Give and receive

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Photo by Jesse Jiryu Davis

First, 72 labors brought us this food; we should know how this happens to us.
Second, when we receive this offering, we should consider
if our virtue and our practice deserve it.

Third, as we desire the natural order of the mind, to be free from attachment
we must be freed from greed.

Fourth, to sustain our life, we take this food.
Fifth, to achieve our Way, we take this food.

-Zen oryoki song

Whenever I struggle to ask for help, I often think of the Zen practice of oryoki. Even though it’s been a while since I’ve been on a retreat where oryoki takes place, the ritual is still deeply rooted in my body.

During longer retreats, called sesshinsZen practitioners take our meals inside the doing (meditation room) in a cabinet called oryoki, derived from a Japanese word meaning “just enough.” It is a beautiful and complex ceremony with very specific protocols for how one receives the food offered. If you and I ever get the chance to meet in person, ask me about my first meeting with oryoki at the San Francisco Zen Center. It’s worthy of a wacky Marx Brothers film.

In one oryoki ceremony, servers kneel before each person and carefully pour rice, soup, or whatever might be in their container into one of the meditator's three bowls. Once everyone has been served, meditators are invited to reflect on the source of these foods and offer their gratitude in the form of a humble greeting.

Throughout the ceremony, different songs are heard. One comes after we have meticulously arranged our three bowls and utensils on our tea towels:

Now we arrange the Buddha bowls;
may we, with all beings,
empty the three wheels:
giver, receiver and gift.

The main point of oryoki The practice, as I understand it, is to realize that “the giver, the receiver, and the giver” are inseparable. By engaging in this practice, we begin to learn to give wholeheartedly, without attachment, and to receive with grace and gratitude.

Take part in oryoki meals over the years have taught me a lot about understanding giving and receiving in a non-transactional way. In everyday life, we often give something in the hope of receiving something in return, whether it is a material object, prestige, respect or even love. This kind of quid pro quo can feel forced and awkward – and it’s exhausting. This is one of the reasons why many of us avoid asking for help.

We have been conditioned to think that giving and receiving are ego-driven acts, but what if we looked at things another way? If we understand that we live in an interdependent world, to use Thich Nhat Hanh's words, we see how much we need each other to survive and thrive. We give people a gift when we invite them to help us, in an authentic way based on relationship rather than transaction.

Think about a time when you gave something to an individual or group and it felt really good. In fact, you were eager to offer your money, your time or your expertise. What made the difference? Why was this act of giving felt as a joy rather than as an obligation or imposition?

I guess first of all, you felt some kind of affinity with the person asking you the question, even if you didn't know them well. Maybe they reminded you of a younger version of yourself. Or maybe they were asking on behalf of a cause you're deeply committed to, like environmental justice. Second, this act of giving connects you in an intimate way with the asker, and we live in a society hungry for true intimacy. Finally, your own joy may have increased when you saw the recipient of your gift being able to do something they couldn't do without that help. This relationship between giving and receiving is a very tangible way of becoming aware of the economic privilege that could have accrued to us in part due to our social position, and of exploiting this privilege for the common good.

I invite you to consider all of this when you notice any resistance that might arise when considering asking for some form of help. What if, by asking another person for help, we offers a gift for them? How might this awareness change the way you formulate a request for assistance? This is a powerful practice. Try.

Finally, to deepen this practice of giving and receiving, consider the three ways of giving described in traditional Buddhist teachings:

• Amisa-dana: Give material aid and objects, especially to those who need it. Traditionally, this took the form, in Asian communities, of showing up early in the morning to offer food to monks on their alms rounds. Right now, that might look like creating bags of warm clothing and toiletries for our unhoused loved ones.

• Dhamma-dana: Giving “loving protection” in the form of Dharma teachings and guidance. Dhamma-dana can also be about offering sound advice to anyone around us.

•Abhaya-dana: Give the gift of non-fear, considered the greatest gift of all because it allows the recipient to make choices with confidence.

What do you have to give, and how can you do it from a non-dualistic mind? What do you need, and how can you also receive it from this same perspective? There is so much to be gained by exploring the act of giving and receiving from a Buddhist perspective. I look forward to hearing your experiences and ideas about this in the comments.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

Leave comments