Hsu Yun Chan Yuen
Home : Literature : Essays by Ming Zhen Shakya
 » Giving and Receiving
Ming Zhen Shakya

Giving and Receiving

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

In the affairs of nations and of men, it is indeed better to give than to receive.

It is not altogether cynical to note that aside from such pleasure as may be derived from helping someone, the giver enjoys the comforts of a superior position. Regardless of the kind of help that is sought and given - knowledge, money, attention - the giver has demonstrated his command of a successful strategy, one that has resulted in the surfeit from which he is able to donate a portion.

The one who is in the needful, receiving position has shown a failed or unfulfilled strategy and its resultant lack. He is the supplicant, the pupil, the dependent one who occupies a niche that is inferior to the giver's; and this demeaning fact is carved into his psyche. However much he appreciates the help at the time he accepts it, he receives it as if he has received a wound.

The unenlightened giver takes but a small step to occupy enlightened territory. All he has to do is to go from caring about the recipient's needs to not caring about being repaid or even reminded of his kindness, i.e., to go from empathy to selflessness. That he cares about another's well-being indicates that he's already acquired a certain grace. He needs, then, only to secure that additional measure that will enable him to "burn the good deed behind him," to detach himself from any feeling of satisfaction, to caution himself against succumbing to the vulgarities of pride, and, most importantly, to be prepared to accept any unpleasant consequences of his action. In a Zen context, this step is critical since it liberates him from his own ego, a severance that manifests enlightenment. A cleansing wind will blow away the ashes of his good deed and liberate him even from nagging souvenirs of it.

The enlightened man is wise enough to understand that a gift can be an unbearable burden to an unenlightened recipient; and in such case, the giver would be foolish to expect gratitude or any future quid pro quo reciprocity from one so importunately burdened.

Needless to say, the person who gives in the formal expectation of return is not a giver in this sense at all. He is an investor or a gambler, and charity has nothing to do with his efforts.

It is, on the other hand, an immense step to go from being an unenlightened recipient to being an enlightened and gracious one.

Barring amnesia, the unenlightened receiver cannot easily eradicate from his mind the record of his deficit and need, items that remain outstanding credits to the liability of reputation. In service of his own dignity he may laud his benefactor's generosity and swear his eternal gratitude; and he may even believe in the sincerity of these proclamations. But they will come up short of eternal.

At the risk of seeming ungracious he may make light of the gift and act as if it were payment of a debt, the quid of a quo that his associates have obviously missed; or he may take the offensive and hazard a bolder assertion of entitlement - that if the giver had not helped him, someone else would have - a casual appraisal intended to lessen the significance of both doer and deed. Or he may attempt to reverse positions, obviating gratitude entirely by insisting that the gift has proven counter-productive, an irksome waste that caused him to reject more productive offerings. Suffering now from the gift's detriments, he asks, "Am I supposed to feel grateful?" A corollary that falls into this category by default is the infamous edict, "No good deed shall go unpunished."

Regardless of these outward expressions of gratitude or lack thereof, inwardly, for the unenlightened receiver, there remains that indelible record of a lowered status. And this is the problem.

No matter how he acts to prevent erosion of his public estate, his private bearing has been diminished. He compensates this depreciation with a fund of resentment to which the giver is beneficiary. He may be completely unaware of this resource of enmity, but consciously or not, he tends the fund reverently, fondling it as a miser fondles gold. He is a patient trustee; and the more the fund grows the greater he feels the desire to deliver it to the unsuspecting benefactor, mentor or caregiver. This is the unenlightened recipient's malevolent quest, and it is terrible.

Some years ago I counseled a young woman, the daughter of an old friend, who was suffering from a nasty case of revenged benignity. There is grief that comes from loss - a death or a divorce, a loss of home or job or money; and there is grief that comes from personal humiliation, especially from betrayal - not from a lover - though that is bad enough - but from a child, a parent, or a friend. Hers was of the latter category. I knew the parties involved - not well, but they lived nearby and I saw them regularly over a period of years. The young woman who called on me sought Buddhist consolation because of what her best friend had done to her.

She and her friend were an inseparable-pair as girls, going to the same church, school, scout troop, and even summer camp. But when they became teenagers, their circle of friends widened and included boys, and at that point their childhood equality ended. My caller was pretty, intelligent, sociable, and had lots of spending money. Her friend, unfortunately, was so deficient in all these categories that she was considered a drogue on the group. Always she presented a problem that had to be solved: she could not pay her share of expenses or, because boys found her unattractive and irritating, get her own dates or rides home from group activities. My caller claimed that she also gossiped, lied, and worst of all in that litany of teenage crime, was careless about the clothes she borrowed. I remembered the girl as an unsociable person, the kind we used to call "snotty"; and when my caller said that her friend would surely have been ejected from the group if she had not constantly pleaded for her and covered her financial shortages, I could believe her.

One by one all the girls in the group went off to college or got married… except the friend who never seemed to go anywhere but to her clerical job. Then one by one most of the girls came home, divorced or disillusioned, to get parental support along with the crutches of alcohol, drugs, and various therapies. They began to socialize again, trying to repair each other. My caller admitted that her own marriage had ended disastrously; and as a result she laughed too loud, drove too fast, drank much too much, and was a little too promiscuous. But she was in pain, she explained, and that's what pain does to a woman.

Her friend in the meanwhile underwent a transformation. She became engaged to a prosperous man, and began to affect a posh accent, to wear expensive clothes and to drive a fine car. My caller said that she was truly delighted at her friend's good fortune and in consideration of her new social status bought her a particularly nice wedding gift - a set of twelve Waterford crystal goblets.

Imagine, then, her surprise when she received a wedding announcement in the mail and there was no invitation to the reception in it. The other girls had received invitations, and so, assuming that it must have been an oversight, she called her old best friend who coldly informed her that there had been no error. "I invited you to the ceremony because I didn't think you'd be an embarrassment in the church. But the reception? Really! You have a drinking problem, and we're serving champagne. I excluded you for your own good."

That all of her friends attended the reception completed her humiliation.

This incident had occurred more than three months earlier. When embarrassment gave way to anger she became obsessed with the need for revenge. She sought the counsel of several psychologists and priests who all talked about forgiveness…about bridal nerves… or suggested that perhaps the bride had been told vicious lies or exaggerations about her drinking problem. Perhaps she only intended to give a therapeutic "reality check" and just went a bit too far with it. They all offered an extenuation of the bride's behavior and pressed the girl to get on with her life, to get over the injury, to use the jolt as an impetus to change her own conduct for the better. But they couldn't tell her precisely how to do this. They offered medications which pulled her "off-center;" support groups with people to whom she did not relate; prayer regimens in a long-aborted faith. These attempts to relieve her pain served only to exacerbate it. She was running out of places to look for explanations or solutions. Did Zen have any insights that might be useful?

I said, "Sure. The insight lies in understanding the first two of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths. Life is bitter and painful; and the cause of this bitterness and pain is craving."

I asked, "Did you go to the wedding?"


"What did you do with the gift?"

"The store had already delivered it."

"Did she return it to you?"

"No. She sent me a nice thank you note when she got back from her honeymoon."

"Are you still drinking?"

"Yes. Every night. I never used to drink alone; but now I do. I can't show my face in public. I cannot understand why she turned on me like this… after all I did for her."

This is the signature line of betrayal. "…after all I did for him - or her." In the religious life we hear it often.

In Samsara, there is no true giving and receiving. There is conditional giving and resentful receiving. Manipulations abound in every direction. I tried to help my caller see this. "It was because you did all that for her when you were girls that she had to even the score. Every time you gave her money or talked a boy into being her date, you became the agent of her humiliation; and she, knowingly or not, despised you for it. Because you supplied her with money you made her a charity case. Because you talked people into tolerating her you made her an object of scorn. How many times do you think she looked at you and said 'thank you' - but wrote a curse against you on her heart. Your relationship had been founded upon equality, but in her mind you then violated that covenant. You wanted to be superior, to play the role of Lady Bountiful, and you used her as your pathetic object of rescue. Her grief paid for your glory."

"But what should I have done? She wanted to go skiing but didn't have the money. I did. So I paid. Would she have preferred that I left her home alone, or that I stayed home with her because she couldn't afford to go? I knew what it felt like to be left out of a party because I had no date. So I'd ask my date if he had a friend to go with her. We were friends. What was wrong with what I did?"

"Wrong? Nothing. This has nothing to do with right or wrong. We want to understand what motivated her to do what she did. If you can understand your actions at that time, and her actions now, you can formulate your own constructive response. The point is this: that you were in the superior position to do anything at all is what she resented. Even if you had stayed home from the ski trip, even if you had declined to go to the Prom because she had no date, you would have been resented because you had sacrificed yourself for her. You were not equals. And clearly, since you struggled to maintain the relationship on your terms, you derived some kind of satisfaction from the inequality. What you saw as nobility, she saw as condescension. You carried her, and she couldn't bear being a burden. Even at her wedding you planned to show your superiority by the quality of the gift you gave. She received the gift and no doubt said to herself, 'There she is - still playing the role of Lady Bountiful at my wedding.' She waited and when she saw her opportunity to balance the accounts, she seized it. So now she's controlling your destiny, your social life. Look at your relative positions. She's probably pleading with people to understand how she is trying to help you solve your drinking problem. Now you're the pathetic creature who needs attention."

This situation occurs with alarming frequency - and it need not require a lifetime's history of resentment. A friend or relative or perhaps a member of the Sangha asks for our assistance… a loan perhaps or a place to stay, a recommendation for a job or the use of our car. We lend - our money, time, property or reputation - and are stunned to discover that all the promises made contingent upon the receipt of our help were connivances. And we shake our heads in disbelief. We expected repayment in some form - even if that form were only that the person whom we helped to get a job would occasionally show up for work on time or, at the very least, would not steal from his employer. When his employment is terminated, we wonder how we could have been so easily duped. But our misjudgment of his character was not necessarily the problem. Often a person with good character, but who is unenlightened, will so resent us for having achieved a position superior to his, that sooner or later he must find a way to humble us.

Sometimes a person perversely enjoys his inferior state as though it gives him the cachet of the Underdog. He feels a kind of glee that he cannot articulate when he receives the loan or turns the key in someone else's ignition - the glee is precisely that anticipation of a kind of David versus Goliath victory over the lender - and whether he is conscious or not of his own intention, he will break his promise to be careful with borrowed property, deliberately placing it in harm's way, allowing friends to use it or leaving it unattended or improperly maintained; or he may squander funds that he could easily have used to repay the debt. Although he cannot explain his reluctance to perform as promised, he may suggest that his benefactor cease valuing material objects so extravagantly. There is a greater ethic. After all, friendship is pure gold, but money is only money.

There are persons who are so disturbed by the destabilizing effects of another's sudden good fortune that they enter a state of "need-frenzy" intended to lessen his assets and to increase their own, sharing more equitably in the experience. A peculiar phenomenon follows the unexpected acquisition of money, as for example, by an inheritance or a gambling win. The winner is besieged by requests to invest in business opportunities by friends and relatives who, before that lucky hour, had never considered a business venture. Invariably, the investments fail - they were not designed to succeed. Another displacement of motive occurs with people who borrow money - sometimes falsifying assets or incomes in order to secure a loan; and then, when they become delinquent in repayment and must forfeit the loan's security, blame the lender for failing to "do his investigative homework" and discover that they couldn't possibly afford to repay such a sum of money.

Finally, we see those who cope with their own dependencies by turning kindness upside down in a kind of self-contemptuous spite. Elderly invalids may secretly despise the friend or relative who cares for them, denigrating the person for being so bereft of ability that he or she is reduced to emptying their bedpans - "and can't even do that right." The helper then becomes unworthy to be named in the list of beneficiaries. Naturally they suspect that the person is performing these onerous tasks of care only to ingratiate himself in his desire to weasel a favorable bequest. Who, they ask, could possibly reward such duplicity?

This is not a cynical assessment of life. This is Samsara. This is the reason why the unenlightened life is so bitter and painful. Self-awareness, self-interest and the quest for self-importance and esteem - these are conditions we impose upon ourselves when we follow our ego's directives. My caller's grief was created by disillusionment in her past investment of friendship and in her present miscalculation of it. She may have been just a nice and thoughtful girl - acting in ways we are all commanded by our religions to act. We are taught to give, to share, to put ourselves in someone else's place and then to treat that person as we would want to be treated. We have consciences and penances and fears of karmic consequences that enforce our adherence to those rules. But the lessons we are taught are inadequate. The Golden Rule, wonderful as it is, applies directly to the one who initiates the act, and only in a secondary sense to the one who benefits from it.

The enlightened giver knows better than to anticipate the recipient's response - which is, after all, inconsequential. Yes, he hopes that the recipient has good character and is a person of his word, but the repayment is not an issue. He does not lend what he cannot give. He tries to say "No" without inviting a declaration of war, or, should one ensue, to shrug off the hostility.

The unenlightened giver usually thinks he can predict how the recipient will accept the gift, and usually - to hear him tell of it - that prediction is always that the recipient will return what he has borrowed, or credit the source of the information, or repay the debt, and so on. His own ego needs the stroking of gratitude; and when it is not forthcoming, he is sorely disappointed.

The doer of a good deed becomes invulnerable to disappointment only when he purges the deed from his mind and submits it to the flames. In Zen we have Guardian deities; and the King of the East, the first king, is white because he is covered with sacrificial ashes that come with the dawn of this understanding, this enlightenment. Along with the deed is the ego's immolation - and all the ego's expectations and desires.

I asked my caller whether she had been compromised by expectation when she championed the cause of her friend, whether she had, in fact, seen herself as noble because she had helped "the helpless"? Did she now know how it felt to be consigned to this level of impoverishment? Was she grateful for her friend's "tough love" lesson in sobriety?

"Now that I'm on the receiving end of all this 'kindness,'" she said, "tell me how should I respond to it."

The ordinary person takes a step towards enlightenment when he strives to see his situation from the point of view of his adversary. Until a person can walk in the shoes of his adversary and look out at the world through his eyes, there can be no enlightened response. And in all of Zen there is nothing more difficult than understanding one's antagonist. This requires the sacrifice of self and the draining away of all self-serving emotion. Of course, her friend felt bad all those years. It cannot be pleasant to be the poorest and most homely member of a group, to be the one that others are forced to tolerate.

We like to believe that because something bad has happened to a person, he is resolved not to commit that offense against another. But often just the opposite occurs. A person defensively tends to regard his bad experience as the justification for him to commit similar acts upon others - who are as innocent as he once was, but he limits all blame and responsibility to the person who harmed him. "I am an abusive drunk because my father was an abusive drunk - and I hope he rots in hell for what he did to me." A man describes his childhood torments in great detail and glosses over the torment he has inflicted upon his own family. His father is the proximate cause of his and their affliction - and there the matter ends. If we ask him, "Did your father have a father?" and he can extend his own excuses to his father he has taken a huge step towards ending his own travail.

I told my caller that she needed to understand Samsara's endless chain of cause and effect and then to step up to a higher understanding which would take her beyond the need to 'have friends' to the greater state of simply 'being a friendly person.' She'd be free of all that manipulative stroking and poking and could independently act in each situation, doing what she determined was right to do without being influenced by desires to gain praise or avoid blame.

"And how does an enlightened person receive gifts?"

An enlightened person receives a kindness and neither resents the giver nor values him for his gift. He does not think, "I owe him a debt that I will one day repay," since that would denigrate the gift, relegating it to the status of a contract, an obligation that must be fulfilled. He does not say, "He is a great man because he has helped me," for this would limit the goodness of the giver, making his kindness contingent upon his ability to provide goods and services, and this, too, would imply a conditional arrangement. The receiver is guided by the Dharma only. He knows that what he has borrowed, he must return. He knows that if he has used the good name of the giver, his duty is to protect that good name. He is vowed to refrain from lying, cheating, harming; and he honors his vows.

When both parties are enlightened, they are joined spiritually and neither looks up nor down upon the other; and neither assumes that the other is looking in any direction either. The receiver rejoices in the spirit of the gift, sees the good in the giving, and does not regret any part of its outcome. When both giver and recipient are gracious, there is communion, a blurring of distinctions between them. The act becomes a moment of Grace, an eternal moment, a step outside of time, and the giver, the gift and the receiver become one. This is the joy of the Dharma.

The Buddha lay upon the ground near death from fasting. It was a zealot's act - this self-denial to the point of starvation. Yet his well-born disciples looked on and admired him for the extremity of his foolish triumph over flesh. But a low caste woman passed by and saw him lying there, desiccated, skeletal, and helpless; and unimpressed by such sanctity, she did what no low caste woman should ever dare to do. Despite the objections of his disciples, she cradled his head in her arms and held a cup of rice milk to his lips. And he accepted her care and drank the milk. Slowly he regained his senses and his strength. She had acted with the simple spontaneity of the enlightened, and he had received her kindness in the spirit in which it had been given. But this communion cost him all his disciples. They would not follow a man who had so violated the caste restrictions of their society. Every one of them abandoned him.

Nearly fifty years later, he again lay upon the ground, dying from food poisoning. The cook of the fatal meal was disconsolate. He had meant to do the Buddha a kindness and had instead brought him to such an agonized end. The Buddha comforted him. "All my life I have eaten many wonderful meals," he said; "but the two for which I am most grateful is the rice milk which gave me the strength to gain enlightenment and your gift of food which enables me now to enter the perfect peace of Nirvana." 


back   Back 
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts