by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett

(The following section on benevolence is an except from The Roar of the Tigress, page 171-175, Shasta Abbey Press, 2000. This book is drawn from the many lectures of the late Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett that had been taped and transcribed. The late Rev. Master Daizui MacPhillamy did a masterful job of editing these talks into this book.)

Scripture: If one creates wise ways of helping beings, whether they be in high places or lowly stations, one exhibits benevolence: no reward was sought by those who rescued the helpless tortoise and the sick sparrow, these acts being utterly benevolent. The stupid believe that they will lose something if they give help to others, but this is completely untrue for benevolence helps everyone, including oneself, being a law of the universe. (Shushogi-Great Master Dogen)

If you think about it, very few people realize that benevolence is a law of the universe. We never think about air—be grateful for it—until somebody has stuck too much pollution in it; then we complain about the pollution. We don’t give thanks for the fact that the air is there anyway. These are the reasons that you bow to your seat and you bow to the wall before and after meditation. If it wasn’t for the carpet and the floor, you would have no place to sit; if it wasn’t for the wall, you would have no place where to rest your eyes quietly while you meditate. It is not a benevolent act to look at the carpet and say it’s dirty, or to look at the wall and say it’s spotty. Just as with the news, which only ever seems to print bad news and never prints good, so also with us: we never give thanks for what we’ve actually got; we are never grateful for what we have got, we only complain about it. Benevolence is the opposite of this: creating wise ways to help beings. In some respects, cleaning the carpet is a wise way to help beings. But at a later date, one must realize that it doesn’t matter whether the carpet is cleaned at all. It’s just a place to sit; it is, of itself, benevolent.

Benevolence is perhaps one of the most difficult of these four wisdoms to understand, for everything in nature is at all times helping beings, yet, man is usually unaware of the fact. The trees are helping us, the flowers help us, not just by their beauty and their shade, but by what they do to the air. Our children and our animals are helping us. What are we doing in return? The trees have given us wood upon which to sit. We’ve just taken them; we haven’t thought that the tree lost its life to give it. As you get deeper and deeper into benevolence, you begin to look at a cabbage and realize the acceptance of the thing, which is to be willing to be sacrificed so we can continue to live. Then you start looking at why the scriptures (for lunch and supper and the like) are the way they are: “We must think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come. We must consider our merit when accepting it.” Have we really, truly realized what we are doing? We are killing things so that we may stay alive. So what are we doing, what are we giving, in return? What are we actually offering? Or are we just taking, are we just greedy?

“We accept what we eat so we won’t become lean and die”: that’s the reason we eat, not so we can hack some poor frog’s legs off because we think they’re tasty. I put something in our quarterly Journal about this once, about the way in which India is killing off all its frogs and then complaining that it hasn’t got various crops which the frogs ate the bugs from, and we then have to give them aid. What we are really doing is supporting the habit of certain people to eat frogs, but it takes a long time before you can look at it from that angle. There are very few frogs who actually make it: I think it’s one in five thousand eggs makes it to full frogdom, and then we chop off its legs as soon as it’s made it! “Think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come. Consider your merit when accepting it.” Remember that you’re only eating so as not to become lean and die. Don’t go around destroying things because you want taste. But, if your body needs meat because it’s the only way you can survive, because you are sick, then Buddhism has always said that this is fair—because you may not commit the greater crime of causing yourself to die, because then, and only then, would you not be able to find the Unborn. And perhaps if by eating the meat you can stay alive, then you can help other people to find the Unborn. Then something has sacrificed itself for a great cause and has, in fact, become a Bodhisattva. But you do not go out in order to get a steak because you fancy a steak. “We eat so that we will not become lean and die.” And we eat also so that we may become enlightened: “We accept this food so that we may become enlightened.”

“The five thoughts” at mealtime (which actually give us the whole of the meaning of benevolence, the purpose there, the making of offerings): everything is offering itself to us; what are we doing? When we start thinking that way, we start making the offering of benevolence to other things. Make your life have a purpose, then everything will offer itself to you with joy, and you will make your offering with joy. The whole universe will blaze up in joy! I have felt it do it, and it’s exquisite! But don’t be surprised if then your body is happy with the same meal every day of the week because it knows the purpose of the meal: that you eat solely for the food value and the good of your health. And, yes, the taste buds won’t be satisfied as they were before. What’s even funnier is they don’t want to be, because the purpose for eating is now clear. The same thing applies to making too much in the way of clothes or furniture or anything of this sort: you need just enough and no more.

Now, you should not make yourself—as the world regards it—weird in this sense. We are not here to become strange; we are here to find the Unborn. We accept the benevolence of all things so that we may find the Unborn, and we give benevolence so that all things, and all beings, that have not yet found the Unborn may find it. In this place, “the wooden figure sings and the stone maiden dances.” That is the meaning of those two lines in the morning scriptures. Anybody got anything they want to say about this one?

Audience comment: “It doesn’t seem like there’s much of a difference between charity and benevolence.”

There actually is; there’s quite a bit, because charity is something that we ourselves do, and benevolence is recognizing something that everything else is doing and then going along with it. In charity you don’t recognize it, you just do, but in benevolence you’ve got this two-way thing going very beautifully. And in charity the feedback the self wants is gratitude and, when charity is done correctly, the feedback you get naturally is gratitude. But in benevolence, because it is the two-way thing, the feedback you get is joy. There is a difference: they all interact on each other, but one seems to “blaze up” in a different way, and it is essential to have that difference. Anybody else?

So you all understand benevolence? Right, we’ll look at the next one. It is important, by the way, to realize that benevolence is a law of the universe, whereas charity is not. Benevolence is obvious in every single thing, even in things that humans have made—like the road out there, for example. The sun bakes it, the cars go up and down on it, the drunks and the dogs do various things on it, we walk on it, and it does the very best it can of being a road. Sometimes the strain is so great that it cracks, and then we have to be benevolent to it and mend it. Everything is doing the very best it can at all times to help us find the Unborn, and that is what makes it a law of the universe. So keep that well in mind. The road that you travel is one of the finest Bodhisattvas you’ve got: it is just being itself, the very finest road. Don’t swear about its potholes; get out and mend them. If all you see of the road is its potholes, you will never see its Bodhisattvahood, and you will not understand this law of the universe.