Dogen’s teachings point to the importance of shifting from self-orientation to other-orientation in the practice of dana. The warning is very clear—do not place yourself ahead of others. That’s what the demons are whispering. That’s what is within us all the time. This practice can be difficult. There are plenty of justifications to take care of your own life and death, and then when things are settled, when you’re okay, to turn your attention to others. The demons never entice you to take care of others first. Notice that. Ultimately, realizing yourself and taking care of all beings is one and the same reality. Wisdom and compassion are precisely the same thing, but that’s not where we start in practice.

The corrective measure is always to let go of yourself, forget yourself. Ultimately, wisdom is compassion, but what keeps you from realizing true wisdom is putting yourself before others. Giving is an expression that heals this tendency and is the very manifestation of the identity of self and other, of wisdom and compassion. Buddha’s accomplishment as a sage, as a spiritual being, is not measured by his solitary sitting. If that’s all he did, we wouldn’t be here. His accomplishment is manifested in his dana, in his giving, his teaching. It is alive in his sharing of his body—in the soles of his feet, his muscles, his breath, his thoughts, his gestures. All those who heard these teachings immediately and all those that have come later are included within the Buddha’s realization. They play an active and key role in who the Buddha is as a sage, as a human being.

It works the same way for us when we question what brought us to this path. Is it satisfying to reflect on how deeply we have sat a sesshin? How profound was the silence? Is that feeling going to last a week? Two weeks? Five years? Or is the important question how deeply we touched and were touched by others? Ultimately, how much did we give? As we evolve in this practice, we become more available to others. We become more able to give. We learn what it means to serve, to really serve. We become less possessive, more generous and willing to extend ourselves. We become less likely to feel that we’re being put upon and more likely to let our sense of humor improve as we allow the reality of the other to meet us squarely where we are. Simultaneously, we liberate the self and other.

A monk asked Master Huihai, “By what means can the gateway of our school (the Zen school) be entered? Huihai said, “By the means of dana paramita.” The monk said, “According to the Buddha, the bodhisattva path comprises six paramitas. Why have you mentioned only the one? Please explain why this one alone provides a sufficient means for us to enter.” Huihai said, “Deluded people fail to understand that all the other five proceed from dana paramita. By its practice, all of the others are fulfilled.”

The six paramitas are the precepts, patience, effort, samadhi, wisdom and generosity.

The monk said, “Why is it called dana paramita?” Huihai said, “Dana means relinquishment.” The monk asked, “Relinquishment of what?” Huihai said, “Relinquishment of dualism of opposites, which means relinquishment of self and other, of ideas as to the dual nature of good and bad, being and non-being, void and non-void, pure and impure, and so on.”

That is the ultimate nature of dana paramita, the complete relinquishment of the self. It is opening yourself completely to others. Your life becomes transparent. The two key components of what is absolutely necessary for us to take refuge in each other are the capacity to let go and the capacity to remain open. This is none other than the dismantling of the self-other paradigm. It is the same as dropping away of body and mind, the complete relinquishment of duality. The only thing that remains is the in-flow, the out-flow. One hand passing something to the other, the other receiving something from the first. There’s a song by Bob Marley that says it well: “So much trouble in the world…. Give a little. Take a little.” So much trouble in the world is taken care of by that. What becomes apparent is the profound interconnection of giving, where all things—the clouds, these mountains and rivers, this very universe, all life forms—rest in the reality of giving, and the self is nothing other than the infinite network of dana.