Love of All Wisdom

Poisonous Buddhist gifts

by on Apr.15, 2012, under External Goods, Generosity, Jainism, Karma, Mahāyāna, Modern Hinduism, Monasticism, Social Science

I admire Maria Heim‘s research on gift-giving in classical India. There’s one point that I think her work misses, however – a topic I had intended to cover in my dissertation on Śāntideva but never had room for. It’s not a constructive philosophical point – I’m not taking any ideas of my own from the ideas I discuss here – but it’s helpful to think about in order to understand philosophies like Śāntideva’s that I do draw significantly from. (And it will be relevant to next week’s post.)

Heim sees Buddhist and Jain ideals of gift-giving as being quite different from brahmanical (“Hindu”) ideas in at least one important respect. But I’ll argue here that the three are actually much closer to each other.

Anthropologists of modern India have often said brahmins believe in a “poison in the gift” – a bad and potentially deadly consequence of receiving gifts. (The words used in India do not literally mean “poison”, though they are somewhat close; I suspect the “poison” terminology may be a pun on the fact that Gift means poison in German.) For example, studying brahmins in northern India, Jonathan Parry and Gloria Raheja found they believed that, by accepting ritual gifts, they believed they not only threatened their own ascetic integrity but themselves took on the bad karma of the giver. This bad karma, they thought, would inevitably cause them to sicken and die, and it caused others to regard them as inauspicious (bad luck); but they had no choice, because taking it was the only way to feed themselves and their families.

Heim considers these cases of the “gift as poison,” but sets up Jain and Buddhist tradition in sharp distinction to them:

The case of Jain and Buddhist mendicants differs considerably. There is no inkling of the poison in the gift, however conceived, in either contemporary anthropological or premodern textual accounts of Jain and Buddhist practices of gift giving…. The logic of the ideal recipient being the one most disinclined to accept gifts is present in the Buddhist and Jain sources, but it follows from the religious values of renunciation as opposed to ideas about the transfer of inauspiciousness or moral evil. Since renouncers are aloof (ideally) from the normal patterns of exchange, Jain and Buddhist monastics are unambiguously free from the cycles of worldly exchange and no ambivalence is encountered in their status as receivers. Their removal from economic intercourse, with its patterns of give-and-take, generates the purity that allows them to receive gifts.

Heim is right to a certain extent. While Śāntideva clearly believes that good karma can be transferred from person to person, he never suggests any such transfer of bad karma. For him, monks receiving gifts are never despised in the way that Parry’s brahmins can be. On his account, to the extent that the gift is dangerous, it is dangerous because it interferes with renunciation, not because the gift carries bad karma with it. I wrote on this point a while ago: wealth, for Śāntideva, is suspect because it can produce mental attachment.

And I think Heim misses a significant consequence of this danger. Her parenthetical “ideally” is crucial here. For Śāntideva, one who has an adequate degree of mental renunciation will indeed remain “aloof from normal patterns of exchange,” and it is therefore safe for him to receive an upward gift. But not every monk does. Some may be apātribhūta – in an unsuitable state to receive gifts. Monks’ “removal from economic intercourse” is not sufficient to purify them and the gifts they receive. I noted in the dissertation (pp. 136-9) that a bodhisattva who receives gifts must specifically take steps to ensure he has the appropriate attitude of non-possession; only then is the gift appropriately pure. If he does not, then there is a poison of sorts in the gift, though it comes from the danger of attachment rather than transfer of bad karma.

In the diss I argued further (p. 94) that in Śāntideva’s work gifts, qua property, are dangerous for householders just as they are for monks, because they interfere with the state of nonattachment. It is that mental renunciation (tyāgacitta), rather than the literal renunciation of a monastic livelihood, which is crucial to purifying gifts. Renunciation is not an ideal for monks that stands separate from the ideal for householders; there are not two ideals but one. Mental renunciation is an ideal for everybody; monks are just better at it.

And so, for a renouncer who has not yet achieved the great nonattachment of a buddha or advanced bodhisattva, the status of his gift receiving can be ambiguous and ambivalent indeed. In Śāntideva’s Buddhist “premodern textual account,” the gift can be poison — but there is an easily available antidote.

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12 Comments for this entry

  • michael reidy

    There is always the danger of creating obligation with the giving of gifts. Perhaps I am overinterpreting it but the ‘santosh’ response to the thanks for a gift takes the sting out of the gift so to speak. I am saying ‘santosh’ or ‘very happy’ to assure you that your enjoyment of the gift is giving me happiness. This happiness balances the obligation that the ‘donee’ might have felt because the donor is also getting something. I find it a pleasant courtesy.

  • Thill

    The “ideal” of non-attachment is a fundamental assumption in Santideva’s preoccupation with gift-giving (I wonder about the biographical/psychological roots of this preoccupation).

    But what is non-attachment?

    And is it an intrinsic good? Or are there good and bad forms of non-attachment based on the object of non-attachment?

    Whatever non-attachment is, it has an object. There is no such thing as attachment or non-attachment in itself. One is always attached or “non-attached” to something.

    “Non-attachment” is an attitude, perhaps a complex one, characterized by beliefs about the object of non-attachment and behaviors toward it and toward opportunities for enjoying, possessing, or losing it.

    But what sort of beliefs and behaviors are these?

    Does non-attachment require that one must believe that it is bad, in some way, to be dependent on, or attached to, the object?

    Obviously.

    Does non-attachment require that one must believe that one’s well-being is independent of the object?

    Yes. If I believe that my well-being is dependent on owning two cars, I would not be non-attached to the prospect of owning two cars.

    Does non-attachment require that one would be indifferent to the prospect of possessing the object, or enjoying it, or losing it, or relinquishing it (giving it up)?

    Yes. If I care about possessing, enjoying, or losing it, or relinquishing it, then I am attached to the object.

    Does non-attachment require that one is indifferent to the object’s existence or non-existence?

    Yes. If I care about its existence or non-existence, then I am attached to it.

    Does non-attachment require the belief that one’s well-being is neither augmented nor diminished by by the flourishing or withering away of the object?

    Yes. This follows from the belief (constitutive of an attitude of non-attachment) that one’s well-being is not dependent on the object.

    It also follows that if I am truly (as opposed to merely professing or pretending) non-attached to X (an object, person, experience, condition or state of affairs, etc) , I would refrain from the following behaviors toward it:

    1. Seeking to possess it
    2. Seeking to relinquish it
    3. Seeking to enjoy it
    4. Seeking to bring about its existence or non-existence
    5. Seeking to maintain its existence
    6. Seeking to bring about the flourishing or withering away of the object

    Now, if this is a correct analysis of non-attachment, it is clear that it is not an intrinsic good.

    One can think of many examples of objects, persons, experiences, conditions or states of affairs concerning which an attitude of non-attachment is imprudent, distasteful, and/or morally wrong.

    It is morally wrong to be non-attached to the flourishing or withering of one’s friends, spouse, beloved, parents, etc!!!

    The fundamental and serious inconsistency, and, hence, incoherence, in the standard Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist paen to detachment or non-attachment is the fact that they presuppose attachment to the goal of Self-realization, God-realization, or Nirvana.

    It is incoherent to advocate non-attachment on grounds which assume or presuppose that one must care very deeply about achieving some goal (Moksha, Nirvana, Enlightenment, etc) because such depth of care and commitment constitutes and implies attachment.

  • JimWilton

    Amod, you should consider whether Shantideva’s focus on non-attachment is too narrowly focused on the shravakayana (personal liberation).

    In traditional Mahayana teachings on the paramita of generosity, it is considered ungenerous and non-virtuous for a monk to refuse a gift — because refusing a gift denies the giver the opportunity to be generous. While intention alone is thought to have some karmic effect, karma is really only maximized when the action is completed. So, refusing a gift denies someone else the karmic effect of a virtuous action and violates a bodhisattva’s vow to work for the benefit of others.

    This doesn’t negate concerns about attachment. All kinds of stories of Tibetan teachers describe them accepting gifts and then demonstrating non-attachment by throwing the gifts into a box and later giving them away to beggars — or accepting gifts and then leaving them behind on the roadside.

    I would be surprised if there wasn’t something of this Mahayana approach in Shantideva’s writings.

    • Amod Lele

      You’re entirely right, Jim; that’s definitely in Śāntideva. A recipient should accept a gift for the giver’s sake, even when it is dangerous to the recipient to do so. I didn’t add that to the post because the point was just about the danger in the gift in the first place.

  • Thill

    “All kinds of stories of Tibetan teachers describe them accepting gifts and then demonstrating non-attachment by throwing the gifts into a box and later giving them away to beggars — or accepting gifts and then leaving them behind on the roadside.”

    Who knows what trouble or sacrifice the donor had to endure or make in order to purchase the gift?

    It is an insult to the donor to give his or her gift to someone else, particularly beggars, or to throw it away on the roadside, if the donor gave the gift trusting that the recipient would retain it with some appreciation of the gesture.

    There is dignity in refusing the gift, rather than in insulting the donor by first accepting the gift and then leaving it on the roadside.

    I wonder if these Tibetan “teachers” did the same thing with gifts of food and/or money.

    There are all kinds of stories now about Tibetan “teachers” accepting gifts of money from all sorts of sources and using them for all sorts of personal purposes.

    • JimWilton

      If the donor gave the gift trusting that the gift would be appreciated or that it would be used for a particular purpose, then it is a gift with strings attached. The donor is expecting an ego boost from the gift, to be seen as a charitable person, or to have control over the donee.

      It is still a gift, of course. Just not a pure gift.

  • Thill

    Not necessarily.
    Instead of targeting the donor, let’s focus on the obligations of the recipient.
    The recipient has the obligation to appreciate a gift he has accepted.
    Contrast the attitude of these Tibetan “teachers” with that of Krishna who was offered a gift of parched rice by his childhood friend Sudama who lived in poverty.
    Although the rice was parched and dirty, Krishna accepted it and ate it with gusto.
    What is a “pure gift”?
    A gift offered solely with the motive of benefiting the recipient?
    If so, the recipient now has the obligation to venerate the gift as a sacred object! It surely would be grossly unethical to leave it in the roadside.

  • JimWilton

    I agree that appreciation is different from attachment. But there are different ways to express appreciation.

    There is the famous story of Marpa’s visit to Naropa. Marpa was a businessman and brought a bag of gold dust to Naropa as a gift for teachings. Being a businessman, Marpa decided to offer half the gold and reserve some for his journey back to Tibet. Naropa knew that Marpa was holding something back and said: “These teachings are very precious, I need more gold.” Naropa offered a little more. Naropa then said: “These are the most precious teachings, this is not enough gold.” Finally, Marpa offered all of his gold. Naropa took the bag of gold dust, emptied it in his hands, threw the gold dust in the air and said: “What need have I of gold, all the world is gold to me!”

    It seems to me that this action is not inconsistent with appreciating the gift.

    • Thill

      I sincerely apologize to the great teacher Naropa for hastily assuming that Jim’s account is a correct one.

      Prompted, perhaps, by his devout disciple Marpa from the “Great Beyond”, I was impelled to verify Jim’s account of the episode involving Marpa’s gold offering to Naropa and looked up my copy of The Life and Teachings of Naropa by the Tibetan studies expert Herbert V. Guenther.

      I found two stories:

      1. “…when the venerable Mar-pa had met Naropa…and presented him with a lavish present of gold, Naropa said:
      My son, predicted by my Guru
      Worthy Mar-pa blo-gros,
      It is good that you have come from beyond the snowland
      In order to take over the kingdom of the spirit.

      And he was most happy.” (pp.98-99)

      There is no mention here of Naropa throwing the gold away, or into the air, etc.

      2.Once Mar-pa searched for Naropa and finally met him in the jungle Ri-mun-bcan. What transpired, in Guenther’s translation from the original Tibetan account, is as follows:
      “…(Mar-pa) made all his gold into a Mandala and offered it to Naropa. Although he was told “I do not want it”, he pressed it on his Guru and was saddened when Naropa was about to throw it into the jungle, saying “May it be an offering to the true Jewel of a Guru.”
      However, the venerable Naropa handed the gold back and said: “I do not need it; all that is here is gold”, and touching the ground with his big toe turned it all to gold.” (p. 105)

      Yes, this is in accord both with common decency and Naropa’s great attainment.

      My apologies again to Naropa!

      “Praise to Naropa on his seat of lotus, sun, and moon,
      On the lion throne of fearlesssness, the embodiment of Buddhahood,
      Who interprets the fundamental doctrine, the flawless gem
      Who has realized the transcending awareness of those who are exalted in renown supreme…
      Belonging to the family of the Awakened.”

  • Thill

    “It seems to me that this action is not inconsistent with appreciating the gift.”

    What a foolish waste of that gift! What did Marpa think of it? That’s really important!

    Wasting a gift is inconsistent with appreciating it.

    Naropa had no right to treat Marpa and his gift in this manner.

    If Naropa did not need that gold and truly thought that “all the world is gold to me”, then he should have said so at the outset and refused the gift. This is common courtesy and decency.

    These sorts of stories tell me the exact opposite of the standard interpretations. I only see cruel and crazy “mind games” of so-called “enlightened” masters bereft of common decency! LOL

  • Thill

    I wrote in my first reply to Jim that “If Naropa did not need that gold and truly thought that “all the world is gold to me”, then he should have said so at the outset and refused the gift. This is common courtesy and decency.”

    In Guenther’s translation, in his Life And Teachings of Naropa, from the original Tibetan account, this is exactly what Naropa said and did:

    “…(Mar-pa) made all his gold into a Mandala and offered it to Naropa. Although he was told “I do not want it”, he pressed it on his Guru and was saddened when Naropa was about to throw it into the jungle, saying “May it be an offering to the true Jewel of a Guru.”
    However, the venerable Naropa handed the gold back and said: “I do not need it; all that is here is gold”, and touching the ground with his big toe turned it all to gold.” (p. 105)

  • Thill

    I suppose that it is not necessarily bad for a group to have the same beliefs if those beliefs are rational, i.e., strongly supported by evidence, and each individual in the group has acted rationally, i.e., examined the evidence, in adopting those beliefs.

    I don’t find anything admirable in a quixotic “individualist” display of dissent from rational beliefs.

    The trouble with the prevalent group think on matters of religious belief, pursuit of private economic profit, and nationalism in North America is that a great deal of these beliefs are irrational, e.g., creationism, the notion that private accumulation of wealth will necessarily translate into public good, etc., and the process of their adoption by individuals is also irrational, e.g., uncritical subjection to propaganda by religious institutions, the State, and corporate-controlled mainstream media.

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