Part of Summer 2003’s Special Section on Dana: The Practice of Giving.

© Montien Boonma, Courtesy of Asia Society, New York.
© Montien Boonma, Courtesy of Asia Society, New York.

A few days before my family and I were leaving Japan in 1968 after a six-year sojourn, my friend from California came to visit and gave us three grapefruits from a carton that he had brought with him. Because of import restrictions, fruits from abroad, such as grapefruits, melons, and grapes, were a rarity and hence ridiculously expensive. A single grapefruit, for example, would cost several thousand yen, equivalent to twenty dollars at the exchange rate at that time. People bought these exotic, imported fruits primarily to give away as gifts on special occasions.

Since we were returning to California shortly, where grapefruits are in abundance, we decided to give away the three grapefruits. It so happened to be the day that my wife went to her weekly flower-arranging class, so she gave the grapefruits to her teacher. We thought nothing about it, but a couple of days later we received a special delivery letter from the teacher. Written with a brush on traditional Japanese paper and folded carefully, the letter had to be something special. People today use ballpoint pens to dash off missives.

The teacher’s letter began with very formal words about the weather, then she expressed appreciation for the three grapefruits. She wrote that she shared the first grapefruit with her grandchildren, who were thrilled with the fragrance and taste of an exotic fruit that they had never seen before. The second grapefruit she peeled and ate together with an old friend whom she hadn’t seen for over twenty years, making the reunion a very special event. The third grapefruit she took to a hospital, where her best friend was dying of a terminal illness. She hadn’t eaten for more than a week, but when she saw the grapefruit she wanted to try tasting just a little piece. When she finished the first morsel, she asked for one, then another one, until she ate half the grapefruit. The family members watching all this were in tears, happy that their loved one was enjoying something to eat.

The teacher thanked us profusely from the bottom of her heart for the three grapefruits. My first reaction on reading the letter was, “Thank the grapefruits!” But I also reflected on what Hua-yen Buddhism [a school of Chinese Buddhism based on the Flower Garland Sutra] says about a small act of giving that has repercussions in an interdependent and interconnected world. According to this tradition, one small act of charity (dana paramita) is said to be equal to countless acts of charity. No one can measure the effects of a single act of giving, for its repercussions are beyond our limited imagination.

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