So, I was reading this nice Sutta antology about merit by Ven. Thanissaro and was quite surprised by some of the things I came across there. While the sections about virtue and meditation did feature some unusual or thought-provoking passages, the Generosity chapter was by far the most interesting one. Firstly, because I sometimes get the impression that dāna is rather frequently regarded here in the West as a somewhat inferior aspect of the spiritual life, while the Buddhist lay practice in the traditional Theravada societies more often than not revolves almost entirely around merit-making by dāna. So, here are the three questions that I think need careful consideration, clarification or good old textual criticism by those who are more knowledgeable in the Agamas, wink-wink. I have to warn it will be quite alengthy post, but I thought it would be better to keep information about all tricky dāna topics in one place.
Dāna for Non-Returning
In Dānamahapphala Sutta (AN 7.52) the Buddha gives a very peculiar Dhamma talk to a group of lay followers from Campa after Ven. Sariputta asks Him whether it is possible for two persons to give the same gift and not reap the same fruit. Absolutely in accordance with the fundamental dcotrine that kamma is intention, the Buddha replies that what fruit one reaps depends on the motivation one has when giving a gift. The first weird thing is that the Pali text doesn’t have any precise rewards listed using the repetition marker pe instead. However, given the loftiness of the reward for the ultimately virtuous dāna giving, I assume Ven. Thanissaro’s rendering is right. Here’s the list of possible motivations and correspondings kammic rewards one may expect when giving a gift to a brahmin or contemplative:
- ‘I’ll enjoy this after death’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Four Great Kings (on a side note: this seems to be exacly the practice of many traditional lay Buddhist and good news is that it apparently does work);
- ‘Giving is good’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Devas of the Thirty-Three;
- ‘This was given in the past, done in the past, by my father & grandfather. It would not be right for me to let this old family custom be discontinued’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Yama devas;
- ‘I am well-off. These are not well-off. It would not be right for me, being well-off, not to give a gift to those who are not well-off’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Tusita devas;
- 'Just as there were the great sacrifices of the sages of the past—Atthaka, Vamaka, Vamadeva, Vessamitta, Yamataggi, Angirasa, Bharadvaja, Vasettha, Kassapa, & Bhagu—in the same way will this be my distribution of gifts’ - rebirth in the heaven of the Nimmanarati devas;
- ‘When this gift of mine is given, it makes the mind serene. Gratification & joy arise’ - rebirth in the heaven of Paranimmitavasavatti deva
So, this is where my first question arises. Why on earth are these motivations rated this way? I mean, okay, even though I see how giving a gift due to one wishing to cultivate one’s mind is the best motivation, I can’t wrap my mind around how ‘the Great Sages of the Olden Days did it, so I am going to do it too’ beats ‘My, these folks are sure poor as a church mouse, when don’t I give them some cash out of compassion?’
Besides, all of these motivations produce merely temporal results because each time when discussing a possible reason for doing dāna the Buddha adds: ‘Then, having exhausted that action, that power, that status, that sovereignty, he is a returner (āgāmī), coming back to this world.’ (On another side note, it made me smile how Ven. Thanissaro uses ‘he’ as the pronoun counterpart of ‘person’ ) You can see where I am going with that and you are right. The best possible motivation for dāna is:
- ‘This is an ornament for the mind, a support for the mind’ - and the reward is rebirth in the company of Brahma’s Retinue (brahmakāyikānaṃ devānaṃ)
Even more conspicuously, the person who practices dāna in this way ‘having exhausted that action, that power, that status, that sovereignty, <…> is a non-returner (anāgāmī hoti). He does not come back to this world.’ Now, could someone please explain me how practicing dāna, albeit with the best motivation possible, can make someone a non-returner while abiding in the Brahma realm?
Feeding the Hungry Ghosts
In Jāṇussoṇi Sutta (AN 10.177), the Buddha discusses the efficacy of the saddha (śrāddha, an ancestor-commemorating rite still widely practiced in Hinduism). Quite surprisingly, the Buddha doesn’t reject it outright but rather says that ‘in possible places, brahman, [a gift given by brahmins to their dead relatives] accrues to them, but not in impossible place.’
‘Possible and immpossible places’ are actually a somewhat idiosyncratic rendering of the Pali antonym pair ‘ṭhāne … aṭṭhāne’, which itself is the Locative form of ‘ṭhāna … aṭṭhāna’, literally translated as ‘place … non-place’ and meaning ‘at the right / wrong time’, ‘in the right / wrong place’, ‘possible / impossible’ or a combination of some or all of these three. So, for all intents and purposes, if you like me find Ven. Thanissaro’s rendering a bit hard to digest you may substitue it with ‘in the right / wrong place’ or something along these lines.
So, what are these right and wrong places to offer gifts (mostly food, actually) to the dead? It turns out that your offering to a dead relative is efficient only if he or she was reborn in the peta realm. If your cousin was a person bad enough to descend into the hell or animal realm or virtuous enough to make it to the heaven or stay in the human realm, your offerings are not going to make any difference. Moreover, the Buddha remarks that ‘[a peta] lives [in the peta realm] lives there, he remains [a peta], by means of whatever his friends or relatives give in dedication to him.’
It kinda makes sense, since ‘peta’ is the past participle of ‘pa+ī’ and means ‘gone beyond, gone past’, i.e. ‘dead, departed’. Its synonym ‘pettivesayikā’ used later in the Sutta seems to be a variant reading of ‘pettivisayikā’, ‘belonging to the Peta realm’, where the ‘petti-’ part actually comes from the Vedic ‘paitrya’, so the more correct rendering would be ‘belonging to the Ancestor realm’. Of course your offerings to the dead relatives will be efficient only if they are just your dead relative and not some Vajra-yielding deva warrior hanging out with Sakka! If no one in your family or clan commemorates some particular relative any more, well, looks like this peta is out of luck and his or her days are numbered. Alternatively, it may mean that his or her life will be harder as he or she will be now completely on her own and not enjoying the posthumous support of their family any longer.
The funny thing is that it doesn’t really matter whether the family member you are making an offering to has been reborn as a peta, since, as the Buddha points out, other dead relatives of yours who have become petas will partake of your gift. In the unlikely case, that there are none, it doesn’t really matter as well, since you have performed a generous act and will enjoy nice kammic results anyway.
The implications of this Sutta - if it is authentic - can have quite significant ramifications for both practical and theoretical sides of the Buddhist lay practice. First, does it mean that we should perform saddha-like rituals to do a compassionate thing and help our reborn relatives? Second, does it mean that merit-sharing ceremonies that are looked down upon by so many modernist Buddhists do make sense? Third, if we should perform these rituals, what are the minimum requirements, so to say? What should we offer to our deceased relatives and how should we do it? Can we do it in our minds only? Fourth, how does it work, what actually happens when someone makes an offering to a dead ancestor? Last but not least, shouldn’t we slightly reconsider our idea of who the petas are supposed to be? Maybe they are just our dead relatives who were not able to move on and chose to remain close to their family and wishing with their whole heart to live the life as humans, but they just can’t. Maybe, just maybe this is why they are ‘hungry ghosts’. To make a far less feasible theoretical proposition, isn’t it possible that they are just dead people who got stuck in the in-between state? On the other hand, I’m afraid I am starting to make the Book of the Universe sound like a more exciting read than it is.
Ebenezer Scrooge and Dāna
Okay, this post is already long enough, so I’ll try to keep it short. Paṭhamaaputtaka Sutta and Dutiyaaputtaka Sutta (SN 3.19 and SN 3.20). Buddha talks to the King Pasenadi who tells him about ‘money-lending householders’ who had recently died and both left a considerable fortune. Still, despite their wealth they ate ‘rice & pickle brine’, wore ‘three lengths of hempen cloth’ and rode ‘in a dilapidated little cart with an awning of leaves.’ You may expect that the Buddha would praise such sense restraint in a wealthy man. If you do you are spectacularly wrong. Instead, the Buddha says: ‘When a person of no integrity acquires lavish wealth, he doesn’t provide for his own pleasure & satisfaction, nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his parents, nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his wife & children; nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his slaves, servants, & assistants; nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his friends.’ Eat it, protestants!
Anyway, doesn’t it mean that the Europeans should probably temper their egalitarian rage a little and let wealthy people be wealthy?