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Bodaisatta Shishobo – The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Dharmas, Part 1: Giving

War damage in Gaza, 10 October 2023. From

The unconscionable attacks by Hamas militants in Gaza on Israeli civilians and the appalling bombing of Gaza City by Israel’s military are bodyblows to humanity. There is no way to measure or compare the moral injury of intergenerational trauma. As I write this, we await an imminent ground invasion of Gaza—Israel’s attempt to root out Hamas by going house to house in the bombed-out wasteland that Gaza has become. Surely, this invasion will cost the lives of countless Palestinian civilians, along with those of the young Israeli troops. And there is no coherent vision for how this conflict, many decades in the making, will end but with destruction all around. 

This is madness. 

War is madness. 

As Martin Luther King Jr. preached in his sermon, titled “Loving Your Enemies,” in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957:

. . . hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. . . . The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil . . . and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.

With his words in mind, I offer this reflection from Zen Master Eihei Dogen. May his wisdom serve us. 


Several years after returning from China in 1227, Zen Master Dogen created the first Japanese Soto Zen monastery, Kosho-ji, in the southern reaches of Kyoto. There he found the right setting to practice, teach, write, and develop a monastic community devoted to his zazen-centered approach to Zen. But the social climate of Kamakura Japan, which saw the full flowering of new and popular forms of Buddhism, including the Zen, Shin, and Nichiren schools, was marked by feudalism, political tensions, and civil strife, which even played out among rival Buddhist traditions.

In May of 1243, very likely in the midst of internecine violence among Buddhists, Dogen Zenji wrote “Bodaisatta Shishobo – The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Dharmas”—the 28th fascicle of his masterwork Shobogenzo—presenting it to his community as guidance for how to respond skillfully to their difficult circumstances. At the top of their minds, no doubt, was their imminent removal from Kosho-ji to the wilds of Echizen Province, where Dogen founded Eihei-ji—the Temple of Eternal Peace—in the remaining 10 years of his life. By late July 1243, they were gone from Kosho-ji. I can only imagine what a wrenching departure that was. I think of this today, as war burns through Israel and Gaza, playing out as a nightmare, extending decades of intergenerational trauma. 

There must be an alternative to these cycles of hatred and violence.

Shishobo* presents four direct methods of social interaction; four ways that we can embrace each other. These four Dharmas are: Giving; Loving Speech; Beneficial Action; and what Dogen calls Identity-Action (more accessibly translated as Cooperation). These were already ancient practices in Dogen’s time. The four sangaha vatthu, variously translated as the four ways of showing favor, the foundations of social unity, or the bonds of fellowship, are found in the early Pali texts as the Sangaha Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya IV.32), andin the principal Mahayana sutras.

Hozan Alan Senauke. From

To embrace is to encircle. I put my arms around you; you put your arms around me. This is how we turn toward each other and show our love. To embrace is to unify, to make one of two. In an embrace, the limits of body, skin, feelings, thoughts momentarily merge. Seen from the outside, two beings are briefly one, dancers together on the vast stage of life.

Each Dharma is a practice, pointing toward compassion and embrace. Or more accurately, how we express the truth that we are not separate from each other. Because we are not separate from others, these four Dharmas move both bodhisattvas and sentient beings toward freedom from the poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. In the act of embrace there is no distinction between self and other, between a bodhisattva and an ordinary being.

But to embrace is not simply merging or a mushy and meaningless oneness. When an embrace ends, when the dance is over, we return to our individuality. But something is changed. Consider the first embracing Dharma, Giving. This is a bodhisattva’s essential practice (Skt: dana paramita). Giving one’s attention, friendship, community, material aid, and spiritual teachings. Community and fearlessness. And we offer our respect, our voices, incense, flowers, light, tea, and food. Our gifts circulate, without us holding on to them possessively.

Giving includes all the other Embracing Dharmas. Dogen begins “Shishobo” by explaining:

Giving or Offering means not being greedy. Not to be greedy means not to covet. Not to covet commonly means not to flatter. Even if we rule the four continents, in order to offer teachings of the true Way we must simply and unfailingly not be greedy. It is like offering treasures we are about to discard to those we do not know. We give flowers blooming on the distant mountains to the Tathagata, and offer treasures accumulated in past lives to living beings. Whether our gifts are Dharma or material objects, each gift is truly endowed with the virtue of Offering or dana

Giving begins with the recognition that there is nothing but giving in the whole universe. The universe and all beings are continuously giving. This is our spiritual understanding. And yet each of us must still do our part and cultivate the practice of giving. I give myself to practice, and practice offers itself to enlightenment and peace. But in this world, peace often implies its shadow side, war. The taste of tears, corrosive doubt, and decay fall within the circle of my own body and mind. War is here, right where I am fooled by self-attachment and privilege. True giving means giving up one’s small self. It means not hiding. It also means giving fearlessness by showing others that I am willing to face my own failure and despair as a natural part of being completely alive.

We offer gifts and guidance in many forms. At the heart of these teachings is the understanding that peace is connection. On a simple level, material goods are given. On a higher level, teaching is shared. And on the highest level, there is just connection, the endless society of being, the vast assembly of bodhisattvas. In Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (Vintage, 1983), he describes dinner in a restaurant in the South of France:

The patrons sit at a long communal table, and each finds before his plate a modest bottle of wine. Before the meal begins, a man will pour his wine not into his own glass but into his neighbor’s. And his neighbor will return the gesture, filling the first man’s empty glass. In an economic sense nothing has happened. No one has any more wine than he did to begin with. But society has appeared where there was none before.

Palestinians inspect the ruins of a residential building in Gaza City, 8 October 2023. From

The gift itself is only a gift so long as it remains in circulation. A monk or nun carries an empty bowl from house to house, or sits in the zendo with oriyoki bowls arrayed out on the tan floor mat. The bowl is emptiness, yet in this material world, food is offered so that one may live. Emptiness and form embrace and dance. Having eaten, the monk transforms food into action and practice, which is offered again to nourish all beings.

Giving is not an abstract thing. It occurs in the world itself. Dogen writes:

To provide a boat or to build a bridge is offering as the practice of dana-paramita. When we carefully learn the meaning of giving, both receiving our body and giving up our body are offering. Earning our livelihood and managing our business are, from the outset, nothing other than giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, and entrusting birds to the season may also be the meritorious

In all our worldly actions we should consider what others need and what we can give without nourishing our own self-centeredness. This is always a difficult practice. Dogen says bluntly, “The mind of a living being is difficult to change.”  This is true for others . . . and for ourselves. 

May a miracle of wisdom and compassion enlighten the warring leaders on all sides, along with the leaders who stand at the wayside, profiting on the weapons they purvey.

In my next article for this column, I will write about the three remaining Embracing Dharmas: Kind Speech; Beneficial Action; and Cooperation.

Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, California
October 2023

* A long essay, “The Bodhisattva’s Embrace” and a full translation of “Bodaisatta Shishobo” can be found in my book The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines (Clear View Press, 2010). Also, Kaz Tanahashi’s translation of “Shishobo” as “The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance” can be found in his Dogen collection Moon in a Dewdrop (North Point Press, 1995).

See more

Berkeley Zen Center
Clear View Project
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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