by Eido Reinhart
As practitioners, we’re used to thinking of giving as an important demonstration of virtue. Striving for selflessness would seem to mean that we shouldn’t be concerned with receiving anything or paying attention to our experience of receiving. However, receiving is itself a virtuous practice. It’s life changing, as it teaches us through our own experience the reality and truth of the teaching of interdependence. If we practice receiving we not only believe in interdependence but we experience it, realize it, manifest it, know it.
Generosity, giving or offering is one of the six paramitas (literally “to carry across”), practices and perfections which also include ethical behavior, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. When we ask for and accept support we are giving the other person the opportunity to practice generosity and receive our gratitude for the offering. We in turn feel some responsibility to be worthy of the life supported by others and to use it well.
The teachings of takahatsu
Takuhatsu is the ancient tradition of ritualized begging practiced by Buddhist monks. I had the opportunity to practice this as a training monk in Japan in 2013 and again in 2016. In 2013 the abbot for our ango was Hoitsu Suzuki, son of Shunryu Suzuki, founder of San Francisco Zen Center. He accompanied us on takahatsu several times and prior to venturing out, he gave a talk about the reason for and the benefit of this practice. He probably anticipated that many had questions about the relevance of this practice for us at this time in history and in different cultures such as the US. At least in Japan many people were a little familiar with this tradition and so would not see it as strange. In the US this could be quite bewildering, so what value did this training have for us? Was it relevant or was it just an interesting experience that would allow us to know first hand what our ancestors experienced? It was that, but it was also much more than that as explained by Suzuki Roshi.
For takuhatsu we dressed in a particular way, with koromo hoisted up, white hand covers and leggings, a hat that covers our eyes, and sometimes handmade sandals (which in this case we learned to make). We also wore rakusu, carried bowls and bells, and hung bags around our necks for storing offerings. We walked silently in a single line, ringing the bell and chanting Ho. When we arrived at a business district or neighborhood, each monk would walk up to a door and ring the bell while chanting a particular verse. If someone came out to put something in our bowl, we would keep eyes down, bow and then chant a different verse of thanksgiving. If no one came out after several minutes we would leave and go to another door. We did this for several hours and then walked back home in a silent line. When one received an offering from someone there was a deep sense of intimate connection and it was clear that this giving was a great honor for the giver and humbling to the receiver who was drenched in gratitude.
The focus of Suzuki Roshi’s preparatory talk was the importance of practicing and realizing interdependence by receiving alms from others. We were reminded that there is no difference between giver and receiver. It’s important not to think that we are self sufficient, as we are not—we are interdependent and we benefit from practices which provide for us the profound experience that only receiving can provide. Takahatsu is a way of experiencing and manifesting this interdependence. I was very blessed to have the opportunity for this experience and very inspired by Suzuki Roshi’s words and the practice. I came to better appreciate the value of receiving and started to reflect about how we can practice this in our daily lives, since was are not necessarily going to practice takahatsu in the traditional way in the US, although some do.
Suzuki Roshi told us, “When the Buddha passed away he gave a final speech in which he said ‘you must have pure life and ask people for food.’” I wondered how asking for food contributes to living a pure life. Suzuki Roshi gave the following explanation: “The traditional Zen monk does not make money, so he/she needs to depend on others to sustain life. Some may think this is selfish but it is important to rely on others in order to realize our powerlessness and dependence. Some may also think it is cheating to expect others to support us. It is difficult for us to ask for support, especially if we’re arrogant. But it is good for us to ask and to ask with the right attitude. In order to live a pure life, we need to ask for support. In response to receiving we give our hearts to the other(s), not some material good or money.”
“So what is the right attitude of the receiver? When receiving, we promise the giver that we will do good practice and therefore be worthy of the offering. We receive and our promise is to give back equally to all and to give our best effort to wholehearted practice.” In addition to experiencing gratitude and interdependence we also experience accountability because others are sustaining our life. What kind of life are we going to lead in response to this support?
Suzuki Roshi also said, “We also pray that the wisdom of offering will spread through the universe equally; we pray for all beings, not just the person who gave us something. We promise to help others with the offering and we bow and we pray for all beings. Sincere attitude is important.” When we ask for help and support we are also implicitly making a promise to make an effort to live our lives for the benefit of all beings.
Opportunities to receive
The things we do every day to sustain our lives give us good chances to pay attention to our experience of receiving. When we participate in formal meals, we chant:
Now we set out Buddha’s bowls, may we, with all living beings, realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver and gift.
The 3 virtues and 6 tastes of this meal are offered to buddha and sangha. May all sentient beings in the universe be equally nourished.
We reflect on the effort that brought us this food, and consider how it comes to us. We reflect on our virtue and practice and whether we are worthy of this offering. We regard greed as the obstacle to freedom of mind. We regard this meal as medicine to sustain our life. For the sake of enlightenment we now receive this food.
Every encounter is one of giving and receiving and there is no difference between giver, receiver and gift. If we deeply realized this, we would not be hesitant to receive from others. Our reluctance to ask for or receive help and support from others is a manifestation of our ego which thinks it is self sufficient. In our culture we value being independent and self sufficient. We like to claim “I can do it by myself” and we tend not to ask for help unless we really cannot do something by ourselves. Many of us have jobs and income so we can buy and own what we need. We think, “I buy things with ‘my’ money and then I own them and can use those things as I please. I have worked for what I have and therefore there is no need for gratitude or accountability.” Even at Zen centers we buy services; we pay for retreats and therefore sometimes we think we have a right to complain about what is offered, including the food and accommodations. We may have expectations about how things should be and we may question whether we are getting our money’s worth. We do not realize deeply that the retreat is an offering to us. Yes, we need to pay something because there is a cost to providing us with this offering, but it is an offering, not a commodity, that we have purchased. Our payment is an offering of gratitude for what is given, not money exchanged for a service.
It is easier for us to give than receive and we are reluctant to accept or receive or ask for support. Giving makes us feel good and actually fuels our ego, which likes to think of itself as good, virtuous and generous. Receiving can make us feel dependent, vulnerable, obligated, powerless or even ashamed. Yes, we may experience shame if was are in need. We don’t like to be needy or dependent and we don’t realize that we already are dependent and therefore have reason to be continually grateful. We deceive ourselves by thinking we are independent and self reliant and we reinforce this idea partly by our efforts to be self sufficient.
If we do not realize our interdependence when we are young and able, we are eventually forced by sickness and old age to realize that it is our reality. We don’t want to be sick and old. We don’t want to be dependent, but we all will be. In fact, we already are, but when we are well we are not as aware of our dependence; practicing receiving can help us realize this and manifest this.
I am a physical therapist and I treat clients in their homes. These are often elderly people who are declining; some are angry and resentful about being dependent or they are fearing their inevitable dependence. I remind them of the positive side: their dependence is a great opportunity for others to practice generosity and to receive gratitude. Just consider how you feel when you have the opportunity to give to another. Let us remember when we are in this inevitable situation that this is an opportunity for great teaching. However, we do not need to wait until we are sick, old and frail to experience and practice this. We can open ourselves to opportunities to receive every day and in every encounter. All we have to do is say “yes” to what is offered and ask others for help and support. It is as simple as that but not easy as our egos are so resistant to this. It is a good practice to start right now.
I spent a year as a postulant in a Monastery of St Clare (with the Poor Clares). As members of this community, I and my sisters were dependent on the community for everything and would have to ask for what we needed. There was no individual ownership, no savings or health insurance. We relied on each other and the generosity of benefactors who supported our life with their gifts. We were dependent on the providence of God. This was very difficult for me, especially at first. I was already in my mid thirties, a professional woman who had been financially independent since I was 18 years old. In addition to the difficulty of asking for and receiving what I needed from others, I also experienced guilt because I was not working for a living. I was working but I was no making money. Eventually my daily experience transformed my guilt into gratitude and I started to understand and experience how my life depended on others. There was a sense of responsibility to live a virtuous life for the safe of others; to live a life worthy of these offerings; that included praying for others, answering letters, maintaining harmony in the community and accepting what was offered. What was offered might be bushels of green beans that would need to be processed immediately and incorporated into the diet as long as they lasted.
What we can do right now
How can this practice of receiving be incorporated into our daily lives right now? We can accept graciously what is offered to us by others, even something as simple as a cup of tea or coffee. We can resist saying “No, thank you,” and instead say “Thank you very much. I appreciate it.” We can practice awareness that there is no difference between giver and receiver and gift. If we really know this in the depth of our hearts, we don’t have difficulty gratefully and graciously accepting what is offered by others.
Nor do we hesitate to ask for help. Asking for help does not need to mean that I can’t do things for myself. I can simply ask because support would be helpful; it gives others the opportunity to practice generosity and gives me the opportunity to be grateful and to experience how much my life depends on others. It’s not really about me, anyway; it’s about manifesting interdependence. This practice of receiving also helps us feel accountable for how we use what we’ve received, even what we purchase. We can be grateful that we can pay for it and for all the causes and conditions which have led to being able to have what we have. We can be grateful to the store clerk who is helping us—it’s not just a job for that person. That person is giving to us. This and every encounter is an opportunity to practice generosity and gratitude. Expressing gratitude to the clerk could change that person’s day or even that person’s life.
We can be proactive about providing opportunities for others to give by asking for help from others, even if we don’t desperately need it. We can do it just to deeply practice interdependence; it’s a great teaching for ourselves and others. We can take advantage of our limitations and infirmities, especially as we age, as these are opportunities for others to practice generosity.
Let us not miss the chance to give someone else the opportunity to practice generosity and give ourselves the opportunity to practice gratitude; We need both to deeply realize and manifest our interdependence. Let us even consider making the effort to create these opportunities by asking others to help us. It’s all right to need and depend on others; it’s all right to depend on others even if we think we don’t need anything. Let us provide more opportunities to internalize this virtue and allow it to transform us. It’s not only all right, it’s right, it’s virtuous and it is reality manifesting.
Eido Reinhart is a dharma heir of Shohaku Okumura. She lives in Minneapolis, MN.