Do we really possess anything in the way we assume? Basic Buddhism says we do not.
The act of giving turns our sense of control against itself.
There is something mysterious about the activity known as "giving."
It seems at first glance simple and commonplace: you possess some
object, you transfer it to the possession of someone else. But a closer
look reveals a number of riddles concealed in this everyday deed.
To possess something is to claim some sort of power over it. It
means that you and no one else can control this thing, that it must
obey your commands. You can tell this thing what to do and how to be.
You can use it any way you like. You can consume it and enjoy it. And
by the same token, so it seems, you can give it away.
But do we really possess anything in the way we assume? Basic
Buddhism says that we do not. The central Buddhist teaching of
"nonself" is founded on a critique of the very possibility of
possession in any literal sense--possession of anything at all.
Possession, according to the Buddha, should mean total control. But we
have total control of nothing, not even our own bodies, our feelings,
our perceptions, our volitions, or our own consciousness. In the
Anattalakkhana-sutta, Samyutta-nikaya XXII, 59, an early Buddhist text
from the Pali canon, the Buddha tells us:
"The body, monks, is not self. If the body were the
self, this body would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible
(to say) with regard to the body, 'Let my body be thus. Let my body not
be thus.' But precisely because the body is not self, the body lends
itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to the
body, 'Let my body be thus. Let my body not be thus.' Feeling is not
self. . . . Perception is not self. . . . Mental processes are not
self. . . . Consciousness is not self. If consciousness were the self,
this consciousness would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be
possible (to say) with regard to consciousness, 'Let my consciousness
be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.' But precisely because
consciousness is not self, consciousness lends itself to dis-ease. And
it is not possible (to say) with regard to consciousness, 'Let my
consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.'"
The Buddha goes on to indicate the lesson to be drawn from these obvious but often unnoticed facts:
"How do you construe thus, monks--Is the body constant or inconstant?"
"And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?"
"And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to
change as: 'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am?'"
". . . Is feeling constant or inconstant? . . . Is perception constant
or inconstant? . . . Are mental processes constant or inconstant? . . .
Is consciousness constant or inconstant?"
"And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?"
"And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to
change as: 'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am?'"
"Thus, monks, any body whatsoever--past, future, or present; internal
or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every
body--is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: 'This
is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.'
"Any feeling whatsoever . . . Any perception whatsoever . . . Any
mental processes whatsoever . . . Any consciousness whatsoever--past,
future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or
sublime; far or near: every consciousness--is to be seen as it actually
is with right discernment as: 'This is not mine. This is not my self.
This is not what I am.'"
The threefold negation that concludes this passage--"This is not
mine, this is not my self, this is not what I am"--provides a very
simple and very powerful form of elementary Buddhist practice. Whatever
you see, whatever you feel, whatever you become aware of in any way,
simply remark to yourself: "This is not mine." That is to say, "I do
not own this. This is not my possession. For it is not possible for
me--or any other single agent--to control how this thing will be or
will not be." Therefore it is not my self. Therefore, when conjoined
with our customary desire to be the sole proprietor of it, to be the
sole agent controlling it, it is necessarily suffering.
In this sense, it is from a Buddhist perspective literally
impossible to "give." One cannot give what one does not possess. And we
do not possess anything. Therefore we cannot give anything.
And yet Buddhist scriptures put extraordinary stress on the virtue
of "giving." It is the first and in many cases the sole virtue enjoined
to lay Buddhists. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is given pride of place as
the first of the Perfections of Practice characteristic of a
bodhisattva, upon which are built the practices of precept-keeping,
endurance, assiduity, meditation, and wisdom. Giving is placed at the
foundation of the structure that leads to liberation.
There are several obvious explanations for this. The first and most
obvious is the cynical sociological explanation. The early Buddhist
institution depended on donations for its very existence. Monks and
nuns did no work; they lived by receiving alms from pious householders.
Is it any wonder then that they extolled the virtue of giving above all
others? It is a good thing for Buddhists to think about this, to face
up to it, to acknowledge it. A healthy mistrust can be a good safeguard
against abuses of the extraordinary power exercised by anyone who
claims the religious authority to determine what is good and what is
bad. If this were all there were to giving, and if having were both
possible and unambiguously better than not having, we would be entirely
within our rights to regard this as a complete explanation of the
Buddhist stress on giving and to reject it as a bit of unscrupulous
priestly manipulation. But this is not quite the whole story.
The second, in some sense opposite, explanation, is a more generous
interpretation of the structure of the early Buddhist community. In
this view, the insistence on the virtue of giving was part of a clever
and very compassionate design showing the Buddha's organizational
genius. For by stipulating that monastics must own no resources of
their own and must depend on the generosity of laypeople, the Buddha
ensured constant and close contact between these two groups. Monastics
could not seclude themselves away from the world, could not hoard the
Dharma, could not behave in ways that would discredit them in the eyes
of the laity; they had to be both available and accountable in some
sense and had to make good on the obligation incurred by accepting
these alms. To take a layperson's alms without seriously practicing
would bring dire karmic consequences, under the same moral code that
called for these alms.
Giving is thus the nodal point of the intersubjective network
existing between the lay and monastic communities, ensuring their
intimacy and interaction. It is for this reason that the "material
giving" enjoined to laypeople is always matched to an equal and
opposite obligation on the part of the monastic community, which is
also conceived as a form of giving: "the gift of the Dharma." "Giving"
is here part of a relationship of exchange, but one that is not to be
strictly construed as direct payment for services rendered. The
laypeople give the gift of material support. The members of the
monastic community are thereby enabled to become "experts" in Buddhist
teaching and practice and are obligated to share their expertise with
the lay community to whatever degree they are receptive to it.
These two sociological explanations, representing the extremes of
malevolent suspicion and blind faith, each have their legitimate point
to make, and both are worth heeding. But neither one, nor both
together, can fully plumb the enigma of giving in its own right and the
way it fits into the Buddhist conception of human welfare and
liberation more generally. There are further implications embedded in
this simple act of "giving something to someone else."
First, it might be suggested that although it is not possible to
give in the literal sense, the very fact of "giving" in the
conventional sense--taking whatever we erroneously regard as our own, what we think is in our power, and suddenly transferring it to the state of not being in our power any longer--is
a way of experiencing for ourselves the impermanence of our alleged
control. It is a pragmatic concomitant to the intellectual practice of
nonself. It demonstrates, actualizes, realizes the teaching of
nonpossession, which in turn reveals our nonself.
In this sense, the act of giving something away is actually a
revelation of its true nature, and of our own true nature. It is a
direct, concrete manifestation of its reality, a dispelling of illusion
not merely intellectually, as in the study of doctrines, but physically
and pragmatically, in a way that affects our habits and will. By giving
something to someone else, I break through the shroud of illusion that
had been covering it and reveal its ultimate reality. It had appeared
to be something belonging to some particular being, in the power of one
particular person. By letting go of it, I show that it is not really
mine, has never been mine.
But the way "giving" works to realize the experience of
nonself is actually a bit more complicated. For it is the exercise of
our control, in this case, that relinquishes our erroneous sense of
control. We exercise our power over the object in the very act of
claiming that we can relinquish our power. For we could not give it if
we did not own it; giving is a lordly demonstration of our own mastery
of the object at the very moment of giving it up. The act of giving
turns our sense of control against itself. In this sense it is the most
total reversal of habitual action, but at the same time the most
complete exemplification of habitual action. It brings together total
power and total powerlessness, as it were, converging into a single
For in a certain sense, every deed, just by being an
action, is a kind of giving. We cannot act without "giving" something
to the world--contributing a quantum of force, a rearrangement of
things, at least giving to reality this new event. To act is to give.
But in another sense, no action undertaken by a living being
can be an act of true giving. For all of our actions are motivated by a
desire for gain. When we are told that it is a good thing to give, our
first question is, "Why? What will I get if I do?" And this is not only
our first question: this is the very structure of every
possible motivation. It is embedded in the very form of the imperative.
For to say that it is "good" to do something or other already implies
an appeal to our desire to gain something--even if it is something
abstract and impalpable like merit, virtue, enlightenment,
guiltlessness, or happiness.
"Goodness" implies a "good," a commodity to be
gained--as in the phrase "goods and services." For living beings as
ordinarily construed, as creatures with a definite and particular self
embracing definite and particular interests, needs, and desires, it is
impossible to be "motivated" to do anything without hoping to gain
something in some sense, however abstract or indirect. To act, to do
anything deliberately, is by definition to attempt to gain something.
Any "giving" done in this way is thus not giving at all. It is a
complicated backhanded way of getting something, of nongiving.
There is another reason, besides the implicit desire for gain
and the implicit assertion of true prior ownership and control, that
undermines the possibility of giving. I said that giving reveals the
"unowned" nature of any thing. But this is only partially true. For,
taken superficially, giving does not remove ownership in general. It
simply transfers it from one place to another, from one owner to
another. In this sense, it merely reinforces the underlying sense of
ownership in general. If I think that by giving something to someone
else, I make him or her the owner of that thing, I have merely changed
the form of the basic illusion of ownership, I have not really
dispelled it. This is true even if the gift I make is to a god or a
buddha, if these beings are thought of as "selves," that is, as
single-handed controllers of anything at all. For in reality, the truth
of nonself means not only that I myself don't own or control anything
single-handedly but that no one and nothing--not God, not the Buddha,
not Natural Law--can single-handedly control anything, that no one owns
anything, that "ownership," "control," and their outgrowth, "selfhood,"
are erroneous concepts.
For this reason, the Buddhist tradition has viewed
ordinary "giving" as a kind of steppingstone toward the true Perfection
of Giving, as practiced by a bodhisattva who has genuine insight into
emptiness and nonself. This consists in seeing the emptiness, the
voidness of self that pertains to all three of the putative beings
involved in any act of giving: the emptiness of the giver, of the
recipient, and of the gift itself. I, the giver, am empty: I cannot
really own or control this object, I have never owned it, so I cannot
relinquish my ownership of it; the act of giving is not due to myself
alone, for there is no "myself" for it to be done by. The receiver,
likewise, is empty: this object cannot be transferred into his
ownership, for there is no one there to own it, no singlehanded
controller and possessor. And this object itself is empty: it has no
unambiguous self-nature, no intrinsic value or characteristics for
which it is single-handedly responsible. What has been transferred is
no particular thing. In the ordinary sense, no giving has taken place.
And yet there remains this act, this pure deed of "giving" itself,
divested of these three imaginary sedimentations. It is "giving" in
this sense that is of true significance for Buddhist life.
I said before that a gift to a god or a buddha would in
principle be of no more value than any other gift, if these
recipients--or indeed the givers or the gifts themselves--were thought
of as "selves" who were single-handedly in control of anything at all.
Whether a god is believed to be such a being in any given tradition I
will for the moment leave aside. Yet it is a striking fact that many
Buddhist scriptures praise the act of making offerings to the Buddha in
very emphatic terms. There is perhaps no more striking example than
that found in chapter 12 of Kumarajiva's rendering of the Mahayana text
known as the Lotus Sutra.
There the great Bodhisattva of the Wisdom of Emptiness,
Manjusri, announces that he has seen, deep under the ocean, an
eight-year-old dragon girl who, in spite of her youth, gender, and
nonhuman species, can attain buddhahood "very quickly." This claim is
met with some skepticism by representatives of the older Buddhist
institutional order, who point out that according to their
understanding the achievement of buddhahood has many preconditions that
this dragon girl has not met: long eons of practice and study and
self-sacrifice, maturity, and a male human body. The dragon girl then
appears before the assembly. In her possession is "a precious jewel
equal in value to the entire three thousandfold myriadfold world." She
gives this jewel to the Buddha. She asks about this transfer of the
world-equalling jewel to the Buddha: "Was this quickly done?" All agree
that it was indeed a most rapid event, this transfer of an object from
one being's hands to another's. She says, "Watch me now attain
buddhahood even more quickly." She then in an instant transforms into a
human male, and further, in the space of that moment, carries out all
the long and arduous practices of a bodhisattva, and just as quickly
takes on the form of a buddha surrounded by the Pure Land he has
The jewel, let us say, is the world. Each of us, whoever we
are, possesses nothing, but in another sense each of us, whoever we
are, possesses a world, the world, our own version of this entire
world. This is the world as we see it. It includes all that exists, but
seen in our own particular way. We view this world through the lens of
our concept of selfhood, our notion that we are owners, possessors,
single-handedly determining the identity and value of all things. To
give this jewel, this world that we possess by virtue of being the
particular being we happen to be, of seeing the world from precisely
this perspective, as a possession of just this being that is ourselves,
to the Buddha--that would mean to let go of the world as we see it and
place it instead in the hands of a buddha.
But what is a buddha? According to Buddhist belief, this
epithet is meant to denote someone for whom there is no longer any
conception of "self," either his own or that of any other creature or
entity. To give the world over to the Buddha is to see the world
through the eyes of a buddha. This means to see even oneself, and even
one's sense of possession, through the eyes of one for whom there no
longer exists any conception of possession. This means, in short, to
let go completely of all preconceptions of the world and allow it to
disclose itself in its ownerless, unownable state.
To be unownable means to be unrestricted to any particular
possessor, any particular master, any particular determiner. It means
that each identity is not determinable in any one way. This includes
our own identity--we are neither dragons nor humans, men nor women,
children nor adults. The Buddha sees us as buddhas--that is, as beings
freed from owning or being owned, who can, out of compassion, assume
the form of any of these things but are not ultimately restricted to
any single identity. In the single instant of giving the world over to
the Buddha, then, we become buddhas.
This takes no more than an instant: we simply let go of the
world, hand it over to the Buddha. In this instant, all beings are
transformed. And this is, perhaps, the true meaning we can discern in
each simple, rapid, everyday act of "giving": each time we give--and
indeed, since each action is a type of giving, in every action we
take--we have an obscure revelation of this true form of giving, bodied
forth in the very failure and impossibility of giving in the sense
ordinarily conceived. We must see this "giving" as a manifestation of
ownerlessness, a letting go, a relinquishing of control, a handing over
of our deed to the world and to a viewpoint that sees this world and
ourselves as an infinity of unowned and undeterminable ambiguities,
empty of any single-handedly determined identities.
This takes only a moment and is going on every moment. When we
feel ourselves releasing control even for a second, even in handing a
pencil to someone else, we are handing the world over to the
Buddha--that is, to the no one in particular who everywhere sees us as
no one in particular and thus sees us present everywhere in everyone.
To hand something to someone else is to hand it to the Buddha. To hand
something to the Buddha is to hand it to all living beings.
Every moment is then a gift--both a gift received from all beings and a
gift offered to all beings, a gift from which nothing at all is gained.
And this is a gift than which there is none greater.
Brook Ziporyn is associate professor of
religion and philosophy at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
He earned his PhD in Chinese philosophy at the University of Michigan
and specializes in Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. His
published books in intellectual history, religion, and philosophy
include Being and Ambiguity: Philosophical Experiments with Tiantai Buddhism.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2008 issue of Dharma World.
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