Give freely and receive graciously.
Dana is the first of the 10 paramis, the “perfections,” that Theravaden Buddhism encourages us to practice.
Whenever the Buddha taught, especially to lay people, the first thing he taught was Dana.
Why did he do that?
There are two principal reasons. The first is that everyone, no matter their level of education or intelligence or physical ability, can practice generosity. The second is that Dana is a direct antidote to grasping, the cause of suffering. When you grasp something your hand has to close around it. When you are being generous, when you are offering something, your hand has to open and let go.
In our culture we are encouraged to define ourselves by what we possess: the cool car, the nice house, the good job, the latest electronic gizmo. All these things are “mine.” Thinking in this way we create a sense of separateness, of me and not me. Our self-image is propped up by owning these things. They help us define who we are: our status, our rank in society relative to others.
I had a student once who wore a t-shirt that said, “The person with the most toys when they die wins.” That pretty well sums up our culture.
Generosity allows us to start thinking of our possessions, of the things we use to carry on our daily lives, not so much as “mine” and more as “just stuff.” We have this thing now because we need it. When we no longer need it, or someone needs it more, we can simply let the user of the object change. I don’t need to cling to anything. Generosity not only breaks down our sense of a separate self, it helps us connect to the needs and suffering of others, to feel more connected to everyone else. Generosity increases our ability to experience compassion.
Generosity is what Buddhists call a wholesome mind state.
The more often our mind is in a wholesome state, the less often we get dragged down by being in an unwholesome mind state like greed. It is also a long lasting mind state. We feel it when we contemplate the act of giving, we feel it as we actually give something and we feel it afterwards, reflecting on our act of generosity.
This does not mean we should fill ourselves with feelings of self-importance. Giving just becomes a natural act. We become one with the flow of stuff. Nothing special. We need to be careful not to start thinking that we are somehow better than the one we are giving to. This simply takes us back to the mind state of us and them.
We need to give whatever we give gladly, without regret and with no need for praise. The quality of our feelings as we give affects the process, and the receiver. There is a great story from the Buddha’s time that illustrates this.
All of the bikhus, the monastic students of the Buddha, had gathered together for the rains retreat, a three month period when they didn’t travel but instead stayed with the Buddha and practiced. Part of the discipline of the monks was that they couldn’t grow food, store food or handle money. They were totally dependent on the generosity of the nearby lay people for their daily meal. A famous lay disciple of the Buddha, a wealthy merchant, gladly fed 500 of them every day. When the local king heard about this he decided he couldn’t be out done, and ordered his cooks and servants to prepare a big feast every day and feed another 500 monks. The monks would come, but never eat the food in his presence. The king got curious, wondering why he never saw them eat the food. What he found out was that the monks would take the food, give it to other lay disciples, who would then immediately give it back to them, but without any attitude of self-importance. Then the monks could eat it.
Another aspect of generous acts we should always keep in mind lettomg other people give to us. Let them experience the joy of giving. Often when someone offers us something, especially if it is something we don’t particularly need or perhaps even like, or if we feel that they really can’t afford to give, we politely (or so we think) decline. This is very ungenerous of us. It breaks the cycle of generosity. It reinforces our own sense of superiority. Just take whatever is offered. You can always pass it on again to someone else later.
Generosity doesn’t have to mean giving material things or money. In fact, often the most generous thing we can give in our busy world is our time. There are so many things that need doing that we can do voluntarily. We just look around us and see all the suffering there is in the world and then step in and help out where our help is needed.
How does generosity relate to our more formal meditation practice?
Choosing to sit with others, to be part of a sangha, is a very generous act. People regularly sitting together reinforce each other. If we are having a low energy day the knowledge and the feeling of all those other people sitting around us lifts us up and helps keep us going. Then the next time we sit, we may be full of energy and concentration, helping others who may be struggling.
Generosity is easy to practice. We just need to consciously take the many opportunities to be generous that present themselves every day. As we deepen our generosity we will break down our need to grasp and our sense of separation from others. We’ll become more like a Buddha.
Barry H. Gillespie was introduced to formal meditation practice in 1978, through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram. In 2003 he began exploring Theravaden Buddhist practice, sitting many long retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. His principle teacher is Guy Armstrong. His teaching arises out of his desire to share what he has learned with others. Barry currently leads the Full Moon Sit at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO. This article is based on a dharma talk he gave there. For more information on his teaching go to his website.
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