I'm taking the 10-month Path of Practice class at the Village Zendo. It's based on the Ten Paramitas, or "Perfections," a list of qualities that Buddhists should encourage in themselves, so we're more useful to others and grow our wisdom.
We're starting with Dana Paramita, the virtue of Generosity (same root as "donation"), and I'll share my reflections on it here.
I'm most generous to things, not to people. The consequences of my work may benefit people, but the way it feels to me, I'm motivated to improve or fix or create a thing. If that makes life better for others that's great, but it isn't the reason I do it.
I work as a programmer for 10gen, a startup developing database software. Part of my work is writing code, and part of it is providing support for customers. Early this week a customer complained to us that some records in their database had become corrupted and couldn't be parsed, probably because of some transient hardware problem. The problem wouldn't recur, but they really wanted those dozen records repaired. They have hundreds of thousands of users, and hundreds of millions of records, but these dozen records were broken and the customer wanted them fixed.
It probably would have been ok to say, "Sorry, those records are gone." Or at least, "We'll see if we can recover them some time soon." But I worked until 11 that night, and started again the next morning, diving into each record and examining it bit by bit, finding the 1s that should have been 0s and the 0s that should have been 1s. I had a sense of urgency, and irritation, that the data could be fixed, but I hadn't done it yet. There is no describing my relief when I was finished. It's one of the most satisfying things I've done.
I ran into my teacher, Enkyo Roshi, while I was buying lunch at Whole Foods. I described what I'd spent the last 8 hours doing and she said, "You're really deep in there. It must be like a body." It was like a body. I had to feel my way through the numbers.
That work was a great generosity, but it didn't occur to me at the time that I was being generous. And it probably didn't look like generosity. At the moments when I was giving the most, I was simultaneously drinking wine, playing techno, fixing the bits, and cursing the customer directly over instant messenger. (He's an old friend.) It didn't look like generosity because my compassion wasn't toward the customer, it was toward the data itself.
When my teacher named me Jiryu, she explained to me what the Chinese characters meant. "Ji" is maintaining, or fixing, and "Ryu" is a flow or a canal. She said my name connotes the person who maintains the irrigation canals in a rice field. I love this. Sometimes people say my name means "healing flow," but that sounds hippy and sentimental to me, and sort of menstrual. "Healing" is not inspiring to me, not like "fixing" is. I want to be a fixer.
My friend Eisho gave a talk at the Zendo tonight about this koan:
Yunyan asked Daowu, "How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?"
Daowu answered, "It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow."
Yunyan said, "I understand."
Daowu asked, "How do you understand it?"
Yunyan said, "All over the body are hands and eyes."
Daowu said, "That is very well expressed, but it is only eight-tenths of the answer."
Yunyan said, "How would you say it, elder brother?"
Daowu said, "Throughout the body are hands and eyes."
—Blue Cliff Record, Case 89, Translated by Joan Sutherland and John Tarrant
"Hands and eyes" describes Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, whose hundreds of hands each has an eye on the palm, so he or she can see the suffering of all beings, and respond. The point of the koan, in my humble opinion, is two-fold: first, that the most effective generosity is an immediate response to a need, the way we adjust a pillow when we're uncomfortable. It's not like signing up for a blood drive so I feel like a good person. When the pillow's out of place, there's an urgency and irritation about fixing it now. The other point about the body is deeper and I will not try to put it in words tonight, or any time soon.
I think there's a wide variation in what motivates people to be generous. Some people are probably satisfied by seeing a need in other people and fulfilling it. It's less so for me. I've certainly done generous things for people this month, like helping a friend move, or paying for dinner, or meditating with prisoners at Sing Sing, but that kind of generosity isn't the strongest urge for me and it's not where I spend most of my time. Rather, it's when I have an idea that I want to make real, or when something's broken that I can fix, that I work the hardest and longest.