on giving

January 6, 2014

In the Buddhist tradition, the six paramitasrefer to six virtues that one seeking enlightenment or Buddhahood must possess.

Dana, or giving, is the first of the paramitas. There are many forms of giving, but I would like to mention three, and comment on them in relation to our practice in aikido. According to the Vimalakirti Sutra, (tr. Burton Watson, Columbia U. Press, 1997) the three primary ways to practice giving are:

1. The gift of non-fear; 2. Gifts of the dharma, i.e., preaching the dharma (the way) to others; 3. Gifts of material goods such as food, shelter, clothing, money, et cetera.

While material gifts, the third category, may not seem as lofty as the other gifts, they are just as essential. Without basic necessities such as food, water, clothing, and shelter, it is extremely difficult to begin to cultivate an inner life, a deeper life. For a true study of the self, one must be able to have one’s basic needs met.

This is similar to daily practice in the dojo: if we cannot pay the electricity and other daily bills, we cannot afford to keep the physical structure in which we practice open. Gifts made such as money, tools, supplies, and training equipment can be essential to keeping a dojo running well. And because dues collected for teaching do not represent a realistic exchange for learning the art, it is necessary to encourage these donations to have a flourishing dojo. Beyond these basic needs, our practice demands other stimulation: we cannot practice in a vacuum, no matter how long we have trained. For this we often need to travel—to meet and interact with others at different dojos and to train with them. The practical side of travel, whether sending students to a seminar or bringing high-quality teachers to one’s own dojo, requires an immense amount of money—funds for gas, planes, food, et cetera. A gift given toward keeping the dojo running well, or encouraging exchange of practice, can be listed in the above third category of gift-giving.

The second category of giving is that of making known the dharma, or the way. In our case, I would suggest this is the offer of our practice, our knowledge, to others. As countless others have helped us with their efforts, so too must we give back and help others. Generations of individuals long since passed have helped to bring forth our art and develop it. Truly understanding this should keep us humble and grateful. No matter our level, we must do our best to give back a gift of our knowledge and practice. By doing this, we keep ki circulating and lively.

Only by giving back can we insure a line of practice is continued. This second category of gift-giving could also be thought of as making known the principles of the art. By correctly making known the art, we preserve it for future generations and are giving a gift to future students.

The first category of gift-giving is the alms of non-fear. This is the gift of a certain quality of peace, of hope, to others. If aikido is truly an art that can help to reconcile opposing forces, then we must be able to see this aspect of the practice and give it to others. Often a student or fellow practitioner has difficulties on the way. A vital gift can be offered to support this person—to provide her/him encouragement at a time when s/he needs it most. If a gift of non-fear can be given, it has the potential for a radical transformation—one that could truly change a person’s state of despair into one of hope. To continue with the Buddhist model, we can look at the above ways of giving in relation to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

The Buddha, with his outstretched hand, corresponds with the alms of non-fear (the first category), giving hope to all that each one of us may know our real nature, and that suffering can be ended. This image is the symbol for the cutting away of self, and is the ultimate gift to one’s Self. Practice on this level means each one of us realizing our true nature.

The Dharma flows naturally forth from the Buddha’s hand, his teaching spreading throughout the world. This gift (the second category) is the gift of the dharma, or law, to transmit correct principles and ethics to future generations.

The Sangha (or third category) supports the practice and work of each person engaged in the Dharma, and, in doing so, provides a foundation on which to continue and build their practice. The gift of the Sangha is the gift of supporting practice.

This three-fold model can be seen as a triangle, each aspect contributing to the other: