Give and Take

posted Apr 10, 2012, 4:57 PM by Tai Jin
There was a story about two souls ready to be born into the world as humans. God told them to choose what kind of person they wanted to be: either a person with palms facing upward or a person with palms facing downward. The first soul decided that it would be better to be a person with palms facing upward, because that meant receiving things (fortune, etc.) without putting in much effort. The second soul decided that it would be better to be a person with palms facing downward, because that meant always giving to others. So after they were born, the first person became a beggar who was constantly begging for food, while the second person became a wealthy philanthropist who was always giving to those in need. Who do you think has the better life: the one who always took or the one who always gave?

Common people tend to equate gains with that of taking and receiving. Enlightened people take the opposite view that equates gains with that of giving. This is illustrated by the marvelous and profound construction of the Chinese characters 捨得 for "willingness to give or part with something." When taken separately, the first character means to give (as in charity), and the second character means to obtain or gain (as in getting something in return). So the profound meaning of the two characters taken together is that if we are willing to give then we will automatically gain something in return. What we gain in return is not necessarily material in nature: it could be something less tangible such as a feeling of happiness or contentment, or merit, etc.

The more we give, the more we get in return. This is a natural consequence of the law of cause and effect. People will generally reciprocate our smile, kindness, etc., and if people do not reciprocate, Heaven will reciprocate. This is because giving is an act of being selfless, whereas taking is a an act of selfishness. Selfish acts are not rewarded, because there is no need to. After all, we are already getting something for ourselves. On the other hand, selfless acts are rewarded, because we have benefited others. Therefore, it is only natural that we gain something in return. And the gains could be even greater than what we give. If we smile at a group of people, everyone smiles back at us. So have we not gained more smiles than we gave?

We should always give to benefit others, not to seek rewards. Even though we might give "selflessly," if we are seeking rewards then the act cannot be considered completely selfless and what we get in return will be limited by our own expectations. Therefore, we must realize that we should give naturally, without any kind of motivation or expectation other than that it is the "right" thing to do (this is called 無為, or we can say that we are just doing something out of the goodness of our heart). After all, to benefit others is to benefit ourselves, because as Buddha would say, I am you, and you are me. We are one and the same, linked by our Buddha Nature.