by Shunryu Suzuki
“‘To give is non-attachment,' that is; just not to attach to anything is to give.”
We have a saying, "Dana prajna paramita." "Dana" means to give, "prajna" is wisdom, and "paramita" means to cross over, or to reach the other shore. Our life can be seen as a crossing of a river. The goal of our life's effort is to reach the other shore. Nirvana. "Prajna paramita," the true wisdom of life, is that in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached. To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is the way of true living. "Dana prajna paramita" is the first of the six ways of true living. The second is "sila prajna paramita," or the Buddhist precepts. Then there are "kshanti prajna paramita," or endurance; “virya prajna paramita," or ardor and constant effort; "dhyana prajna paramita," or Zen practice; and "prajna paramita," or wisdom. Actually these six "prajna paramita" are one, but as we can observe life from various sides, we count six.
Dogen-zenji said, "To give is non-attachment," That is, just not to attach to anything is to give. It does not matter what is given. To give a penny or a piece of leaf is "dana prajna paramita"; to give one line, or even one word of teaching is "dana prajna paramita." If given in the spirit of non-attachment, the material offering and the teaching offering have the same value. With the right spirit, all that we do, all that we create is "dana prajna paramita." So Dogen said, "To produce something, to participate in human activity is also “dana prajna paramita.” To provide a ferryboat for people, or to make a bridge for people is 'dana prajna paramita.' " Actually, to give one line of the teaching may be to make a ferryboat for someone!
According to Christianity, every existence in nature is something which was created for or given to us by God. That is the perfect idea of giving. But if you think that God created [humankind], and that you are somehow separate from God, you are liable to think you have the ability to create something separate, something not given by Him, for instance, we create airplanes and highways. And when we repeat, "I create, I create, I create", soon we forget who is actually the "I" which creates the various things; we soon forget about God. This is the danger of human culture. Actually, to create with the "big I" is to give; we cannot create and own what we create for ourselves since everything was created by God. This point should not be forgotten. But because we do forget who is doing the creating and the reason for the creation, we become attached to the material or exchange value. This has no value in comparison to the absolute value of something as God's creation. Even though something has no material or relative value to any "small I," it has absolute value in itself. Not to be attached to something is to be aware of its absolute value. Everything you do should be based on such an awareness, and not on material or self-centered ideas of value. Then whatever you do is true giving, is "dana prajna paramita."
When we sit in the cross-legged posture, we resume our fundamental activity of creation. There are perhaps three kinds of creation. The first is to be aware of ourselves after we finish zazen. When we sit, we are nothing, we do not even realize what we are; we just sit. But when we stand up, we are there! That is the first step in creation. When you are there, everything else is there; everything is created all at once. When we emerge from nothing, when everything emerges from nothing, we see it all as a fresh new creation. This is non-attachment. The second kind of creation is when you act, or produce or prepare something like food or tea. The third kind is to create something within yourself, such as education, or culture, or art, or some system for our society. So, there are three kinds of creation. But if you forget the first, the most important one, the other two will be like children who have lost their parents; their creation will mean nothing.
Usually everyone forgets about zazen. Everyone forgets about God. They work very hard at the second and third kinds of creation, but God does not help the activity. How is it possible for Him to help when He does not realize who He is? That is why we have so many problems in this world.
When we forget the fundamental source of our creating, we are like children who do not know what to do when they lose their parents.
If you understand "dana prajna paramita," you will understand how it is we create so many problems for ourselves.
Of course, to live is to create problems. If we did not appear in this world, our parents would have no difficulty with us! Just by appearing we create problems for them. This is all right. Everything creates some problems. But usually people think that when they die, everything is over, the problems disappear. But your death may create problems too! Actually, our problems should be solved or dissolved in this life. But if we are aware that what we do or what we create is really the gift of the "big I," then we will not be attached to it, and we will not create problems for ourselves or for others.
And we should forget, day by day, what we have done; this is true non-attachment. And we should do something new.
To do something new, of course we must know our past, and this is all right. But we should not keep holding onto anything we have done; we should only reflect on it. And we must have some idea of what we should do in the future. But the future is the future, the past is the past; now we should work on something new. This is our attitude, and how we should live in this world. This is "dana prajna paramita," to give something, or to create something for ourselves. So to do something through and through is to resume our true activity of creation. This is why we sit. If we do not forget this point, everything will be carried on beautifully. But once we forget this point, the world will be filled with confusion.
The Buddhist notion of non-attachment may come across as counter-intuitive to western ears. Our societies were built on a foundation of individual rights and personal stewardship where wealth and ownership were admirable and to be strived for. Some critics of Buddhism use non-attachment as a red herring to position it as antithetical to Christianity. One would-be apologist for the Christian faith says that Christians don’t practice non-attachment, because Jesus wants us to engage with the world. Another contrasts the Buddhist teaching that suffering stems from attachment with the idea that suffering comes from sin, which itself has its roots in humanity’s “evil and disobedience” to God. Even as far back as the late 1500s, Jesuit priests visiting Japan viewed Buddhism as nihilistic rather than God-affirming, due to its beliefs and practices (for example, see Catechismus Japonensis by Alessandro Valignano, completed in 1582).
Or non-attachment may also sound familiar to us, but for the wrong reasons. We may feel that we are not attached to anything because consumerism has taught us that everything is dispensable; our communities are dispensable because technology has opened us up to the world and left us without a sense of place; our possessions are dispensable because they were designed to be disposed of rather than repaired; our ideas are dispensable unless they can be commodified. In some churches, this type of non-attachment is summed up in the thought “This world is not my home” and in teachings that emphasize the afterlife rather than the here and now, and the inherent goodness of creation.
But for Shunryu Suzuki, non-attachment is not about nihilism, or disengagement, it is not about rights or possessions, disposable goods or a sense of place. It is about receiving. It is about giving. It is about oneness. It is about compassion.
Attachment often leads us to feelings of discontentment - we are attached to the house that we own, until we realize that a coworker has a nicer home. Then feelings of jealousy and disillusionment begin to grow. We are attached to our alma mater, until we run into an old friend who went to a better school, and then we feel inadequate and question our choices. These feelings occur because we are thinking of the things in our life in binary terms; as “mine” and “not mine.” As “things we are attached to” and “things that we are unaffiliated with.” There is a sense of ego involved.
But non-attachment begins with receiving all of life as a gift. Not a gift to be hoarded, like the child who will not share her birthday present with her sibling, but like a good bottle of wine that is received with gratitude, and then opened immediately to be shared with everyone present. The child does not share because she believes she deserves her gift. She receives it not as a gift, but as a right. The person who receives and shares the wine, feels nothing but gratitude and wonder, and finds joy in being given something that can be shared and experienced together.
This idea should not be strange to Christians. The book of Genesis opens with the story of God creating the universe, calling it good, and then presenting it to humanity as a gift. This gift requires stewardship—humanity is to work the ground, participating in the joy of labor, cultivation, and creation, prior to the “curses” of Genesis 3:14-19—but it first must be received as a gift, then the fruit of this gift can be shared with others and experienced together. [Side note: Under Deuteronomic law, tithing a tenth of all you produced meant hosting a feast for family and friends: “Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.” - Deuteronomy 14:26]
Meditation and Self-Perception as Creation
Suzuki says that the first type of creative activity is when we become aware of ourselves again after zazen, or meditation. That is to say, when we create ourselves using our self-perception. This should not be overlooked. We do not truly know ourselves. Each of us has a self-perception built by ego, circumstances, aspirations, and failures, and our self-perception is not our deepest reality. Sometimes I want to believe that I am better than I am, other times I cannot see my strengths. Sometimes my true motivations are not visible to me, other times I pretend not to see them. In meditation, we may at times cease to be aware of this self-perception, and when we awaken to it again, we are again creating ourselves. This is what Suzuki refers to here. (This happens in many situations, not just meditation. For example, when you catch a wave when surfing and lose all sense of time, when reading, watching a movie, or hiking, and getting caught up fully in the experience, etc).
We may at times feel like a kite, caught up in the whirlwind of relationships and external circumstances around us, moving on autopilot through life, unsure why we made the choices that we did. Perhaps paradoxically, to recognize our own self-creation - and the way it is both out of touch with and creates our reality - is to recognize that life is open before us; a gift to be both received and given. When we recognize that we play an active role in creating ourselves, it provides a framework for interpreting and choosing the paths we take later.
The Goal of Non-Attachment
For Suzuki, the goal of life is to reach Nirvana, or enlightenment. But this is not a goal like going to college and earning a degree or running a race and crossing the finish line. It is like going to college and finding joy in the experience of learning or running a race for the delight of running. Buddhism teaches that we arrive at our destination with every step, every breath. When the gospel writers use the term “eternal life” they may have something similar in mind. While this phrase is typically assumed to mean a future state that never ends, it can also be interpreted as “life of eternal quality,” or to put it differently, “life as God lives it, fully actualized.”
Think of your own journey for a moment. Some steps felt easy, others hard. You look back on some with fondness, others you try hard to forget. Often, what seemed like a right step in the moment, becomes something you cringe about in hindsight, and you are grateful that your path took you in a different direction. Each step in your journey offers itself to you where peace and joy may be found. If you did not find it in that moment, it offers itself to you now in the only moment that you have, the present.
If you want more, here are parts 1, and 2 in this series.