Study: Generosity makes you happier.

After conducting a study to investigate how brain areas communicate to produce feelings of well-being, researchers at the University of Zurich have concluded that “Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous.  People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy.  Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier.”

This is hardly news.  It’s what Buddhism and other philosophies both religious and secular have always maintained.  Yet, insight into how this works is useful.

In the study, the researchers took 50 people and divided them into two groups, one ‘generous’ and the other ‘selfish.’  The ‘selfish’ group was asked to think about spending 100 Swiss francs on themselves and the ‘generous’ group were to consider spending the same money on another person.  Although I’m not sure how they did this, they measured happiness levels before and after the experiment, and found that those in the group asked to think about spending money on others had a larger “mood boost” than the other group.

The bottom line is both simple and encouraging:  Prof.  Philippe Tobler says, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier.  Just being a little more generous will suffice.”

The Buddhist term for generosity is dàna, a Pali word that literally means “almsgiving,” but in general refers to the practice of giving.  The first step (paramita) on the Bodhisattva path is giving of oneself.

Some years ago, in a series of dharma talks on Lamrim ((Tibetan: “stages of the path”), Thubten Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist nun and founder Sravasti Abbey*, drew a distinction between worldly generosity and what she calls the “far-reaching attitude of generosity” :

“[The] far-reaching attitude of generosity [is] sometimes called giving.  It’s not just generosity as we normally think of it.  Generosity is giving things, which is great; but the far-reaching attitude of generosity is combined with both compassion and wisdom.  It’s different from ordinary generosity, because it is motivated by the wish to become a Buddha in order to benefit others.  It’s very different from ordinary generosity that happens at Christmas time or at Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Valentine’s.  That kind of generosity is very much based on the happiness of this life.”

To achieve the far-reaching attitude of generosity, one must first achieve true selflessness.  This means to practice generosity without making distinctions, without discrimination or preferences.  To practice generosity without preferences is to help others regardless of who or what they are, and it also means giving without any purpose in mind, without thoughts of reward or benefit.

Ultimately, the idea is to dissolve the concepts of subject and object, self and others, because as Seng-ts’an wrote in the “Faith-Mind Inscription” (Hsin-hsin Ming),

“One thing, all things; move among and intermingle, without distinction.  To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about nonperfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality, because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.”

“Trusting” corresponds to the Chinese character hsin or “faith, belief.”  We could also call it confidence.  It’s trusting that the mind’s true nature is awakened mind or Buddha-nature.

The kind of generosity that Thubten Chodron speaks of, the kind of true selflessness that wrote about – these are far-reaching goals.  We might be tempted to doubt ourselves and think, I can’t achieve that sort of all-embracing attitude.   And we can’t, not all at once.  We begin with small steps.  As the University of Zurich shows, just thinking about being more generous can make us happier.

If with kindly generosity
One thinks, “May I relieve living beings
Merely of headaches,”
This produces a boundless positive force…

– Shantideva

– – – – – – – – – –

* Sravasti Abbey is the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States.


More Precious than a Wish-fulfilling Jewel

Chiron was a centaur, and if you know your Greek mythology, you’ll recall that centaurs are half-human, half-horse. Chiron, however, was a something special. He was extremely wise, and he was an immortal god to boot. One day he was accidently struck by Hercules’ arrow. The wound was so agonizingly painful, Chiron wanted to die. But he couldn’t, because he was immortal. One of the downsides to being a god, I guess.

Eventually, he was able to renounce his immortality and before he went off to Elysium (the afterlife), he taught the art of medicine to man, and to gods, including Askelpios, who became the god of medicine. For this, Chiron is known as the “father of medicine” and the “wounded healer.”

Carl Jung borrowed “wounded healer” to describe an archetype he saw in the relationship between an analyst and patients. An analyst, or doctor, is able to treat others because “The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals.”

If we unpack that idea a bit, then we can say that generally speaking, as we are all wounded in some way, for we all experience pain and suffering, and because each of us has the capacity to help others to alleviate their pain and suffering, we are all healers. Furthermore, as the myth of Chiron represents the ideal of compassion and selfless service, it is similar to the ideal of the Bodhisattva; so, we can be Bodhisattvas, too.

Jung, in outlining his concept of the wounded healer in Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy (1951), said he believed disease was the best training for a physician.

Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”
Jihi (Compassion): “to care, to cry: to remove the cause for suffering.”

There is no doubt that the experience of sufferings is beneficial training for the practice of altruism, but in Buddhism the prime cause for helping others is much more fundamental. In Supplement to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti wrote, “Compassion alone is seen as the seed . . . as water for its growth, and as ripening into a lasting source of usefulness. And so, first, I pay homage to compassion.”

He’s talking about Bodhicitta, the wish to realize awakening for the benefit of all living beings. There are two kinds of bodhicitta: “aspiration bodhicitta”, generating the thought, and “action bodhicitta” or putting the thought into practice.

Year ago, at a meditation class I was leading, a first time visitor, a rather cynical young man, wanted to know why we should practice compassion. He thought there should be a reason for it. I must admit that I failed at making him understand that compassion does not need a reason. It is a kind of vicarious identification, you see the suffering of living beings and you feel empathy, you feel compassion. I realize now that he suffered from an acute sense of separation from others and consequently, he thought he needed some rationale for practicing compassion.

That is why it is important for us who understand the inseparability, the interdependence of all things to reflect on thoughts like the one we find expressed in Geshe Langri Thangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind:

By thinking of all sentient beings
As more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel
For accomplishing the highest aim,
I will always hold them dear.


Use Life

Once at a four-day teaching in Los Angeles, during a question and answer period, the Dalai Lama was asked, “What is the quickest and easiest way to attain enlightenment?” The question caused the Dalai Lama to break down in tears. When he recovered his composure, he began to tell a story about the Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, who facing death, was giving his last instructions to a disciple and showed him the calluses on his behind. Milarepa said, “Look at this, this is what I’ve endured, this is the mark of my practice.” Just as the translator was relaying this, the Dalai Lama interrupted and, in one of the few times he spoke English during that teaching, exclaimed, “Don’t think quickest, easiest, cheapest!”

The next day, the Dalai Lama said that it really doesn’t matter if one becomes enlightened or not. The purpose of existence, he said, is to be of benefit to others, “and if a person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose.”

Consider the words “purpose of existence.” It implies that there is purpose to life. Naturally, people see that purpose differently, according to their own world-view. The view the Dalai Lama was speaking from was that of the bodhisattva, who undertakes the mission to relieve the suffering of others.

Shi Ming: “Use Life”
Shi Ming: “Use Life”

The Chinese term for “mission” is shi ming, which is made of two characters when put together literally mean “use life.” Outwardly, the bodhisattva’s mission is an altruistic one, but there is a more fundamental task at hand, and that is to use life, not to waste it.

There are those who fear that in service to others they will become subservient, or that in the practice of compassion, others will take advantage of them. But these fears are based on a limited view of what service means, what to be of benefit to others entails. Creating art is a benefit to others. Building a road serves others. A smile can help relieve someone’s suffering.

The point is to go beyond the routine of life, to use life, not merely live it. It means to regard each present moment as an opportunity to do something. Great or small, it doesn’t make a difference. Just do something that goes beyond yourself.

One of the greatest challenges of life is learning how to use it. When we use life in a meaningful way, we gain a sense of purpose. When we gain a sense of purpose, we have a mission. When we are dedicated to the fundamental mission of using our life for something worthwhile, we find myriad ways to be of benefit to others. Then everything we do can be a form of service. Nothing is wasted. Each moment is like a small drop of water poured into the ocean that lasts until the ocean itself evaporates.

So, use life.



The Children of Jizo

Sunday night in Newtown, President Obama asked, “Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?” His answer was a resounding “No.” How everyone else will answer in the comming days and weeks will remain to be seen, but I suspect that since Friday many have pondered this same question in one form or another.

In Buddhist mythology, the protection of children, especially deceased children, is the mission of Bodhisattva Jizo. While this Buddhist icon has a Sanskrit name, Ksitigarbha, meaning “Earth Store”  or “Earth Womb,” I believe that most scholars are of the opinion that the sutra in which he first appears is Chinese in origin. Jizo is how the Bodhisattva is known in Japan.

Kshitigarbha with his staff and mani jewel, from a Korean painting, c. 14th century

The Sutra of The Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva relates how Jizo followed a path of filial piety in previous lifetimes and became a bodhisattva, making great vows to liberate other sentient beings. Jizo’s primary vow is that he will not attain Buddhahood until “all the Hells are empty.” This great determination is symbolized by the shakujo or sistrum, the “monk’s staff,” which the Buddha is said to have asked mendicant priests to carry. According to E. Dale Saunders “In China, the shakujo is used in the ceremony for the salvation of ancestors. It is carried by a monk who represents Jizo going through the Hells, forcing the demons to open the doors of cells where the dammed are caught.”*

In China, Jizo is called Ti-ts’ang, or Dizang, and the reverence afforded him is superseded only by Kuan Yin and the Buddha. Jizo is the protector of women and travelers. In Japan, ceremonies are offered to Jizo to help ease the suffering of women who have lost children. Evidently, it was only in Japan where Jizo also became the protector of children. Bodhisattva Jizo is said to help deceased children navigate the transition between life and death.

Children are considered too young and innocent to have a deep grasp of the Buddha’s teachings, and therefore they are unable to attain enlightenment. In Japanese Buddhist mythology, when they die at an early age, they are “in limbo” and go to a place called Sai no Kawara (“Children’s Limbo,” originally from Shintoism), a mystical riverbed where they stack piles of stones into small towers that symbolize help the children offer to their parents to accumulate merit for their own journey through the cycle of birth and death. Each night demons destroy these towers, and so each day the children must pile them again. The demons also appear during the day, scaring the children as they play or as they build their towers.

Bodhisattva Jizo helps the children on the banks of the Sai no Kawara. When they are frightened by the demons, they can jump into the sleeve of Jizo’s robe, where they feel safe.

Jizo statues in a Japanese cemetery. The wool hats and bibs are placed by parents in hopes that Jizo will cloth their dead child in his protection.

In Japan, Jizo statues are found outside of temples, in cemeteries, and at crossroads. The features of the statues are childlike to resemble the children Jizo protects. Often people will pile stone pebbles before them as an offering to departed children, or they leave toys, candy or fruit.

The Ksitigarbha Sutra contains a beautiful story, too long to include in this post, of how in a previous life, Jizo was a Brahman girl who became the Earth Store Bodhisattva. We may ask ourselves what relevance stories like this have for us today, how all this symbolism relates to real protection for children who seem to be under siege and, as Robert B. Reich wrote yesterday in the Chicago Tribune, “shortchanged on almost every issue we face as a society.”

The answer is fairly obvious. President Obama said it the other night: “[We] bear responsibility for every child, because . . .  we’re all parents, that they are all our children.”

We have to be the Jizos of the real world, the protectors of all children.

I can’t imagine what it is like to be a child in today’s world. Those of us, of a certain age, were lucky in that our childhoods were mostly innocent affairs. The only bad guys I ever saw growing up were on television. The only shootings I witnessed were not real.

“When [the] qualities of Jizo become our own, then . . . we do not know boredom or loneliness. We are always accompanied,” says Jan Chozen Bays in her book on Jizo.**

I would add that when we take on Jizo’s qualities, we then accompany others. When we assume the responsibility – when we share responsibility, for all living beings, that is when we are never lonely.

Every person can open the sleeves of their heart to become a Bodhisattva Jizo in the real world. There are myriad ways in which each of us can contribute to the protection of children. They are in limbo, for they are helpless without our support. In the spirit of the Metta Sutta, “just as a mother protects with the life of her child,” let us use the staffs of our compassion to unlock the cells that have caught our most precious treasure.

Two Jizo haikus by Issa:

suzume no ko jizô no sode ni kakure keri

baby sparrow
safe in holy Jizo’s


takenoko no ban shite gozaru jizô kana

kindly guarding
the bamboo shoots…
holy Jizo



* E. Dale Saunders, Mudra, A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture, Bollingen Foundation/Pantheon Books, Inc., 1960

** Jan Chozen Bays, Jizo Bodhisattva: Guardian of Children, Travelers, and Other Voyagers, Shambhala Publications, 2003


Be a Hero of the Mind

$66 million the first weekend.

Like most boys, when I was young I loved comic books. I was weaned on DC Comics, which had Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and The Flash – the classic superheroes. As I grew older I came to feel that they were all one-dimensional characters. Then, almost as if someone had read my mind, along came Marvel Comics. One of the first new characters to emerge from Marvel was Spiderman.

Now, Spidey (AKA Peter Parker) was supposed to be a few years older but essentially he was just a kid like me. And he had problems. I mean aside from the problems associated with battling bad guys. Personal problems. Girl problems. He was misunderstood, he screwed stuff up. In other words, Spiderman was a superhero with more than one dimension. He was thoroughly human.

Marvel's Thor was the creation of two immortals: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

Another character Marvel introduced early on was Thor, who was the exact opposite of Spidey. This guy was an immortal god, just like in the Norse legends. But in the Marvel version of the story, Odin, the king of the Norse gods and Thor’s father, resolved to teach his son some very human lessons and placed him in the body of a medical student named Donald Blake. I guess that made him at least part human.

The traditional Thor may have been immortal but he was not imperishable. As I recall from my readings of the Norse legends, it was prophesied that one day Thor would die from a serpent’s poison. So even the traditional telling of the Thor story had a somewhat human element. The mythological gods of most cultures were anthropomorphic, endowed with human qualities such as anger, hatred, and jealousy. In presenting their gods with human frailties, the tellers of these myths imparted moral lessons, and by giving the gods superhuman powers, they inspired their listeners, as well as entertained them. In Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell notes that these stories,

[Are] telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums.

Not only were the mythological gods representations of the human spirit, they also represented phenomena, the forces of the natural world. The gods of India were no different. They were called devas and this word originally meant something partaking of the nature of heaven. The Chinese translated deva as t’ien, which literally means “heaven.” Yensho Kanakura, in Hindu-Buddhist Thought in India, points out that “The noun and adjective ‘deva’ derives from a verbal root div, meaning ‘to throw’ or ‘to shine.’ Deva is a cognate of the Latin word deus.”

It’s said that Buddha did not reject the idea of devas but rather maintained a tolerant attitude. That may have been the case, however it seems clears from his discourses that he did not take them seriously nor did he feel that they deserved the same attention as they were given by the compilers of the later Abhidharma literature.

With the advent of Mahayana Buddhism, a different type of “superhero” was idealized – the bodhisattva. Although the bodhisattva was first represented in Buddhist literature as a celestial being, the path the bodhisattva traversed could be walked by anyone.

In his book Diamond Sutra: transforming the way we perceive the world, Soeng Mu informs us that

“In later Mahayana tradition, Indo-Tibetan scholars translated bodhisattva as jangchub sempa (“awakening mind hero”). This was an articulation of the bodhisattva as a new kind of spiritual hero . . .”

This is a great concept – mind-hero. The real personification of this ideal is the Buddha himself. Unlike Thor, Buddha was not a god. Unlike Jesus, the ultimate god/superhero for some, Buddha did not perform awe-inspiring miracles or ascend to the heavens. Unlike Superman and comic book heroes, Buddha did not have “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” Buddha was a human being. His powers and abilities were the ones he already possessed. Although it’s claimed he levitated above the Ganges, in truth the only thing Buddha ascended was his own mind. He was a mind-hero.

We can never become gods. We’ll never be faster than a speeding bullet or be able to fly through the air by swinging an incredibly heavy hammer around our heads. We can be bodhisattvas. We can be a heroes of the mind.

Becoming a mind-hero requires courage. It takes a certain amount of bravery to conquer one’s mind. The goal is to master the mind, instead of having it master you. It requires the courage to lay aside our preconceived notions long enough so that our minds are open and receptive to new ways of thinking.

In the Chinese language, mind and heart have the same character. In Japanese, it’s called kokoro – mind/heart. So we can also say that a mind-hero means being courageous in heart and spirit. It means opening our hearts to others, having a boundless spirit of compassion.

Spiderman often likes to meditate in the ancient Tibetan upside-down position.

If you are like me, often you do not feel very heroic. You may feel that to train your mind is a very difficult thing (and you’d be right) or that you often fail at mastering your mind. But being a hero is not so much about the results. More important is the effort you make. Heroes often fail to achieve their goals. Many have gone down in defeat, but they are heroic because they tried, they made effort.

In his Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Prasastrasena wrote,

Bodhi refers to the sphere of the mind. Because he exerts himself and tries to achieve that [bodhi, awakening], he is a hero contemplating enlightenment (bodhisattva).

When you study and practice Buddhism, you should feel empowered. You should have a feeling that you too can achieve what the Buddha and all those ancient masters and all mind-heroes have achieved – calmness of mind, happiness, wisdom. You should also feel encouraged, confident that you can transform your life and change your mind, because even the most fantastical stories in the Buddhist sutras are telling you truths others have realized, truths that you can realize too. Most of all, even when you stumble and fall and it might seem that you have been defeated, it’s actually a victory because you made an effort and in the end that’s all that counts. When you exert yourself in this way, you are a true mind-hero.

This is my constant thought: how I can cause all living beings to be the same as me and gain entry to the transcendent Way.

– The Buddha in The Lotus Sutra