I must first admit — I started this blog too late. If I had started posting when I first started reading the Buddhacarita, and was toying with the idea of writing on it, you would have been presented with my earlier editions of its summaries. Perhaps that can still be presented somewhere down the road, but now I’m way more interested to tell you about some interesting points gleaned today through discussions with my fellow researchers, Eric and Gabo.
Discovering almsgiving and the continuation of the teachings with Gabo
Speaking to Gabo was an opportunity to see how our individual research connects, hers being on the liminality protrayed in tales of Buddhist heroes, like Vessantara and Siddharta. When describing to her about my currently difficulty in trying to find a chiasmic match to the occurrence of Nandabala offering milk rice to the Bodhisattva close to the time of enlightenment, I gave Gabo a sequence of events that went:
Heavenly being tells Nandabala to offer food to the Bodhisattva; Nandabala offers food
On the other side of the story, in the post-enlightenment portion, the Buddha was approached by “two chiefs of the heavenly dwellings” and requested to endow the world with his spiritual teachings and realizations.
It immediately became apparent that what was common was the role of the heavenly beings. The divine instigator caused the offering of food to the Buddha and the heavenly chiefs requested for teachings — which struck me..,that this is the exact model that the Buddha and his ordained community was to live by during the Buddha’s day. Lay devotees would invite the Buddha and his disciples to partake of a meal, and, at the end of the meal, the Buddha delivered a suitable discourse to the almsgivers.
We postulated that perhaps every act of almsgiving symbolically reenacts the Buddha’s enlightenment, and thereby cause the passing down of the spiritual teachings possible. And Gabo said she has received new inspiration for her thesis.
Exploring an alternative way of understanding the dynamics of giving with Eric
Mentioning this to Eric quickly pushed me to think deeper about this issue. What surprised me was that he didn’t find the point that the heavenly beings were the ones who first initiated the giving food-receiving teachings pattern quite as interesting as I thought it was. For him, this was a well-established practice among the ascetics during the Buddha’s time, and Chinese Buddhist thought has always seen the act of giving food as one to be met with the return of the favor through delivery of the sermon.
This made me go back to the text, to see if perhaps there was something more, And I struck gold (hopefully)! It turns out we can talk about the function of this giving of food to spiritual practitioners, which is essentially to sustain their lives and thus wisdom, and in turn so they can share and spread their realizations.
Eric then pointed to how there were discussions of how some scholars conceptualize giving as an exchange for spiritual brownie points — merit or good karma — and how our discussion reveals an alternative way to this supposed paradigm of spiritual exchange. But I believe what we are looking at is widely relevant to even mundane economics of trading.
Instead of looking at an exchange as one which involves giving money for good, we can perhaps think of how our obtaining of a product through the payment of cash as an act of sustaining the producer(s) of the good. In other words, we are voting for the continued supply of the good by sustaining the model and producers that makes the good/service possible.
Perhaps, just perhaps, this could be the start of my project on a Buddhist view of economics.