Greatest Generosity and Highest Meditation – Bodhidharma

To give up yourself without regret is the greatest generosity. To transcend movement and stillness is the highest meditation.


The greatest generosity and Highest meditation - Bodhidharma quote

Bodhidharma, the great Buddhist master from South India (5th Century AD) spoke so in China. This is from his famed teaching called the “Wakeup Discourse”. The tradition of Buddhism that he transmitted later came to be known as Chan / Zen.

Through these lines Bodhidharma shows the crucial point of the Buddhist practice – both in meditation and action. Whether it is meditation or action, non-clinging is the very essence of the path to awakening – to transcend boundaries, to open up to the vast expanse of freedom. Meditation and generosity, done correctly, dissolve the shell of self-clinging and reveal the innate perfection of one’s very nature.


The Brilliant Expanse

The true purpose of the Buddhist practice is to discover our natural perfection – the freedom and abilities that are beyond bounds. The nature of our mind is in no way different from that of a Buddha. We have the innate ability to be happy and peaceful, and to bring benefit to all. Our true nature is as vast as a clear and brilliant sky. Yet, we do not recognize that. So, we go on sustaining dualistic emotions and go through cycles of suffering and happiness (called ‘Samsara’).

Right here and now, we can be awakened. Yet, with a narrow view, we divide between self and others and engage in sustaining Samsara. Always putting effort to push and pull with the idea of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’, we keep enhancing a shell of false-ego. This shell is the very root of our problems and covers our true potential. The clinging to this sense of ‘I’ and our narrow views around that are like clouds that shadow the brilliance of our spontaneous perfection.

In the correct Buddhist practice, meditation as well as all actions such as generosity, discipline, and so on are intended to melt away these clouds of delusion – the shell of self-clinging. In contrast, an act of charity that revolves around ideas such as, ‘me, the benevolent one’, ‘me, the one who gets merit’, etc. has no power to take us to greater freedom and lasting happiness.


Encounter with the Emperor Wu

Once, Bodhidharma pointed this out in a stark way when he met Xian Yan, the Emperor Wu of Liang (South China). Buddhism was already wide spread in China by then. The emperor himself was practicing Buddhism. He established many monasteries and constructed stupas and statues. Inspired by the Buddhist value of compassion, he prohibited rituals of animal sacrifices. The Emperor Wu was also against capital punishment. Through his wondrous deeds he was renowned as “Bodhisattva Emperor”. Then, he met Bodhidharma. With great reverence he asked, “O Master, How much merit have I earned by building monasteries and constructing stupas?”. Bodhidharma’s answer was pointblank, “None”.

The emperor was very shocked. Though he was very pious and learned, he missed the crux of Buddhism. He did those great deeds with a sense of ‘I am’. Like most of us, he might have thought, “Oh, I did so much. Others must be praising me. They will be thankful to me. My name will be remembered in history. Surely, I must have accumulated a lot of merit.” Great deeds indeed, but all these were so tightly tied to the sense of I am – turning it into the fuel that sustains Samsara! Thus, these deeds lacked the power to liberate. These did not take him an inch closer to awakening.

Of course, his deeds had the potential to bring him a ‘sweeter’ Samsara for a while. But, that is just like a bubble that swells up, glitters and bursts in an ocean of changing sweetness and bitterness. It does not last. It is not reliable. So, Bodhidharma says that there is no merit in these deeds. The merit that leads to lasting happiness and perfection needs to go towards dissolving the shell of self-grasping. It is generated while giving away the very sense of ‘I am’, and giving away the sense of accumulating merit for oneself.


Many of us turn charity into a glorified ‘spiritual’ practice and miss this crucial point. Many people, while doing charity, also hope for better returns. They hope that the world will praise them for being very pious and generous. And, they hope that the good karma of the charity will ripen as good times in this life and beyond. Always looking with ‘me’, ‘mine’, ‘I want’, ‘what will I gain’, etc., alas! Unless we let go of this tight clutch on the shell of ‘I’ how can we taste the true and lasting joy!


Giving up Your Self

In the generosity that supports the path of awakening, you don’t count and keep note of how much you give. Generosity is perfect only when you give yourself without regret. How do you do that?

When every moment of your life is dedicated to make whoever comes your way happy and free from suffering, when you learn to see happiness and suffering of others as same as your own, in that moment you are giving up your ‘Self’. There, the ego’s shell melts. There is no clinging to ‘I’ as the giver, the other as the recipient and the act of giving as a special act. There is spontaneity. You don’t have to wait for the karmic fruit, as there is joy in the very act of giving.


It transcends the concept of giving because at that point, making others happy is no different from making you happy. So, there is no giving. There, you fully transcend the boundaries of self-grasping and see the face of your true nature. There is the Buddha that you are – your innate potential to accomplish the benefit of all – the boundless openness of possibilities!


Stillness and Movement

Similarly, meditation has to be beyond clinging and beyond glorification as a ‘spiritual’ pursuit. When meditation is glorified, people look for a glorious ‘me’ instead of just opening up to the spontaneous presence of one’s own awareness in all its aspects here and now. Then, that is not the right meditation.

Many people put effort to just stilling the mind. Indeed, it is serene and blissful to experience the gap between two thoughts. But, if you cling on to that stillness and want to remain there free from thoughts forever, it is nothing but self-clinging. If you think that the stillness is yourself and the movement is some other thing, you are missing dynamism and vibrancy. In this way, one ends up clinging to peace and suppresses the natural responsiveness of mind.


Moving thoughts are the natural energy of the still mind. When seen correctly, thoughts do not disturb the peace and clarity of mind, just the same way as waves do not disturb the depth of ocean. Left without grasping, thoughts just rise and dissolve in their own place. In true meditation there is wakeful awareness of the still-mind and its movement. Then, in both movement and stillness, you experience the same clarity, bliss and responsiveness. This highest meditation is also called non-meditation because there is nothing particularly to meditate on.

May all beings let go of the clouds of ‘Self’ and realize the vast expanse and vibrancy of their true nature!

Yogi Prabodha Jnana
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