Last week I was sitting meditation in a retreat on Death, Birth, and Transformation in Santa Barbara. In front of me was a large table, piled high with various offerings- cookies, candies, fruits, flowers, wine, etc. In any Buddhist retreat I’ve been to, it’s customary to have an offering at the conclusion of the retreat, and there’s usually a big table next to the altar where the offerings are placed, and they stay there during the retreat and then at the end we say a big offering prayer and then eat everything up in a kind of party.
Anyway, there I was, sitting meditation and looking at the offerings and thinking about the nature of what we were really doing with that offering business. And I saw that how I had been looking at it initially was a little bit wrong, that there was another way of seeing the activity that might be a beneficial way of looking at it. The way I’d seen it at first was that bringing an offering was just an added cost of the retreat. You pay for the retreat up front, but there’s always other costs associated, especially the gift for the teacher, which isn’t included in the fee. So, you figure that in, and you buy some cookies or candy or whatever and you bring that with you and go put it on the table as your offering and you’re covered, right? You’ve done your part, and nobody’s going to be giving you stink eye for failing to participate, for shirking your duty to offer something, and also you just don’t feel bad yourself, you know, you feel good about how good you are.
You give yourself a pat on the head.
“Good little Dharma student.”
So right then I saw that it was really something somewhat different. That the offering table was there kind of like a very easy, very basic teaching, like kindergarten or pre-school for generosity. Generosity is a big part of Buddhist practice, a big thing that we’re taught to cultivate, this aspect of Bodhichitta, which is a big heart of compassion, compassion and generosity for all beings. We want them to be happy, and we try to learn how to put the happiness of others before our own.
This can be a tall order, especially in our society.
So there’s this little practical exercise of the offering, to give us some practice at this generosity thing. And what I saw in that moment was that all I was really doing was taking an object and moving it from one place to another place. Objectively, that was all that was happening in the phenomenal world. An object was in one location, and as part of this practice, I moved it from where it was and I put it somewhere else.
Very simple, very direct.
And I put it somewhere else, not forever and ever, but just for a little while. I mean, this is a very, very small gesture.
And of course, it kind of needs to be, or it will scare everyone off. So, you know, start small.
And so when I got home I was thinking about how skillful this offering table business was, how it wasn’t at all about us “giving something” to the Buddha, or to our teacher, or even to the other participants in the retreat, but it was a way to learn about what it means to give, and what it means to possess, and how both giving and possessing are really only about the movement of objects, nothing more.
Kind of neat.
And then this morning I was thinking about it some more and I realized (yes, it took me that long) that the same phenomenon was what our entire culture and economy is built upon- the movement of objects from one location in space to another, for a temporary period of time. That’s it. When you buy any object at all, you are not really buying the object itself (and any good Buddhist knows that there isn’t even any object at all that exists as its own, independent entity) but merely purchasing the right to move it from its current location to another location of your choosing. When you go to work and earn your paycheck, what you’re earning isn’t anything concrete and existent, but merely the potential energy that will allow you to move more objects from place to place. If you have a shitty, low-paying job then you earn only a very low potential to move objects. If you have a very high-paying job you gain the ability to move commensurately more objects.
And if the object is really big, like a house, or an island or something, then what we’re purchasing is not the right to move that object even, but only to move another object closer to that object, inside of it or on to it. Like our bodies. We can move our bodies closer to that object we just “bought.” Plus the other objects we are allowed to move, if we want.
We’re engaged in this very strange pursuit of moving absolutely everything on this planet from one location to another as fast as humanly possible.
Is it any wonder that we don’t get a lot of lasting satisfaction out of this activity? I mean, we need to move a certain number of objects just to stay alive, to keep functioning, and it can be fun to move objects from one place to another, it can be enjoyable. But it’s not ultimately very important and it’s certainly nothing to build an entire life around.
On a certain level, there’s just the movement of objects in the phenomenal world, and then the rules we set in place, the mental constructs like money and power and laws, that determine who gets to move which object when. That’s it.
And that got me to thinking about what else there is, you know? If the movement of objects doesn’t really nourish us and make us feel anything really satisfactory, is there something that does?
And of course, there is. There is a resource we all have unlimited access to, completely independent of all of our societal rules and mental constructs or rich, poor, and in-between. This resource that is infinitely renewable, clean-burning, non-polluting, and which only grows the more of it you use and distribute.
The movement of love gives us energy, feeds us and the person with whom we share it. It makes us feel good in a way that moving objects from one location to another does not. So, I feel like I know now that I want to spend myself in the manufacturing and distribution of love, to giving it away to everyone I encounter, and to relax a little bit about how many objects I move from one place to another. There’s a better use of my time available to me.
Anyway. That’s what I thought about this morning.
May you be happy, may you be at peace, may you be free from all suffering.