Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"it is better to give than to receive"

Sometimes I think spiritual life -- the kind that involves some practice and effort -- amounts to little more than learning how good it feels to stop banging your head against a wall. Of course spiritual life has to get beyond relief if it's going to mean much, but it's nice to have a bit of relief along the way.

What lit this fuse of mental cud-munching, was the Christian touchstone, "It is better to give than to receive." Like all touchstones, this one presents the one willing to consider it with a possibility ... a door marked "entrance" so to speak. Like other possibilities, it is an entrance anyone might choose to employ or ignore -- your choice, your life. Any imaginative, free-standing mandate to put the possibility to work ... well, that's just do-gooders looking for income or elevating their own status.

Socially and ethically, greed receives a two-edged welcome. On the one hand, its effects and effectiveness are not very attractive. On the other hand, since men and women are in fact capable of greed, it is applauded, a matter of rejoicing (see Hollywood, Wall Street, wishful lottery players, etc.) Greed asserts that I deserve to get ... and keep on getting, often at the expense of others who are clearly (because I say so) not as deserving of getting.

Socially and ethically, giving is held up as an antidote to the cruelty and sorrows that follow in greed's wake. And the fact is that giving, like getting, feels pretty good. To help a friend in need -- or in fact to help anyone in need -- touches some nerve within. When it is not just a manipulative maneuver, giving feels good ... and is sometimes elevated to the status of being "right."

Pared down a bit, the 18th century moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, suggested, "Act so that the maxim of your action may be taken as a universal law." And which philosophy or religion hasn't sought to raise their generalizations to similar heights -- providing all-pervading nostrums such as "it is better to give than to receive?"

The only problem with universal laws, of course, is the fact that laws are limited. The capacity of human beings to live within social and ethical structures (laws) is everywhere and always counterbalanced by a sometimes delightful and sometimes horrendous capacity for illegalities. This mind, this life, may weigh the fallout from "it is better to give than to receive" but, by necessity as well as a dancing capriciousness, it simultaneously weighs the possibility that "it is better to receive than to give." Socially and ethically, laws are very good things. But the depth and breadth of human experience cannot be fully expressed or limited by laws. Laws limit, but an actualized peace beckons.

These are matters that are not terribly interesting until they become personal ... as in a spiritual endeavor that has consented to walk through one door or another ... as for example the door marked "it is better to give than receive." Ethically and socially, it's a nifty, legalistic saying. But personally, it requires a bit of effort ... and honest effort can be a pisscutter because honest effort does not exclude anything: Being nice and being naughty are a package deal, not two, conveniently-separable entities. Socially and ethically, human beings obey the law. But human reality is much more imaginative than that ... a wild, wild west of gunslingers and parsons, school houses and whore houses, peaceful farmers and rapacious land barons.

"It is better to give than to receive." As anyone nudges that door open, the first notion on the road to some understanding may be to give all your possessions create some imaginative, Shangri-La of 'the simple life.' The greed or acquisitiveness that led to all these material possessions needs to be banished and the way to banish them is to get rid of the couches and vases and television sets and fine clothes and wrist watches and stock options: If I get rid of this stuff, then magically I will be free of greed and its downside fallout. Anyone is welcome to try this, but those who have tried it know that the accumulated stuff is not the problem; it is not the cause -- stuff is an effect. And the effect is an effect that comes from a gun-totin' wild west mind, a mind capable of damn near anything, a mind as wide open as a prairie, a place where giving and receiving graze and are nourished together.

Having walked through the door and consented to look into things a little, the complexities of "it is better to give than to receive" present themselves. In a land where no-law is the-law, how is anyone to cope? How is anyone to find a bit of peace, a bit of relief? Repeating the law -- mantram-fashion -- over and over again has a limited effect, although spiritual life as a limiting exercise is often popular. But delving deeper and deeper, there comes a time when the limitations of the law are simply not enough. What does this really mean, "it is better to give than to receive?" In what way does it assure a steadied peace on this wild-west stage?

The questions are personal and compelling and there is no singular, mandated, pleasant-to-the-ear answer. There is only one answer -- your answer or my answer or his answer or her answer. In a lawless, juicy, exciting, depressing world, you are the law.

To me, "it is better to give than to receive" means that giving and receiving are how things work. Giver and receiver are intellectual conceits -- convenient in conversation, but incomplete and inept in reality. There is no relief to be had ... giving and receiving are just the way things work. But, in one sense, the way things work is something like a relief after banging my head against some divided, giver-and-receiver, lawful and lawless world. Set aside the "me" and "you" and "them" and it's just what happens. Sure, it's hard work setting such things aside, but it is the only viable course I can see when it comes to giving and receiving. Lawlessness is confusing and painful. Lawfulness is painful and confusing ... if pleasant to the socially-acceptable ear. "Better" and "worse" may be important, but what is true will always beckon and dance and tease in a world that is "better" and "worse."

Once upon a time, I was telling Soen Nakagawa Roshi, about collecting the gingko nuts sitting in a bowl on a table between us. I said a bunch of us learned that he liked them, so we went out and collected and prepared the nuts for him and others at the tea-gathering we were attending. As soon as I had finished telling him this small story, his hand shot down into the bowl of nuts between us and grabbed a fistful. He extended his fist to me and I held out my hands to receive what he was offering. "As you gave them to me, so I give them to you. Do you understand?" he said. And, at the time, I did not. But looking back I think I am willing to say that he was just standing as an example of the obvious ... it was just giving and just receiving ... it was just the way the world went around ... lawless, benevolent and assured... no need for "better."

What could be "better?"

Isn't "better" for head-bangers?


  1. I suppose that would appley to violence as well better to give a black eye then get one or better to give all your money then recieve what you will get if you don't , just a thought was following the train of thought of what you expressed

  2. As an outsider intrigued by your ponderings, I find myself wondering if there are others in your midst with a flair for the metaphysical. If so, you must have a lively household.

  3. Anonymous #2 -- Metaphysics concerns what is not part of the physical world. I am somewhat uncertain as to what something that was not part of the physical world might be. It's a fun idea, though, not least because I never have been able to not-think of a purple cow.