Giving without Notions

On one occasion the Buddha and Ananda had entered the city to gather alms and they saw a group of children playing beside the street. The children were playing make believe, building homes and storehouses out of piles of sand that they had gathered. They were also pretending the sand was rice, which they stored in their sandy storehouses. One of the children saw the Buddha and innocently held up some of his sand-rice with his cupped hands and offered it to the Buddha. The Buddha received it with a smile.

Ananda was quite perplexed—why would the Buddha accept this pile of sand? Once they had returned from their alms round, Ananda joined his palms together and asked respectfully, “Lord Buddha, what merit can there be in that child’s gift of sand? Why did you accept it?”

“Have you forgotten, Ananda? The Buddha never considers the beauty or value of a gift, but instead cares about the sincerity of the act. That child had a mind that was undefiled and free of discrimination, and because of this he was able to perform a supreme act of giving. It should not be treated with scorn. As for the child’s merit in offering the sand, one hundred years after my nirvana, the child will be born as the king of a great country, and his name will be ‘Asoka.’1 The other children playing with him will all become his ministers and will support his rule. That child will make the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha flourish in the human world and he will build 84,000 reliquary stupas. This will enable those who already believe to increase their roots of goodness, while those who do not yet believe will have the opportunity to attain liberation.”

The Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom mentions three kinds of giving. The first is the giving of wealth and property, with the other two being giving fearlessness, and giving the Dharma. A description of each of the three is provided below:

  1. Giving Wealth
    We give wealth so that we can relieve the suffering of those who are poor or sick and ensure their survival.

  2. Giving Fearlessness
    If we uphold the precepts and cultivate patience and harmlessness, we will not seek revenge upon any foe or enemy. Such a person treats all life with loving-kindness, so that there is no need for fear or trepidation. When we have such limitless compassion, we can remove the fears of others, even if it puts a risk to our own personal safety, allowing living beings to develop faith in the Dharma.

  3. Giving the Dharma
    By teaching the true Dharma, we can bring others to cultivate what is wholesome and get rid of what is unwholesome, and allow living beings to attain enlightenment and realize their self nature. Diligence will allow us to tirelessly persist in pursuing what is wholesome, meditative concentration will allow us to know the minds of living beings like a bright mirror or still waters, and our wisdom will help us to smoothly handle affairs and teach the Dharma correctly.

The Diamond Sutra teaches that we should “give without notions,” which includes the three kinds of giving mentioned above, but extends and transcends them. The relevant passage is quoted below:

“Moreover, Subhuti, within this phenomenal world, a bodhisattva should practice giving without abiding in anything. This means that he should not give abiding in form, nor should he give abiding in sound, smell, taste, touch, or dharmas. Subhuti, a bodhisattva should not give abiding in any notion whatsoever. And why is this? If a bodhisattva gives without abiding in any notion whatsoever, then his merit will be immeasurable.”

“Subhuti, what do you think, can the vastness of space to the east be measured?”

“No, it cannot, World-honored One.”

“Subhuti, can the vastness of space to the south, west, north, up, or down be measured?”

“No, it cannot, World-honored One.”

“Subhuti, when a bodhisattva gives without abiding in any notion, his merit is just as immeasurable. Subhuti, a bodhisattva should abide in this teaching and this teaching alone.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 4

The Diamond Sutra makes extensive use of the phrase wuxiang bushi (無相布施), “give without notions.” This concept has wide-ranging meaning, but can be summarized by saying we should give and receive as the Buddha did in the opening story: without any notions or concepts based in phenomena, ideas, or outward appearances with which to discriminate or diminish ourselves as givers, who we give to, or what we give. There should be no clinging to the notions of self, others, sentient beings, or longevity, nor should one cling to the six sense objects of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and dharmas. The merit of giving without notions is limitless.

All Worldly Affairs Are Transient

Once upon a time there was a princess who was the favorite child of the king, and she was by his side from morning till night. One day it rained, and as the raindrops hit against the earth, bubbles began to appear. The princess saw the bubbles and was quite delighted with them. She said to her father, the king, “I want those bubbles made into a garland I can wear on my head.”

The king said, “But these bubbles cannot even be grasped in our hands, how can they be made into a garland?”

Upset, the princess said, “If I don’t get a garland made of bubbles, then I’ll starve myself to death!”

The king then summoned his most skilled craftsmen and said to them, “You are all skilled craftsmen, and there is nothing that you cannot make. I command you to make me a garland of bubbles for my princess this instant. If you fail, I will have you all executed!”

The craftsmen were terrified. One of the craftsmen finally spoke up, “But making a garland out of bubbles is impossible!”

Just as the king was about to have them all executed, an elderly craftsman stepped forward and said to the king, “I can make a bubble garland for the princess.”

The old craftsman then approached the princess and said, “The only problem is, I don’t know which bubbles you like and which ones you don’t. I beg you, your highness, please bring me your favorite bubbles, and then I will make the garland for you.”

The princess agreed. But, as soon as she reached out to touch a bubble, it would pop. Even after working at it for a whole day she couldn’t catch one single bubble. Then the princess realized that bubbles are like an illusion, made from the coming together of causes and conditions. As the Diamond Sutra says:

All conditioned phenomena

Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, and shadows,

Like dew and lightning.

One should contemplate them in this way.

Diamond Sutra Chapter 32

As we learned from the story of the princess and the above verse from the Diamond Sutra, phenomena are transitory. As identified in the verse, we should contemplate phenomena in six ways:

  1. Contemplate Phenomena as Dreams
    Worldly phenomena are like dreams, for everything will pass away. Just as when waking from a dream, once phenomena have dissipated they leave not the slightest trace behind.

  2. Contemplate Phenomena as Illusions
    Conditioned phenomena are illusory manifestations; they are not real. The effects of karma and the cycle of birth and death are manifestations as well. They are like a play performed on a stage: parents, siblings, friends, relatives, spouses and children all make an appearance, yet the instant the curtain falls nothing is as it was. In a way, life is not truly life and death is not truly death.

  3. Contemplate Phenomena as Bubbles
    Our emotions are like bubbles in that they are not long-lasting. Our joy, anger, sadness, and happiness, as well as the moments in between that are neither pleasure nor pain, are all as momentary and transient as bubbles.

  4. Contemplate Phenomena as Shadows
    Worldly phenomena and all the experiences of human life are like shadows, in that they are not real.

  5. Contemplate Phenomena as Dew
    The dew quickly disappears as soon as the sun comes out. Our bodies are not so different. For example, a baby is born and slowly grows into what we call a little girl; some more time passes and she becomes a female student, a young woman, and then later a wife, a mother, and an old woman. Sickness and senility slowly make it impossible for her to live on her own, just like a little baby. Don’t we often hear talk of a second childhood? Life changes bit by bit just like the morning dew.

  6. Contemplate Phenomena as Lightning
    Lightning is fleeting, there for just an instant, like time itself. The past, present, and future pass away quite quickly. Human life is also like lightning, for life exists in that short moment of breathing in and out. Once the breath stops, life is no more.

Once there was a theatre troupe based in a city that was experiencing a famine, so they decided to pack up their things and become a traveling theatre troupe, seeking opportunities in neighboring villages. When traveling to the next village they hurried as fast as they could, but they arrived so late that they were unable to find lodgings for the night and had to spend the night in the mountains. The temperatures ran low in the mountains that night, and it was bone-chillingly cold, so the troupe started a fire and slept beside it to stay warm.

One member of the troupe was sick and could not withstand the bitter cold, so he dug through their costume trunk and threw on the first thing he found for some extra warmth. What the actor failed to realize was that the costume he picked just happened to be the demon costume they used in their play. So there he sat, warmed in the glow of the fire and dressed as a fearsome demon.

In the middle of the night, another member of the troupe was awakened from a dream and saw the demon sitting by the fire. He remembered that he had heard stories that there were man-eating demons in the mountains, so he leapt to his feet and began yelling to wake the others. The commotion startled everyone, and they all began running for their lives in blind terror.

The actor wearing the demon costume saw how everyone was running and thought something bad must have happened, so he took flight in a desperate attempt to catch up to his friends. The people in front saw that the demon was running after them and became even more terrified. They began a mad rush forward, fearing for their lives, heedless of all the brambles, rocks, creeks, and gullies that lay in their path. Not until daybreak did they discover that the person chasing after them was not a demon at all, but actually one of their fellow actors. In the end they were exhausted and worn out, covered with cuts and bruises all over their bodies.

The Diamond Sutra says that all phenomena are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows, dew, and lightning. We should not cling to such negative fantasies. Just as we cannot hold on to dew and lightning vanishes in an instant, the Buddha implores us to not abide in phenomena. Metaphors like this help to facilitate teaching the Dharma and show the impermanence of worldly things, reminding us not to cling to what is unreal amid all the phenomena that are presented to us so superficially. Instead we should strive to comprehend the essential nature of emptiness. As mentioned previously, “emptiness” encompasses both existence and non-existence, for it is cause and effect itself. We should learn to use what is illusory to pursue what is true, so that we can find the true reality of prajna.

Once there were two demons who were preparing to reincarnate into the world of the living. King Yama, the lord of death, spoke to them: “You two are going to be born as human beings. You can choose to be born in a life in which you always give things to other people, or you can choose to be born in a life in which you always receive things from other people. Into which life do you choose to be born?”

One of the demons knelt down and said, “King Yama, your majesty, I would like to be born as one who spends his life receiving things from others.”

The other demon kept quiet, waiting to hear King Yama’s plans.

With a rap of his gavel, King Yama announced his judgment:

“I decree that you be born in the human world as a beggar who must ask for things from others everywhere he goes.”

“As for you,” King Yama said, pointing at the second demon, “I decree that you shall be born into a rich and affluent family that regularly donates to charity.”

The two demons were stunned and didn’t know what to say.

Life is a journey, and when that journey has come to an end, we have the opportunity to look back upon the journey and understand its meaning and purpose. When we examine life in this way, we all learn one important lesson: things like chasing after material things, striving for real or empty glory, fighting to attain positions of power, building relationships, and other such things were only means by which we tried to maintain our lives, realize our ideals, and find meaning in life. But just as the Diamond Sutra says, they, too, are “like dreams, illusions, bubbles, and shadows. Like dew and lightning.” Only when we look at life from the perspective that all things will end can we be diligent and shoulder life’s responsibilities.

Food items each have a shelf life, and we must eat them before they go bad. Life is not so different. Life’s journey will come to an end in due course, so we must cherish whatever happens along the way. Our lives are limited, and time will pass, so we must not simply go through the motions frittering our lives away. When our own journeys are reaching the end, if we look back and see how we spent our lives trying to get something out of people or taking advantage of others, we cannot help but feel regret.

Giving is the only way to be a truly wealthy person; for if the mind craves possessing and acquiring, then no matter how much wealth you have, you will still be as poor as a beggar.

With and Without Notions

The Diamond Sutra commonly uses the two character expression bushi (布施) to refer to giving. The character bu means “universal,” while shi means “to scatter or disperse,” designating an especially inclusive type of giving. Giving, in all of its many forms, is what allows us to disperse our gifts universally and eliminate our habitual illusory thinking and afflictions. Why then did the Buddha use the empty vastness of space as a metaphor for merit?

Whenever Chan Master Seisetsu Shucho gave Dharma talks at Engaku Temple many, many people would come. Whenever there was a talk the crowd would be so tightly packed into the hall that you could barely move. Finally, someone suggested that a new wing be added to the temple to allow for a more spacious lecture hall.

One devotee filled a bag with one hundred taels of gold and brought it to the temple to give to Chan Master Seisetsu, explaining that the donation was to fund the building of the lecture hall. Seisetsu received the gold and then quickly busied himself with other matters.

The devotee was extremely displeased by the Chan master’s attitude. He thought to himself, “One hundred taels of gold is no small amount of money. How could the master receive such a large donation and not bother saying a single word of thanks?”

So the devotee followed Seisetsu and dropped a little hint, “Master, you know there are one hundred taels of gold in that bag I gave you.”

Seisetsu responded coolly, “You already told me. I’m aware.”

The devotee raised his voice, “Hey! I donated one hundred taels of gold today!”

Seisetus had just reached the main shrine, and stopped.

“If you would like to treat donating money to the Buddhas like some sort of business deal, then on behalf of the Buddhas I can offer you a word of thanks for this transaction. Now consider the account between you and them settled.”

This may be a Chan story, but it does remind us as well that we must not fixate on notions. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha uses the vastness of space as a metaphor for the merit of giving. Since karmic effects are related to karmic causes, we should ensure that when we give, our minds are also as open and genuine as space. When there is no favoritism or partiality, the positive karmic effect is as vast and extraordinary as space itself. We must be able to look upon all living beings as if they were our own children in order to inwardly destroy any miserly attitudes and outwardly perform beneficial deeds. There are three contemplations we can practice to help us foster a mind of equality that can accept all living beings and be as broad and expansive as the vastness of space. They are:

  1. Contemplation of Renunciation
    Contemplate the habitual karmic tendencies that carry on throughout the cycle of birth and death and the suffering and pain they bring to the body and mind. Observe and think carefully about how the body is as fleeting as foam on water and life is short. By contemplating renunciation in this way, we will not cling greedily to external wealth and property and can perform great acts of giving.

  2. Contemplation of Enlightenment
    Contemplate the dignified and magnificent physical features of the Buddha, and contemplate the pure morality that is the nature of the Dharma. By contemplating these you will come to see that there are no distinctions between one’s own mind, the Buddha, and all living beings. One will realize that our original enlightened nature is universal, and this will allow one to perform acts of giving out of reverence for all living beings.

  3. Contemplation of Compassion
    Consider all the negative karma that living beings create when they fail to encounter the Buddha, when they fail to understand the Dharma, and when they do not respect the monastic community because they do not know the Triple Gem and do not believe in cause and effect. Such a person is like a drunken man trying to walk down the street or a legless man trying to cross a river. You should care for living beings in the same way that you would care for your own body if it were covered with open wounds and dedicate all your attention to protecting and helping them.

Once there was a town in Taiwan hit by a particularly fearsome flash flood, such that people had to climb up to their roofs to avoid the rising water. One man trapped in the flood was an especially pious Buddhist, and as the floodwaters began to cover his feet, he began to urgently pray:

“O, Great Compassionate Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, please come quickly and save me!”

Not long afterwards, a Taiwanese aborigine saw the praying man and rowed his canoe over to save him. As the canoe approached, the man shouted at the aborigine, “No, I don’t want one of you mountain tribespeople coming to save me! I want the compassionate Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva to come and save me.”

The storm waters continued to rise and climbed up to his waist. He prayed even more anxiously, “O, compassionate Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, come quickly and save me!”

Then a speedboat zoomed by, offering to take him to safety, but again the praying man turned them down.

“I have detested science and technology all my life. I can’t stand anything mechanical, no matter what it is. I want the compassionate Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva to come and save me!”

The flood waters had now already risen to his chest and he was yelling in alarm and fear, “Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, come quickly and save me!”

Then there came an American flying a helicopter to save him, but the praying man waved the pilot off with his hands and said, “You’re a foreigner! I don’t want a foreigner saving me. I want Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva to save me!”

Just when he was about to drown, the praying man was saved by a Chan master. He said to the Chan master, “I’ve been pious and faithful, how come Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva did not come to save me?”

The Chan master replied, “You’re really doing Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva an injustice. You called out for help and the bodhisattva tried to save you again and again. The bodhisattva manifested as a canoe, a speedboat, and a helicopter to come and save you. Not only were you ungrateful, but you were picky, as well.”

Once greed, grasping, and attachment arise in our consciousness, we become like the blind men trying to learn what an elephant is by touching it;2 it is impossible for us to perceive the whole of reality. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva does not liberate living beings through any fixed method or employing any fixed appearance. In performing acts of giving in this world, we must do so without notions, for in that way merit can become limitless.

There are plenty of Buddhists who come to the temple to bring a few bananas and apples and donate a little money for incense and lamp oil in hope of seeking good fortune, honor, and power and asking for protection, wealth, and other benefits. This kind of giving abides and is invested in the six sense objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and dharmas). It is not too different from trying to bribe the gods or offering something with strings attached.

If the thought behind a gift is not pure then the gift has some notion behind it, and the merit to be gained from such a gift is limited. Examples of such notions are giving to obtain fame, rewards, or advantages, giving out of fear of being reborn in the lower realms of existence, or even giving for the sake of one’s own health or fortune. But if something is given with no thought of reward or benefit, but is given only for the sake of living beings and meeting their needs, that is giving without notions. The merit from giving without notions is limitless.

“For this reason, Subhuti, a bodhisattva should turn away from all notions, and initiate the mind of anuttara samyaksambodhi. He should not give rise to a mind abiding in form, and he should not give rise to a mind abiding in sound, smell, taste, touch, or dharmas. He should give rise to a mind that does not abide in anything. If the mind abides in anything it is a false abiding. Thus, the Buddha says that a bodhisattva should not give abiding in form. Subhuti, a bodhisattva should give in this way to benefit all sentient beings. The Tathagata says that all notions are not notions, and therefore he also says that all sentient beings are not sentient beings.”

“Subhuti, the Tathagata is a speaker of what is true, what is real, what is so, what is not deceptive, and what is not altered. Subhuti, the Dharma that the Tathagata has attained is not real and it is not unreal.”

“Subhuti, when the mind of a bodhisattva abides in phenomena and practices giving he is like a person who has entered into darkness—he sees nothing at all. When the mind of a bodhisattva does not abide in any phenomena and practices giving, he is like someone who has eyes in the full light of the sun—he sees all forms clearly.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 14

Sixth Patriarch Huineng wrote in his Exegesis on the Diamond Sutra:

When giving one should have a pure, undefiled mind. First, do not seek to dignify your own appearance. Second, do not seek the pleasures of the five desires.3 Giving eliminates miserliness internally and benefits all living beings externally.

Giving without notions means that there is no “self” giving the gift, no “self” that receives the gift, and that the gift itself doesn’t even have a “self.” Naturally there is no thought of any sort of reward coming from the gift after it has been given either. Only when the essence of these three aspects is empty does it become “giving without notions,” and the merit of such an act of giving becomes limitless.

As long as we maintain our compassion while we talk, work, eat, and dress during our everyday lives, we will be able to help others at every turn and bring benefit to the larger community. We must make sure not to weigh every gain or loss in our relationships, nor inhibit our giving with considering if we should give more or less.

When we give we should keep in mind four things:

  1. Do not wish for some extraordinary circumstances, but give as conditions allow.

  2. Do not be stingy, but give what you can.

  3. Do not distinguish between beloved friends and hated foes, but give to both joyfully.

  4. Do not be deluded by the idea of some future reward, but do so for the sake of giving.

As we cultivate the three karmas of body, speech, and mind, it is easiest to give through the karma of speech. It does not take a large amount of wealth or very much time to put in some good words. Good words are just like the smell of flowers, in that they infuse others with joy and happiness.

One day a brahman came storming into the Buddha’s Bamboo Grove Monastery outside of the city of Rajagrha, looking for trouble. Many of the brahman’s relatives had joined the monastic order, and this was something that infuriated the brahman to no end. So the brahman slandered and defamed the Buddha with his harsh words, claiming that the Buddha had bewitched his friends through black magic. The Buddha listened to the brahman’s abusive tirade quietly, the Buddha spoke:

“Suppose you were visiting a friend and brought a gift, but your friend steadfastly refused to accept the gift that you brought, what would you do?”

The brahman answered, “If my friend truly refused to accept my gift, then the only thing I could do would be to take it back home.”

The Buddha said, “I refuse to accept any of the language you tried to give to me today, so all those spiteful, abusive words are yours to keep.”

Under no circumstances should we utter abusive words, use our language to make hell for other people, or fall into the hell of language created for us by others. If we can instead speak the Buddha’s four kinds of right speech to anyone, anywhere, then we will naturally be able to dissolve the conflicts and misunderstandings that arise between people:

  1. Speak good words that are pure and undefiled.

  2. Speak wonderful words that put an end to dissension and conflict.

  3. Speak true words that reflect the true Dharma and the right path.

  4. Speak Dharma words that bring benefit, peace, and happiness.

A long time ago there were two geese living in the wild forest. The geese were good friends with a turtle who lived in a nearby pond. During one summer there was a long dry spell where there was no rain, and the water in the pond dried up. The turtle was getting anxious, if the drought continued there was no way he would be able to survive. The two geese felt sorry about the turtle’s predicament, and they wanted to help him move to a new place with water. The two geese came up with an idea: They would use a tree branch and have the turtle hold the middle part in its mouth, then the two of them would each hold an end and they would be able to lift the turtle to a new location. The two geese advised the turtle that, as long as he kept his mouth shut and did not talk for any reason, they would be able to transport him to safety.

The two geese then flew high into the sky carrying the turtle. When they passed through the sky above a village, a group of children pointed at the sky and yelled, “Come and look everyone! Looks like these geese caught themselves a turtle!”

The turtle became annoyed with the children and thought he was being humiliated. Burning with rage, the turtle yelled at the children: “What do you know? These geese didn’t catch me at all!”

The instant the turtle opened his mouth to yell at the children he fell out of the sky.

Giving Wealth

The purpose of the diamond-like wisdom of prajna is to allow us not to hold on to notions of phenomena or notions of non-phenomena. Thus we can know that the Buddha genuinely wishes us to attain enlightenment, and employs skillful means to teach us, just as when trying to cross a river we may borrow a small boat to reach the other side. The following gongan illustrates this point:

It was a bitterly cold day in winter and snow had already been falling for three days. On that day a beggar came knocking on Chan Master Myoan Eisai’s door. The Chan master opened the door revealing the beggar, shivering in the cold, who said, “Chan master, my family and I have not had a grain of rice for many days now, and the heavy snowfall day after day has also caused my old illness to return. I beg you sir, please help us!”

But the monastery had no surplus food or money, so how could Eisai help them? Suddenly he remembered that they had some gold foil on hand for gilding the Buddha statue. And so without the slightest hesitation, he gave the gold foil to the beggar to meet his desperate need.

The Chan master’s disciples were not very happy with him, and objected by saying, “Master, that gold foil was for gilding the Buddha statue. How could you give it away so carelessly?”

The Chan master answered calmly, “I only did so to pay homage to the Buddha.”

One disciple countered, “Master, you took the gold foil intended for the sacred statue of the Buddha and gave it away. How can that be considered paying homage to the Buddha?”

Chan Master Eisai raised his voice to rebuke them, “The Buddha cultivated the Way for many kalpas, and did not care if he gave away his very blood, flesh, and marrow! How did the Buddha treat all living beings? You only see the gilded Buddha statue, but how do you not see the Buddha’s heart?”

The Diamond Sutra teaches us that by giving without notions, we can be granted limitless merit. It also states that the gift of Dharma is superior to material gifts. It is easy to give material things once one’s needs have been met, but making it possible for living beings to develop their own wisdom from within is not something that can be done by relying upon money and material goods alone. Even so, gifts of wealth and property can offer temporary help and survival to living beings. When the Buddha advises us to not give with notions, it does not mean that the Buddha is negating giving wealth altogether.

What steps can we take to ensure that when we give the kind of material support that is needed in our modern world that we do so without notions? For example, material support can be used to establish schools in remote and backward regions. By approaching projects like this, the material gifts can be used for more than just relieving the temporary needs of the body, like warmth and sustenance.

One day King Prasenajit had an audience with the Buddha and gave him the following report: “Lord Buddha, within the kingdom of Sravasti there is a certain elder named Mahanaman. He possesses vast treasuries of gold and silver, and millions of billions of precious stones such that it would be impossible to count them all. He also owns an unaccountably large number of houses and estates. Mahanaman possesses thousands of bushels of money and other valuables and tens of thousands of acres of farmland, yet he cannot find any enjoyment in all this wealth. Every day he eats coarse bran, rice crumbs, and other leftover and rotting food. He wears cheap and shoddy clothes and rides in a dilapidated, old cart. He has never made offerings to Buddhist monastics or brahman priests, nor has he ever given alms to poor and destitute beggars. Whenever he takes his meals, he is sure to lock the doors and windows tightly in fear that someone might come to his door and ask him for alms. Lord Buddha, the rich and affluent Mahanaman lives such an impoverished and fearful life. How should we use wealth in a way that is in accordance with the right path?”

The Buddha answered, “Great King, people like Mahanaman have minds that are crammed with ignorant and wicked ideas. Though they possess abundant material wealth, they cannot make use of it. They do not know about caring for their parents or supporting their family and relatives. They neither aid their slaves and servants nor share their wealth with their friends and comrades. They do not know that making offerings to Buddhist monastics or brahman priests is planting seeds in a field of merit to secure the blessings of happiness. Mahanaman does not understand how to broadly make use of his wealth to obtain worldly joy or transcendent merit.”

“Great King, greedy, miserly people are like land with hard, alkaline soil. Though the land may have some pools of water, no one is willing to drink from them because of their bitter, salty taste. In the end, these pools will dry up and disappear. Generous people are like a country hamlet with a pure spring that produces good water. The pure water allows nearby trees to grow and prosper, and it engenders soft fragrant grasses and all kinds of fresh flowers and fruits. All living beings are able to bathe in its pool of water, and when tired and thirsty, they can partake of the pure spring waters and fine fruits. The animals of the forest can frolic about happily without fear. Great King, those who have wealth should be like the crystal-clear spring, for they use their wealth to make people happy and satisfied. Such people are carefree and affluent in this life, and will be reborn in the heavenly realms after death, where they will enjoy the blessings of happiness.”

How long is a person’s life, really? It passes as quickly as the morning dew, a bolt of lightning in the sky, froth upon the water, or a flickering flame. Our wealth is very limited, so how can we use it to fulfill our spiritual nature and continually build our lives around the principles of the wise, so that we can give without abiding in anything? I would recommend the following:

  1. Organize around human feeling, not profits.

  2. Organize around community, not individuals.

  3. Organize around good friendship, not money.

  4. Organize around contentment, not the five desires.

Material wealth will eventually be exhausted and turn to ruin one day, but not immaterial wealth. Such immaterial wealth as the relationships between people, the sharing of accomplishments, the guidance and care of good friends, the peace of hearing the Dharma, and others can enable us to organize ourselves around our internal wealth.

Giving Fearlessness

On May 15, 1992, a bus full of students, parents, and teachers from Jiankang Kindergarten in Taipei was going on a fieldtrip when the bus suffered an equipment failure and caught fire near the town of Taoyuan. Lin Jingjuan, one of the teachers at the kindergarten, could have escaped from the bus, but instead she rushed into the part of the bus that was engulfed in flames. Risking her life, she went to save the children from the raging fire and delivered them one by one to those helping by the side of the road, saving as many as she could. In the end, the body of Lin Jingjuan, blackened by the fire, was found in the wreckage of the bus, still holding tightly to the charred remains of a few children she was trying to protect.

Lin Jingjuan willingly suffered the pain of the flames and her scorched skin to save others. Amid the greatest suffering can be found humanity’s greatest compassion. Lin Jingjuan was a tremendously brave individual who gave her life to others without the slightest trace of fear, a true bodhisattva. She calls to mind Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, “the giver of fearlessness,” who grants to all living beings that same sense of courageousness and fearlessness.

The merit to be gained from “filling the three thousand-fold world system with the seven treasures” as mentioned in the Diamond Sutra would surely be worthwhile, but giving material wealth is still limited and imperfect. Giving fearlessness provides the merit of great compassion, which is vastly superior to hundreds of years of good deeds expecting merit in return. Giving fearlessness is the application of true compassion. As mentioned earlier, the giving of fearlessness does not distinguish between beloved friends and hated foes, but seeks to free all living beings from fear and trepidation and allow them to establish faith in the Dharma. When people have a pure and persistent faith, they become able to apply wondrous prajna wisdom.

During the time of the Buddha, there lived a woman named Queen Mallika, who was the wife of King Prasenajit of Kausala and a very devout Buddhist. She followed and upheld the precepts and was well loved and respected by the common people. One day King Prasenajit wanted to have the royal cook killed over some trivial matter. When Queen Mallika heard the news, she was in the middle of an eight precept retreat,4 but even so she dressed in fine clothing and invited her husband to enjoy an evening of food and wine with her, stipulating that the cooking was to be done by the very same cook.

King Prasenajit was quite perplexed, so he asked Queen Mallika, “You usually don’t drink a drop of wine, and today you are observing the eight precepts. Why have you put on your jeweled necklaces and broken your fast to enjoy food and wine with me?”

Lady Mallika answered calmly, “I have heard that this royal cook has incurred your wrath, great king, and will soon be beheaded. If I do not ask him to prepare a delicious meal today, I am afraid I will never have another chance to do so.”

The king then pardoned the royal cook.

Out of compassion, Lady Mallika acted in spite of the damage to her own reputation that the breaking of her vows would bring. Not only did she save the royal cook’s life, but she also spared King Prasenajit from his momentary ignorance.

Giving Dharma

“Subhuti, what do you think? If someone were to fill the three thousand-fold world system with the seven treasures, used them for giving, and attained merit for this, would the merit be great?”

Subhuti said, “It would be very great, World-honored One. And why is this? Such merit is not the nature of merit; thus the Tathagata says it is great.”

“If someone else were to receive and uphold as few as four lines of verse from this sutra, and if he were to explain them to others, his merit would be even greater than that. And why is this? Subhuti, all Buddhas and all the supremely enlightened teachings of the Buddhas are born of this sutra.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 8

In the above passage the Buddha says that the merit of someone who is able to faithfully receive and uphold the Diamond Sutra, even a mere four lines of verse from it, and explain them to others far exceeds that of a person who gives the seven treasures. Why?

Because even a gift as massive as filling the three thousand-fold world system with the seven treasures is a conditioned phenomenon. Since such a gift has limits, the merit of such a gift is limited. But giving the Dharma through teaching others is an unconditioned phenomenon. Offering teachings can help living beings eliminate their afflictions, end the cycle of birth and death, transcend the three realms, and attain Buddhahood. This is why the merit of giving the Dharma exceeds that of giving wealth.

The Buddha also says in the above passage that all Buddhas and all enlightened teachings are born out of the Diamond Sutra. The Diamond Sutra’s teaching on “not abiding in anything” is derived from the larger teaching on emptiness as containing both existence and non-existence. This is prajna, which is also called “the mother of all Buddhas,” and all living beings are endowed with intrinsic prajna nature.

“Subhuti, suppose a person give a quantity of the seven treasures equal to all the Sumeru mountains within a three thousand-fold world system; if another person were to use this Prajnaparamita Sutra, even as few as four lines of verse, and receive, uphold, read, chant, and explain it to others, his merit would be one hundred times—nay, a hundred million, billion times, nay, an incalculable number of times that cannot even be suggested by metaphors—greater.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 24

As the Buddha explains, no matter how many times one were to give the seven treasures, the merit and wisdom obtained does not equal even one hundred million billionth of that obtained through the giving of the Dharma. Indeed no numerical analogy can possibly quantify the difference, because giving the seven treasures is necessarily done so with certain notions. Whether a gift is as high as the mountains or as deep as the ocean, there will come a time when the mountain crumbles and the ocean dries up. In the same way, the merit and wisdom of such a gift will be exhausted. But one who receives and upholds the profound, notionless, prajna wisdom of the Diamond Sutra or explains it to others, even so little as four verses of the sutra, the merit and wisdom is immeasurably, incalculably large. It is infinite.

Once Manjusri Bodhisattva asked the Buddha, “What does it mean to ‘give the seven treasures of the body’?”

The Buddha answered, “Such is the gift of non-desire. The eye without desire to see marvelous things is the gift of the sight treasure. The ear without desire to hear pleasant music is the gift of the sound treasure. The nose without desire to smell fine fragrances is the gift of the smell treasure. The tongue without desire to taste fine delicacies is the gift of the taste treasure. The body without desire for fine clothing is the gift of the touch treasures. The mind without desire for fame, fortune, or affection is the gift of the dharma treasure. Having no worldly desires is the gift of the Buddha treasure. If you can realize the gift of the seven treasures within your own body, the merit obtained will exceed the merit of giving the seven treasures of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, pearls, carnelian, coral, and amber. The merit of giving the seven treasures does not amount to one hundred million billionth of the former, even such a numerical analogy falls short.”

Not having desire for something means not clinging or attaching to it, which is the same as “not abiding” in it. We cannot possibly exchange the seven treasures to obtain our intrinsic prajna nature. Our intrinsic prajna nature is extraordinarily precious. Only the pure, enlightened mind makes it possible to give the gift of the Dharma to others, so its merit will naturally exceed the giving of wealth.

“Subhuti, suppose a good man or good woman were to give as many of his or her lives as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River in the morning, and give as many of his or her lives as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River at noon, and give as many of his or her lives as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River in the afternoon, and that this giving continued for infinite hundreds of millions of billions of kalpas; if someone were to hear this sutra, believe it, and not turn his mind against it, his merit would be greater—what of the merit of one who copies, receives, upholds, reads, chants, and explains it to others?”

“Subhuti, in summation, the virtue of this sutra is infinite and unlimited. The Tathagata speaks this sutra to those who have initiated the mind of the Great Vehicle; he speaks it to those who have initiated the mind of the Supreme Vehicle. For those who receive, uphold, read, chant, and explain this sutra to others, the Tathagata fully knows and fully sees that such people will attain infinite, immeasurable, limitless, inconceivable virtue. All such people will shoulder the anuttara samyaksambodhi of the Tathagata. And why is this? Subhuti, those who delight in the lesser Dharma cling to a view of self, a view of others, a view of sentient beings, and a view of longevity, and thus they are not able to listen to this sutra, to receive it, to read it, to chant it, or to explain it to others.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 15

In the above passage from the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says that the merit of giving the Dharma even exceeds giving one’s own life. If someone were to give his life as many times as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River three times a day for hundreds of millions of billions of kalpas, the merit gained from this would be impossible to calculate. Even so, if a person listens to the teachings of the Diamond Sutra, realizes the truth of prajna, and vows to practice according to its teachings and goes on to copy, receive and uphold, read, chant, and explain the Diamond Sutra to others, then the merit such a person would gain would exceed that of giving one’s life so many times. However, if someone were to cling to a view of self, a view of others, a view of sentient beings, or a view of longevity, then they cannot possibly attain realization into prajna wisdom that is notionless and abides in nothing, nor can they possibly read and chant the sutra, much less explain it to others.

There are ten common practices for sharing the Diamond Sutra as a gift of Dharma with others. They are:

  1. Copy and transcribe the sutra.

  2. Make offerings of the sutra in a temple or Buddha hall.

  3. Bestow the sutra on others by printing and circulating it.

  4. Listen to the sutra and devote attention to learning its teachings.

  5. Explain the sutra to others, removing their impediments to understanding the text.

  6. Receive and uphold the teachings of the sutra and apply them in life to benefit oneself and others.

  7. Teach the sutra by giving Dharma talks on the meaning of the sutra, enabling other to realize their intrinsic nature.

  8. Chant mindfully and concentrate upon the sutra.

  9. Contemplate the sutra, and silently plumb the depths of its ideas, and gain insight into its profound meaning.

  10. Cultivate the sutra by thinking and pondering its profound meaning, practice its teachings extensively, and attain enlightenment.

The Flower Adornment Sutra states:

Just as a gemstone in the dark

Cannot be seen without a light;

If no one preaches the Dharma,

Even the wise cannot attain realization.

People who teach the Dharma are like bright lamps, for they are able to illuminate the subtleties of the Dharma for others. Without someone to teach the Dharma, there can be no attainment of enlightenment, no matter how intelligent living beings may be. This is a clear demonstration of the value of giving the Dharma.

Everyone Can Give

I have traveled all around teaching the Dharma, and have received expensive gifts of various kinds, but the one that touched me the most was a small yellow flower offered by a little girl in Ladakh on India’s northern border.

As I was leaving Ladakh, my car began to move and part from the sea of well-wishers that had gathered to see me off, but I had already caught sight of a little girl holding a small yellow flower. She was shyly looking towards me, with the corners of her mouth pursed. She came dashing over just as the car was leaving, and stuck the yellow flower she held in her hand on the window. I hastened to tell the driver to stop, and took off the crystal prayer beads I wore on my wrist and gave them to her. She smiled sweetly, her eyes brimming with tears. Then the car began moving again, with the petals of the flower slightly quivering in the wind. I watched her in the car’s rearview mirror, holding her pose with her palms joined in the distance. I was left feeling deeply touched for a long, long time. The purity that children have is the inherent prajna of their Buddha nature, which makes them all Buddhas to be.

Flowers only blossom for a time, each human life has an end, but the life of wisdom is infinite. People often think, “I’ll wait until I have more money, and then I’ll be able to give the seven treasures,” or “I can’t possibly give fearlessness until I can stand firmly in my own intrinsic nature,” or “I’ll wait until I am enlightened, and then I will give the Dharma.” And yet at that moment that small yellow flower was the only thing the child had, and that was what she gave.

One who has not yet generated the aspiration for enlightenment is still an ordinary person, but once that aspiration has been made that person becomes a bodhisattva.

Do not be idle waiting for the right moment or look for other reasons and excuses not to give. Everybody can be giving, and be giving now. Give rise to the most treasured mind: that which gives without the slightest hesitation.


1. Asoka the Great (304-232 bce) was a Buddhist monarch of the Mauryan Empire, and the first to unite the region we now know as India. Asoka sponsored many Buddhist missions to other countries, and is largely responsible for Buddhism spreading throughout Asia. He is considered a model for Buddhist kingship. Ed.

2. An allusion to a well-known parable in which a group of blind men encounter an elephant. Each feels a different part of the elephant, coming to a different conclusion about what an elephant is. For example, one touches the tail and thinks an elephant is like a rope, one touches the leg and thinks an elephant is like a pillar, etc. Ed.

3. Wealth, sex, fame, food and drink, and sleep. Ed.

4. The eight precepts are an extension of the five precepts, and are often observed by lay practitioners on one-day short-term monastic retreats. In addition to the five precepts, they include not eating after noon, not wearing jewelry or sleeping in a high, luxurious bed, and an intensifying of the third precept to refrain completely from any sexual conduct. Ed.