It’s been a week of watching the outpouring of generosity for the people of Haiti and of hearing sad news of the loss of lives. One person who died in the earthquake was Superintendent Doug Coates, the acting police commissioner for the UN mission in Haiti. Driving home after a meeting with an old friend last week, I listened to the radio as Luc, his son, spoke of the family’s hope that Coates would be found alive. He also spoke of his father as his role model and how he valued his father’s mentorship of young service members. In the previous week, I sat with 8,000 people at a funeral of a police officer and listened to his stepson, Lukasz, deliver the a eulogy that closed with a hope that he would grow up to be like his step-father.
In the midst of their grieving, these were generously given gifts.
In The Practice of Perfection: the Paramitas from a Zen Buddhist Perspective, Roshi Robert Aitken starts with Dana, practicing the perfection of giving.
Mutual interdependence becomes mutual intersupport.
He tells a Zen story of Hui-hai who said the gateway of practice is Dana Paramita (the perfection of generosity). When asked to define Dana, Hui-hai said, “Dana means ‘relinquishment’… relinquishment of the dualism of opposites…of ideas as to the dual nature of good and bad, being and non-being…and so on.” Aitken speaks of it as “the self forgotten” and a “specific kind of compassion that arises with gratitude.”
(Generosity) is a living, vivid mirror in which giving and receiving form a dynamic practice of interaction.
In Burmese, when we receive a gift we sometimes say, “I feel too badly about this.” It always seemed a strange thing to say when someone is being generous. But it is meant to convey that I am insufficient to respond to your gifts. Used skillfully, it lifts the giver in honour and acknowledges the value as unsurpassable. It reminds me of that moment during a formal retreat meal, or oryoki, when the food server lifts the serving dish above her head and bows. As I mirror that bow, I am filled with gratitude, humbled by her service, and willing to receive what is offered.
Receiving is also an act of generosity. To create the space for the giving, I have to relinquish all ideas of independence and separateness. I must willingly surrender to being in need – something with which I am not always comfortable. Similarly, there is no room for heroism in giving. It is simply the process of being born and dying, Roshi Aitken says. It is wearing our clothes, eating our meals, answering the telephone. It is just being who we already are, being all that with a will and aspiration to practice.
Thank you for practicing,
It begins with our first breath, inhaling the world . . . followed by the first exhalation, offering our carbon dioxide to the world.