Sensei Nancy Mujo Baker Dharma Talk

The Eighth Precept “Not Being Stingy”

by Sensei Nancy Mujo Baker

There are many ways of studying the precepts. What I would like to do here is to use the 8th precept to illustrate a way of actually practicing with the precepts. There are two parts to this practice, as I see it. One is to use one’s imagination to extend the narrower, more literal meaning of the precept to cover much more than we normally think of. By doing this the precept can come alive for each of us in our own individual lives in exactly the way it needs to. Once I identify the best way to understand the precept for me, then I can take it into my life and work with it. This is the tricky part. We have a tendency to treat the precepts as fodder for the superego. Not only is this not what the precepts are, but also this is no way to practice anything, since it involves rejecting parts of ourselves, which leads to rejecting others. The precepts are not about ‘should’ or ‘should not.’ We could, I suppose, try to distinguish between using the precepts as ‘guides’ of some kind as opposed to ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots,’ but there is a deeper way to practice with them, even for the beginner. Once I see the best way for me to understand the precept in question, then I can get to know myself in relation to that precept. This is a practice of no preferences, no judgments, no shoulds, no ideas of failure. It is a practice of simply allowing what is. I will explain more below how to deepen that practice, but the outcome of going deeper and deeper is that the precepts begin to manifest themselves naturally in my life.

“Stingy”-it’s a funny word. I think of Scrooge. It’s a word that gives me a certain feeling. “Stingy.” We usually think of it in terms of possessions and possessiveness. Not sharing what I own. Being tight with money. And notice the word “tight” that we use here. It describes what it actually feels like to be stingy. There are many ways of being stingy. For example, a friend of mine, someone I dearly love, is very stingy with the servings that she gives to people, whenever she is the hostess. It’s noticeable. Everything is very small. Here’s a perfect version of what we normally mean by “stingy.” It’s a poem of Rumi’s.


Dervish at the Door

A dervish knocks at a house to ask for a piece of dry bread.
Or moist, it didn’t matter.
“This is not a bakery,” said the owner.
“Might I have a bit of gristle, then?”
“Does this look like a butcher shop?”
“A little flour?”
“Do you hear a grinding stone?”
“Some water?”
“This is not a well.”
Whatever the dervish asked for, the man made some
tired joke and refused to give him anything.
Finally the dervish ran into the house, lifted his robe and
squatted as though to take a shit.
“Hey, hey!”
“Quiet, you sad man. A deserted place is a fine spot to
relieve oneself.
And since there’s no living thing here or needs of living,
it needs fertilizing.”
The dervish began his own list of questions and answers.
“What kind of bird are you?
Not a falcon trained for the royal hand,
Not a peacock painted with everyone’s eyes,
Not a parrot that talks for sugar cubes,
Not a nightingale that sings like someone in love.
Not a hoopoe that brings messages to Solomon.
Or a stork that builds on a cliffside.
What exactly do you do?
You are no known species.
You haggle and make jokes to keep what you own for
You have forgotten about the One who doesn’t care about ownership. Who doesn’t try to turn a profit from every human


The One. Ultimate Reality. The faceless One, who never tries ‘to turn a profit’ from anything at all. We, on the other hand, are always trying to turn a profit from every human exchange, and from other things as well. We’re always trying to get something-admiration, love, recognition, praise, acknowledgement, even just staying connected. Think how we manipulate and bargain and negotiate to turn a profit from every human exchange. Much of this is very unconscious. Habituated. Even when we give, or serve, or love, or pay attention, we’re trying to get something. Sometimes it’s just to get back some of what we give.

So what are we stingy with in all these cases? One of the things we’re stingy with is one hundred percent. We’re stingy with the possibility of doing something one hundred percent. Imagine loving one hundred percent. Imagine acknowledging someone one hundred percent with no thought of getting something in return, which would take part of it away, and make it seventy percent. Sometimes twenty percent. We’re also stingy with the truth. Stingy with the truth of what’s really going on in us, with us, what we really want. We hold onto it, hold it back, withhold it. We play our cards close to the chest–covering the heart.

We also try to turn a profit in practice. We always try to get something from practice. We try to get better. We try to get enlightenment. We try to get seen for doing it right. What am I being stingy with here? Wholehearted surrender to the present moment. Think how stingy we are with that. Think how much we hold on. We also imagine that in practicing what we will ‘get’ will be ours, which is, of course, the greatest delusion of all.

And then there is surrender. In addition to treating it as a bargaining tool-“I’ll surrender to the present moment and then get something back”-we imagine that it is something we can do. So, how do we surrender? How do we do this non-doing? We have to be taken-ravished, if you will. We can only prepare the conditions for being ‘taken.’ Taken by what?-by the present moment, by Ultimate Reality, by the Absolute, by God. And the way we prepare those conditions is what I was talking about last night. It’s by staying here now. By going vertically. By giving up all of our horizontal negotiations. Bargaining. Something stingy people do all the time. Bargain, bargain. I’ll do this if you do that. I’ll do this in order to get that. So it’s always a kind of tit for tat. Conditional. Think of the notion of unconditional love. It’s interesting that we usually think about how nice it would be to receive it.

So, we are stingy with anything we hold onto. We are stingy with anything we’re unwilling to open to. Any person we are unwilling to open to. Any situation we’re unwilling to open to. Anything that’s going on in us that we are unwilling to open to. Stingy when we’re not fully participating in what’s happening. What’s here. What’s now. Imagine fully participating, wholeheartedly being here, whatever it is. A class. A meeting. A dinner. Gardening. Fully participating. We are stingy when we’re withholding anything about the truth of where we are. We’re stingy when we don’t take risks. We’re stingy when we’re not compassionate. We’re stingy with our tears. With kind words. With open-heartedness. With open-mindedness.

What else are we stingy with? What else do we hold onto? Security. Self-images. Pain. Suffering. Unwillingness to suffer. Being right. Truth. Love. Being a victim. Need for recognition. Time. Praise. Think how we hang onto those things. We don’t give them away. We don’t share them. One of the important things that we’re stingy with is gratitude. Remember the practicing we did with saying “thank you,” with noticing what gets in the way of saying “thank you” and how different it can be for each of us? It’s amazing how stingy we can be with “thank you.” Think of the meal gatha, which is about gratitude, and begins with, “Seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.” Are we whole-hearted in knowing that, in expressing that gratitude? Or are we stingy? Do we even remember it each time we eat? I think Mary Oliver is reminding us of this whole-heartedness in this poem.



It grew in the black mud,
It grew under the tiger’s orange paws,
Its stems thinner than candles and as straight.
Its leaves like the feathers of egrets, but green.
The grains cresting, wanting to burst.
O, blood of the tiger.

I don’t want you just to sit down at the table.
I don’t want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.


We can also be stingy with receiving gratitude. With receiving praise. I’ve told you many times the story of my great lesson at age sixteen that took so many years to really sink in, when my favorite teacher complimented me on the stairway. I remember exactly where I was standing. And I behaved like a stingy sixteen-year-old, embarrassed and pleased, wanting to hang onto it probably, but in any case, making a mess of it. She took my forearm with her long, slender fingers and said, “Don’t be so ungracious.” And I’ll never forget it. It was a kind of stinginess. To not receive what is given to us as gratitude, to not be gracious. This is being stingy. Many of Mary Oliver’s poems are about being grateful for and graciously receiving the world. Here are two lines from “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches”:


Do you think this world is only an entertainment for you?
Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy to let you in.


What about being stingy with our lives? Actually, before getting to our lives, I think it might be worth going back to Dogen. “One phrase, one verse, ten thousand forms, one hundred grasses, one Dharma, one realization, all Buddhas. All teachers. Since the beginning there has never been being stingy.” What he’s talking about there is Ultimate Reality, the Absolute, the faceless One, the “One,” as Rumi calls it. There is nothing stingy about the One. Nothing. This world that is manifested over and over and over again-from moment to moment. There is nothing stingy there. It is a gift. And we are given. And it is given to us. Constantly. Alive. Pulsating. Love, trees, fingers, the sea and its dividing water when we step in. Everything, even Auschwitz

From Master Keizan’s Denkoroku:


The light of the Mind- moon, and colors of the eye-flower are
Shining forth and blooming beyond time, who can appreciate them?
Sourceless stream from a ten-thousand-foot cliff,
Washing out stones, scattering clouds, gushing forth.
Brushing away the snow, making the flowers fly wildly-
A length of pure white silk beyond the dust.


Look at the language here: “shining forth,” “blooming,” “gushing forth.” That length of pure white silk beyond the dust displays no stinginess in its manifestation. Spring blossoms, sweeping, walking, Auschwitz, nuclear waste, life, death, our lives-all ‘gushing forth.’ Another verse from Master Keizan uses my favorite image:


That One whose whole life is extremely active and lively
We call the One who raises the eyebrows and blinks.


That One, the faceless One, raises the eyebrows and blinks. A wonderful image of this manifest world, this world of many-ness, that we live in, that we are. That One, whose life is extremely active and lively. Nothing stingy here, or, as Dogen says, “Since the beginning there has never been Being Stingy.”

What about my life? What about myself? What about not being stingy with my life? With the ingredients of my life? But much more than that. To not be stingy with my life, with myself, is to fully express myself at every moment. Fully, bursting, expressing myself. Everything that I am. And this is not ‘exercising my talents.’ So I can say, “I want to fully express myself.” And I’m just sitting here not doing what I really could be doing with my life, with my gifts, with my talents. That’s not what fully expressing oneself means. Those talents may be expressed when one is fully expressed-and maybe not. When we are fully expressed, we are transparent. There is no one there to know they are talents much less my talents. Nor is it my life. Again, from “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches,” Mary Oliver has the following two lines:


Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
É .
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?


I would add ‘stinginess.’

Not being stingy with one’s life, with one’s self, with this precious short, short gift we’ve been given is often associated with voice, with finding one’s voice, one’s ‘own voice,’ we say. And it’s amazing how this shows up in all the traditions. I think the throat chakra is about this, it’s about the voice, about being fully expressed. Here are some short poems of Rumi’s about this.:


Let your throat song be clear
and strong enough
To make an emperor fall full length
suppliant at the door.
É É É É .
You that come to birth
and bring the mysteries.
Your voice thunder
makes us happy.
Roar lion of the heart
and tear me open.


In Buddhism we have the lion’s roar. Mary Oliver in a prose poem has a version of this. Notice, the speck of my heart, my heart is just a speck, when I am stingy.


And the speck of my heart, in my shed of flesh
and bone, began to sing out, the way the sun
would sing if the sun could sing, if light had
a mouth and tongue, if the sky had a throat É


Voice, our primary example of expression, shows up as a metaphor for the manifestation of the One as well in the notion that everything “preaches the Dharma.” As Dogen says in a little verse, “Are not even the sounds of the bustling marketplace, the preaching of the Dharma?” No stinginess here. Everything preaches the Dharma-nuclear waste, skunks, flowers, grass-and does so fully and completely. What is is not stingy. There is nothing withheld.

So here we are, stingy in this way and that, wanting not to be. How do we work with this? The first thing is to not be stingy in discovering who we are in relation to stinginess. “Where am I stingy? About what? With whom?” we need to ask. Can we take a good, neutral look at ourselves, with no preferences? Can we compassionately allow what is, or who I am in the relative sense? Can we explore deeply enough to feel the withholding, the tightness, maybe even the fear? Can we feel safe enough, not-stingy enough to express who we are, where we are, to another? Coming to terms with who I am in relation to stinginess and to do so with no judgement is one thing, but to be not-stingy enough to place my stinginess right out on the table before others takes the practice even deeper. This is where our practice circle work is really useful.

What are we doing when we do this? What is happening? Master Sosan, the author of the poem that begins with “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences” also says something in that poem about letting things “take their course.” It’s as if everything wants to liberate itself, to take its course, and we, out of our fear, out of our stinginess, prevent that from happening. Here is another poem of Mary Oliver’s precisely about this:


The Kookaburras

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to come out of its cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, kingfishers, pressed against the edge of
their cage, they asked me to open the door.
Years later I wake in the night and remember how I said to them,
no, and walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.


By opening that cage door, by letting out whatever we hold in us, we are letting things ‘take their course.’ We are then not being stingy with stinginess, stealing, speaking ill of other faults and all the other precepts. By letting the kookaburras fly away we let them take their course and transform themselves. Then the precepts begin to naturally manifest.

I will end with Dogen on his enlightenment.


For fifty-four years
Following the way of heaven,
Now leaping beyond
shattering every barrier.
To cast off all attachments
While still alive!
Plunging into the yellow spring!


This is the precept of not being stingy.