The Meaning of Dana Paramita

From Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom
(Dharmamitra Translation)

Question: What is meant by the fulfillment of dana paramita?

Response: The meaning of dana is as discussed above. As for "paara-" (In the language of Ch'in, this means "the other shore.") "-mitaa" (In the language of Ch'in, this means "to reach."), this means to cross the river of giving and to succeed in reaching the other shore.

Question: What is meant by failing to reach the other shore?

Response: It is analogous to crossing over a river but returning before having arrived. This is what is meant by failing to reach the other shore. For example, Sariputra cultivated the bodhisattva way for a period of sixty kalpas, desiring to cross over the river of giving. At that time there was a beggar who came along and demanded that he give him one of his eyes. Sariputra said, "The eye would then be useless. What do you want it for? If you need to put my body to use or if you want any valuables I own, then I'll give those to you."

The beggar replied, "I've got no use for your body and I don't want any valuables you might own. I just want an eye, that's all. If you were truly a cultivator of the practice of giving, then I'd receive an eye from you."

At that time Sariputra pulled out one of his eyes and gave it to him. The beggar got the eye and then right there in front of Sariputra he sniffed it , cursed, "It stinks," spat, and then threw it down on the ground. Then, in addition, he smashed it beneath his foot.

Sariputra thought to himself, "It's a difficult task to cross over such base people as this. He actually had no use for the eye and yet he forcefully demanded it. Having gotten it he not only threw it away, he even smashed it with his foot. How extremely base! People of this sort cannot be crossed over to liberation. Far better that I just concentrate on disciplining myself so as to gain an early liberation from the cycle of birth and death." Having thought this to himself he then turned from the bodhisattva way and directed himself to the lesser vehicle. This is what is meant by failing to reach the other shore. If one is able to advance directly and not retreat and thus complete the buddha way, this constitutes reaching to the other shore.

Then again, to succeed in completing any endeavor is also referred to as "reaching to the other shore." (In the common parlance of India, whenever one takes up a task and then completes it, it is referred to as "reaching the other shore.")

Additionally, [one may say that] "this shore" refers to being miserly, dana refers to being in the midst of the river, and "the other shore" refers to the buddha way.

Also, [one may say that] holding a view which insists on "existence" or "nonexistence" is what is meant by "this shore." The wisdom which refutes views insisting on "existence" or "nonexistence" constitutes "the other shore" whereas the diligent cultivation of giving corresponds to being in the middle of the river.

Then again, [one may also say that] there are two kinds of dana, the first being the dana of demons and the second being the dana of the buddhas. If [in the practice of giving] one is being robbed by the thieves of the fetters such that one is afflicted by worries and abides in fearfulness, this constitutes the dana of the demons and exemplifies what is meant by "this shore."

Where there is pure giving in which there is an absence of the thieves of the fetters and in which there is nothing of which one is fearful, one succeeds thereby in arriving at the buddha way. This constitutes the dana of the buddhas and exemplifies what is meant by "reaching to the other shore." This is "paramita."

By way of illustration, in The Buddha Speaks the Analogy of the Poisonous Snakes Sutra, there once was a man who had offended the King. The King ordered that he be required to carry around a basket and look after it. Inside the basket there were four poisonous snakes. The King ordered the criminal to look after them and raise them. This man thought to himself, "It's a difficult thing to have to draw close to four snakes. If one grows close to them they bring harm to a person. I could not raise even one of them, how much the less could I do that for four of them." And so he cast aside the basket and ran away.

The King ordered five men carrying knives to chase after him. There was yet another man who tried to persuade him to obey. [This other man] had it in mind to bring him harm and so said to him, "Just raise them in a sensible fashion. There will be no suffering in that."

But the man became wise to this and so ran off, fleeing for his life. When he came to an empty village there was a good man who assisted him by telling him, "Although this village is empty, it is a place that is frequented by thieves. If you now take up residence here you will certainly be harmed by the thieves. Be careful. Don't dwell here." At this point he took off again and next arrived at a great river. On the other side of the river there was a different country. That country was a peaceful, blissful and easeful place. It was a pure place devoid of any form of calamity or adversity. Then he gathered together a mass of reeds and branches and bound them into the form of a raft. He moved it along with his hands and feet. He exerted all of his strength in seeking to make a crossing. When he had reached the other shore he was at peace, happy and free of distress.

The King represents the demon king. The basket represents the human body. The four poisonous snakes represent the four great elements. The five knife-wielding thieves represent the five aggregates. The man of fine speech but evil mind represents defiled attachment. The empty village represents the six sense faculties. The thieves represent the six sense objects. The one man who took pity on him and instructed him represents the good [spiritual] teacher. The great river represents love. The raft represents the eightfold right path. The hands and feet earnestly applied to making a crossing represent vigor. This shore represents this world. The other shore represents nirvana. The man who crossed over represents the arhat who has put an end to outflows. This is just the same in the dharma of the bodhisattva.

If in giving there exist the three obstructions of an "I" who gives, an "other" who receives and a valuable object which is given, then one falls into a demonic mental state wherein one has not yet left behind multiple difficulties. In the case of giving as performed by the bodhisattva, it is characterized by three kinds of purity in which there is an absence of these three obstructions and in which one has succeeded in reaching to the other shore. It is such as is praised by the buddhas. This is what is meant by dana paramita. On account of this it is referred to as having reached the other shore. These six paramitas are able to cause a person to cross over the great sea of miserliness, over the other afflictions and beyond defiled attachment so that one reaches to the other shore. It is for this reason that they are referred to as "paramitas."