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Volume 6 no 4

Venerable Shen-Kai Answers
The Bliss Compass
Giving - the way to bliss and happiness
Venerable Shen-Kai says that, "If whatever we do, we do them for our own benefit, out of selfish and egoistic reasons, or to suit our ignorant habits, thinking that that is the way to pursue bliss and happiness, then in the end we will receive the exact opposite." All humanity seeks happiness and bliss, but how do we go about attaining that? To practise giving is one way, because we are rich only through what we give and poor only through what we refuse to part with. Herein lies a Bliss Culture for humanity.

1. What is the meaning of giving and offering?

Giving means to let somebody have something that he does not have and who is in need. If we give somebody something that he already has, then it is not an act of giving. For instance, when we give food to a poor person who has nothing to eat, then it is an act of giving.

Giving is different from offering. When we give to lay people it is called giving. However, when we give to our parents, elders, teachers and the Sangha, it is called offering. Regardless of whether it is giving or offering, they are collectively referred to as 'planting the fields of blessings'.

2. What should be the right frame of mind when giving?

Some years ago, there was group of Jen Chen Buddhism practitioners who were very committed to charity. They were overly enthusiastic about what they did and would leave behind their contact numbers and addresses to those whom they had helped. Several years later, a person whom they had helped before wrote them a letter to see if they could donate some money to help establish a career for his son who had just completed his national service with the army. They sought my assistance on the matter. I have always advised people that whether it is giving or performing acts of merit, they should not attach to the notion that they are performing acts of giving or merits. By leaving behind their contact numbers they were are attached to the notion that they are performing charity. Therefore, that person is asking them for more assistance. They began to understand what this means. Several weeks later, this group of charity workers informed me that they actually visited the family concerned and found the family to be better off than they were themselves!

Hence, in general giving only provides for the immediate emergency material needs and not necessary save people from their poverty. If there were so many people living in poverty in this world, it would not be possible to relieve everyone of their poverty and give them a prosperous life if they were to depend only on charity. Therefore, Jen Chen Buddhism advocates inspiring others to unfold their wisdom, for example, by providing guidance and training in the areas of vocational skills and knowledge, so that they have the means to improve their living conditions and life style.

3. Why must people give without attaching to the notion of giving?

Giving while attached to the notion of giving is also known as 'giving for appreciation'. It is like planting a fruit tree in a pot, just like a bonsai. The plant may bear only a couple of fruits each year for people to appreciate and praise, but not for consumption. Not only is there no merit, the reward of blessings is also negligible. It is therefore important that we truly understand the Buddha-dharma when we are learning and practising Buddhism.

A student once asked me about the ultimate method of cultivation in Buddhism. The answer is the method of letting go. Not only do we need to practise letting go now, the present, but also the past and future. We have to let go of all the distresses in our mind. Moreover, we have to let go of all notions of possession or attachments that we have. Even when we become Bodhisattvas or attain Buddhahood, the Buddha must be given up too. This is the only way of the true Buddha-Dharma.

Therefore, we have to remember to cultivate the method of non-attachment to the notion of giving when we give, maintain non-arising and non-cessation of the mind and cultivate the merit of 'not form and not emptiness'. Only thus are we treading on the Bodhisattva Path.

4. Is there any merit in giving?

During the time when the Patriarch Bodhidharma was in China, the Emperor Liang Wu-Ti paid him a visit and asked, "Venerable One, I have built many monasteries for the well being of the Sangha and I have also performed many virtuous deeds. What merits have I accumulated?"

Without any expression in his face, the Patriarch Bodhidharma replied, "No merits."

How could it be that after having done so much, Emperor Liang Wu-Ti had not accumulated any merit?

In Buddhism, merits refer to the non-arising and non-cessation of the mind. Therefore, when we are doing good deeds such as giving, we can only say that there are blessings associated with such deeds, but not merits. When a person who truly understands the Buddha-dharma gives without attaching to the notion of giving, he certainly does not expect other people to thank him. The Diamond Sutra states that if the magnanimity of a giver is as vast as the space, in future the reward of his blessings will be just as vast.

I remember when we were building the Manjusri Hall; a person contributed a certain sum of money. Two years later, this person visited the Manjusri Hall and went around searching for where his name might be inscribed. I explained to him that many people had contributed financially, materials and other efforts to the building. Since nobody had requested for his or her names to be inscribed, it would be awkward to inscribe just his name. He didn't understand and instead became slanderous. Somebody even remarked that he might be better off giving to those temples where deities are worshipped as they will inscribe his name in the temples. These were temples of superstitious beliefs. He really did so and was no longer interested in learning and practising Buddhism. He no longer seeks to unfold his wisdom. This person was so attached to his act of giving and had unwittingly ended his wisdom life. It is such a pity that he chose to believe in superstition rather than be an authentic practitioner of Buddhism.

5. Why do lay-disciples followers have to protect the Buddha-Dharma?

The Buddhist community is largely made up of 4 main groups of disciples of the Buddha. These are ordained Buddhist teacher, i.e. monks and nuns; and lay-Buddhists, i.e. male lay-disciples and female lay-disciples. The daily needs such as food and shelter of the monks and nuns, who have renounced their worldly lives to cultivate, work on the correct path and to spread the Buddha-Dharma for the benefit of the masses, are basically dependent on the offerings from the lay-Buddhists. The fundamental reason for their offering and protecting the Dharma is to express their gratitude to the Three Treasures - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, for their great benevolence and merit in purifying the society. Not only do lay-Buddhists have to be grateful, the monks and nuns need to return the benevolence of the givers too, by teaching them the Buddha-dharma.

6. Why does offering to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha command the greatest merits?

Truly giving without attachment to the notion of giving is achieved when the act of giving is carried out without the notion of who is the giver, who is the recipient and what is the gift itself. It is only by giving in this way that there are merits in the giving. Giving (offering) to the Three Treasures - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, commands the greatest merits. This is called planting the Field of Reverence. This is one of the three fields of blessings in this world. For the benevolence that we receive from our parents, teachers and elders, we have to be filial in return. This is called planting the Field of Gratitude. When we give money, material or medicine to the needy, it is called planting the Field of Compassion. Thus, we plant the Field of Reverence by being respectful, the Field of Gratitude by being grateful and the Field of Compassion by being compassionate.

Why does planting the Field of Reverence command the greatest merits? It is because the Buddha has no equal among the heavens. The Buddha is the sage among the sages and a teacher of the three worlds (world of desires, world of forms and world of formless) who has a great compassion that is like the father of all births. The Dharma expounded by the Buddha benefits all the sentient beings in the six realms of existence. And, the Sangha is tasked to spread the Buddha-dharma. The Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha can lit the world with brightness, bring about peace and calm to the people and enhance our welfare. Therefore, if we can spontaneously make offerings to the Three Treasures, to ensure continuation of the Buddha-dharma in order to benefit all sentient beings, then the merit is the greatest.

7. Why don't monks or nuns say "thank you" when they accept offerings or when people pay them respects?

When people pay their respects or make an offering to monks or nuns, they are planting their fields of blessings. Hence, if the monks or nuns were to respond with a word thanks, it is like destroying the sown seeds even before they can sprout. Therefore, they do not thank you for your offering, but they should spontaneously practise by maintaining a pure mind. In this way, they remove the weeds from the fields of blessings and ensure a bountiful harvest for the giver.

It is only when the receiving monks or nuns spontaneously maintain a pure mind, that it is possible for the giver to plant pure blessings. Further, when a person makes an offering, he should be free from attachments to any thoughts of himself as the giver, the recipient and the items of offerings. It is in this way that people are considered to be planting pure blessings.

8. Are there things in this world that we shouldn't give?

There are 5 types of giving which have no merits and which do not bring blessings:

1. The giving of knife. The knife is both a tool and a weapon of killing. It benefits people when they used it constructively. On the other hand, it turns into an offensive weapon when abused. For example, a knife is a useful tool for the kitchen, but it can also be used to hurt and kill. Because t here is no clear distinction of good or evil, therefore, the giving of a tool such as a knife has no blessing.

2. The giving of poison. Poisons endanger life. The giver receives no blessings when the recipient has not used the poison. As soon as the recipient uses the poison to harm or kill, both parties are guilty of the offence. Hence, there is no blessing for the giving of poison.

3. The giving of an untamed bull. An untamed bull is hot-tempered. Not even its owner can keep it under control. Giving such a bull away risks it hurting or taking away other people's lives. Hence, the giving of a wild bull has no blessings.

4. The giving of indecent women. Such women not only perpetuate immorality in the society; they may even carry diseases. Since it is difficult for them to change their habits, they risk transmitting diseases to others. Hence, this form of giving is without blessing.

5. The giving of temples or buildings for the purpose of worshipping spirits, ghosts or deities. Such buildings are the works of people who are superstitious and have no knowledge of what spirits, ghosts and deities stand for, and turning them into objects of their worship. In Buddhism, killing; stealing; sexual misconduct; telling lies; tale bearing; harsh speech; idle talk; desire and greed; anger and hatred; and subscribing to paganism, are the 10 most heinous and unwholesome karma. By giving to the building of such temples, thus promoting superstition, is an act of ignorance. Not only is there no merit or blessing, the giver risk descending into the three lower realms of existence (animals, ghosts and hell).

9. Is there any retribution if the giver regrets after giving?

Giving may be categorised into 3 main types: gift of money, gift of Dharma, and gift of fearlessness. Practitioners of Buddhism who understand the law of cause-and-effect, and retribution, would not regret after giving. However, for many people who do not fully understand the principles of Buddhism, they are ignorant about the grave effects of regretting over their acts of giving.

Once a upon a time, there was a man who regretted after making an offering to a Pratyeka Buddha. As a result of his offering, he was blessed with great wealth and became the richest man in his country. However, despite his wealth, he was also naturally stingy on himself, fed on low-grade grains and dressed shabbily and of low quality fabric for his whole life. He became slave to his wealth. When he passed away, the government confiscated his wealth.

People who regret after giving is like having built a house only to see it destroyed by acts of nature or other causes beyond his control. It is also like buying a farm and having it destroyed by natural calamities such as flood, typhoon, drought or plague. Yet, it is also like being overjoyed after having won a lottery, but only to be robbed of the winnings. These are examples of the retributions of regretting over their act of giving.

One should not seek the return of something that they have already given. When we have a clear understanding of the principles of giving and cause-and-effect, we will not even think of regretting our act of giving, lest we destroy it.

Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre