our karma. As they say in 12 Step Recovery, “if you want what you’ve always gotten, do what you’ve always done.” If you want something else, do something different.

The upshot of all this is that after several years of practicing both Korean Zen and 12 Step Recovery, I’ve come to notice that the work I need to do is always somewhere in between me and the work I think I need to do. My problem is always as immediate as my own mind in this moment. In other words, the problem isn’t that I sounded the wrong number of beats on the moktak at the beginning of a chant; the problem arises as I feed into resentment or shame when someone brings it to my attention. I’m essentially creating division at a point of choice where I could create unity by simply saying “Thank you.” Every human interaction is like that.

A Very Practical Joke

Zen monks at Vulture Peak, Ragjir, India

Chogyam Turngpa Rinpoche supposedly referred to formal zen practice as “the biggest joke that has ever been played in the spiritual realm.” “But,” he added wryly, “it is a practical joke, very practical.” The forms and rituals that we practice in the Kwan Um School, handed down to us from the Chogye Order of Korean Zen by Zen Master Seung Sahn upon his emigration to the United States in 1972, serve a very important function. Like the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous that hold that fellowship together so that individual healing can take place, our school’s forms and rituals create a container to hold the teachings. More than that, however, they are the teachings. True wisdom is not transmitted through words. It’s transmitted through action, as the Buddha transmitted his dharma to the smiling Mahakasyapa by holding a flower in the air atop Vulture Peak. During the time that I’ve been practicing zen, I’ve come to realize that all of the arcane rules and customs that I thought were getting in the way of my spiritual practice are my spiritual practice. They have a way of showing me where I’m stuck in a very real, very tangible way.

A few years ago at Open Meadow Zen, where I practice regularly, sitting sessions were sometimes sparsely attended. One evening, there were only four of us there: me, who acted as Head Dharma Teacher by timing the sitting and leading walking meditation, the moktak master, who lead chanting with a wooden percussion instrument, Zen Master Bon Haeng, and one other guy. When the zen master and that one other guy left the room for koan interview, only two of us remained. The scene during walking meditation looked like this: two grown men in matching grey robes walking really slowly around an empty room. My thought was pervasive and clear… “This is a bizarre way to spend a Monday night.” For the life of me, I couldn’t see how this activity was of benefit to me or anyone else, but I kept walking. For all I knew, the guy behind me was really into it, and I didn’t want to spoil his good time.

When my turn in the interview room came, The zen master asked, as he often does, “Did you bring me anything?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I come with Great Question… What’s the point of all this? We’re supposed to be practicing for the sake of all sentient beings, but instead we’re just wearing robes, chanting in Korean, and walking around in a room by ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense… I don’t see the connection.”

He gave me a swat on the knee with his zen stick, as tends to happen from time to time. It’s a very useful teaching tool.

“Did you feel that?”

“Of course I felt that, you just hit me!”

“In that moment, your experience is pain in knee. When you’re doing walking meditation, your experience is just walking. All of this doubt, this like and dislike, this mind stuff, all of this fantasy of yours, it’s not necessary. It isn’t helpful. If you want to help others, begin by becoming present. We begin to become present when we stop preferring our fantasy to reality.”

That’s pretty big teaching. The greatest thing that I can do for others is to get rid of this idea of “I” and “others,” to stop preferring my fantasy of separation. This “very practical joke” of zen, when approached with awareness, has the power to do that.

What Do You Mean, “No Self?”

Monks’ quarters at Tibetan Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

Some time ago, I attended a talk by Lama Surya Das, who has studied and practised extensively in the Tibetan tradition, and is apparently known to His Holiness the Dalai Lama as “the American Lama.” The talk was held at the Follen Church, a unique octagon-shaped Unitarian church that was built in 1836 in the village of East Lexington, Massachusetts. It’s a building that I feel very comfortable in. My father worked there as a janitor when I was a kid, and I’d play the pipe organ while he vacuumed the carpeted aisles and arranged the missals in the wooden racks on the backs of the pews. Later in life, I came to know the church for the wonderful A.A. meeting that’s held there every Saturday evening at 5:30. I currently live a block down Mass Ave. from the Follen church, and for the past few years, I’ve used the steeple bell as my meditation timer, sitting on the cushion at twenty minutes to the hour and ending my session at the bell’s toll.

Surya Das was discussing his latest book, Buddha Standard Time, which explores the importance of remaining present as the demands on our attention continue to increase in the 21st century. As we entered the Q and A portion of the evening, I decided to raise my hand. I don’t actually remember what I asked because, to be honest, my intention was really to give my local zen center a plug. What I succeeded in doing was, however, in the parlance of the Kwan Um School of Zen’s practice manual, to “point to the gap between my cognition and my practice.” In other words, I publicly fell on my face in an impromptu koan interview. In the course of my question, just for good measure, I’d worked in the phrase “no self.”

“What do you mean, ‘no self?'” Surya Das interrupted very clearly, very loudly, and a little bit aggressively.

The sound of creaking 175-year-old wooden pews was deafening as 100 people turned their bodies to await my response, which never came. I had no answer, which isn’t a bad response when the interview is one-on-one, but it’s a bit unsettling with a small legion of spiritual seekers looking on. Not only did I no longer feel comfortable in the venerable old church, I no longer felt comfortable in my own skin. “Mortified” is probably the single best descriptor. The ensuing silence was awkward probably to me alone, and possibly enjoyed by anyone fond of seeing a true teacher deftly bludgeoning a student with his own arrogance and confusion. I had glibly tossed out this lofty philosophy with no expectation of being challenged. “We’re all Buddhists here, right?” I thought. Isn’t the whole “no self” thing a given?

“How can you say there’s no self?” the onslaught continued. “If I eat, do you get fed? I’m over here and you’re over there. What do you mean by this ‘no self” thing?”

Whatever words Surya Das delivered next were most likely very good and useful teaching, but I didn’t hear the vast majority of them, stewing as I was in my own embarrassment and shame. After the dust had settled and he was on to the next, more cautious victim, however, I understood what he was getting at. I had no actual experience of “no self.” It’s all just heresay to me.

My daily reality, based in ignorance, doesn’t feel like unity and oneness; it feels like clear division between self and other. I’m sitting here in East Lexington typing these words, and you’re out there somewhere reading them. Two different people… that’s the starting point. To deny that is to be dishonest about my situation, which is never an effective way of dealing with a problem. “No self,” from the perspective of my current state of consciousness, is simply a concept or belief, neither of which is something that zen concerns itself with. Zen is about groundedness and action.

Trusting in the dharma, and all great teachings, how does one transform this idea of “no self” from belief to reality? Only by moment to moment practice. This is where the 12 Step Recovery notion of “act as if” comes into play. The basic premise here is that it’s easier for me to act my way toward right thinking than it is to think my way toward right action. I need to emulate the qualities I want to possess. When I wanted to stop being obsessed with drinking, I needed to act like I wasn’t obsessed with alcohol. After a continued period of not acting on that obsession, it was lifted. Likewise, if I want to truly realize the concept of “no self,” I need to start acting selflessly. “No self” is not a philosophy, it’s a practice, one that has the power to save all sentient beings.

I live in the same town as Lama Surya Das, and I run into him from time to time. I smile and he smiles back. In all liklihood, he has no recollection of me or my “failed” koan. But I remember the words he spoke to let me off the hook before taking another question. “You’re a zen guy,” he said, “so I know you have eyes to hear what I’m saying.”