The Cycle of Generosity
Yesterday two consecutive offerings were made to the teachers and community at teatime. Two small groups of Tibetan men made presentations of ceremonial white silk scarves and money to the main shrines, then His Eminence, the Sakyong and all the assembled lamas and khenpos while a clear voiced monk read the two groups’ aspirations along with the amount of money being offered to each recipient. After the principal gifts, everyone else at the event was given a small offering, starting with the monastics and finishing with the Tibetan and western lay practitioners. The system has polished up a bit in the past few weeks because the lay people used to receive their gifts along with the monks. Traditionally speaking, the monastics have a higher standing than the lay people because of the level of commitment they’ve made. It’s a bit of a blur, of course, because many of the monks are quite young, but regarding adult monks who’ve taken full ordination the difference is obvious.
During this time, the monks chanted through several general aspirations for the wishes of the benefactors to be filled. The Tibetan donors throughout the ceremony looked both humble and happy. One of them, a fierce looking, brawny man with ruddy cheeks and wearing a tight button down shirt, offered seven prostrations at the start of the ceremony rather than the usual three.
Generosity as a practice within the sangha here has a different flow than within the sangha in the west. The general term for this is kor, the process of offerings, aspirations and meditation that exists as a sort of cycle between the lama, the sangha and the donors. At the Rinchen Terdzo we see it as people make public offerings with aspirations, and then the teachers, and everyone present in the room, respond with practice and open heart.
I have been pondering the differences between East and West with regard to the flow of wealth and requests. In the west (leaving aside individual requests to teachers) most of the retreats I’ve observed in and outside of Shambhala have begun with a formal offering of a mandala, a symbolic representation of the wealth of the whole universe, and a request for the teachings. At the end of the retreat a final mandala offering is made to the teacher in gratitude, usually more elaborate than at the start, and we request the teacher to continue to teach, supplicate for the teacher’s longevity along with the fulfillment of all the teacher’s vision and wishes. At that time a monetary teaching gift is also given. Often short symbolic mandala offerings are made at the start of each teachings session, but except for the final one, there’s no money actually being offered.
At the same time, for the most part in the west, we do not make monetary offerings requesting specific things in public in the middle of a program at tea every other day. And in the west we don’t spread the monetary offering out to every practitioner in the room (even if it is just 20 rupies like yesterday). We just offer to the teachers and sometimes the some or all of the support staff at the end the program.
Kor functions by being a method to deliver requests from the students to the teacher, and as a way for the teacher to connect with people. From the other side, it is a way for people to connect with the teacher and generate merit, positive actions that result in happiness. However, as the Sakyong emphasized when describing kor to me the other day, it is also the lama’s responsibility to actually do the aspirations prayers, meditation or whatever it is. Additionally, if someone in the assembly receives an offering and a request, they are also supposed to do something meditative. This is part of how the sangha works here in Asia. This continues to be provocative to me every time someone puts money in my hands in the shrine room.
As I write I recall a conversation with a Cherokee pipe holder whom I met at Shambhala Mountain Center sixteen years ago. This man was helping his teacher conduct a short program for the staff. To be a pipe holder is to carry the lineage of the Native American wisdom tradition. He said that as a pipe holder one of his obligations was to pray whenever asked. He explained he had no choice about this because the consequences were pretty dark if one let people down in that situation. He told me a story of being completely exhausted once after a day of driving alone in the middle of nowhere. He’d settled down to bed at midnight in a motel and the next thing he knew came a knock at his door. When he opened it he found a couple he’d never seen in his life at his doorstep. They requested him to do a pipe ceremony for someone who was ill. He had no idea how they’d even known he was a Native American, let alone a pipe holder. He said he has no choice in these situations; he has to do what’s right.
A few years back, when I first heard about and later witnessed donors giving money monasteries full of monks, I watched with a combination of curiosity and what I would call a positive skepticism. Sometimes one will hear that the lay community in Asia have a great deal of faith in the ordained sangha. I couldn’t figure out whether this was blind faith or not. As I watched the lay sangha pass out small notes of Nepalese money at a monastery in Kathmandu, I could sense something else was up. I just couldn’t figure out what it was
But sitting and receiving these offerings myself along with the monastics and lay sangha it starts to make sense. It is like being provoked towards compassion once you know what is going on. “You felt it,” the Sakyong said to me, “Somebody’s hopes and aspirations and them giving you a little offering in the shrine hall. You feel bad disregarding it and spending the money somewhere, and you start to think, ‘I should do whatever I am supposed to do’.”
Yesterday as I was watched these Tibetan gentlemen make their wishes known, I noticed His Eminence sit and listen with a completely clear gaze and open attention as soon as the aspirations were read aloud. I was moved by this. And even though I don’t understand what was being read, I did know to open my heart and make silent wishes that all go well for these people and those not here, those that I know and all those that I don’t. This cycle of gift and prayer really seems to be a cycle of love once one steps into it.