Perfection of giving is the first on the list of six “crossing overs”—the essential foundation of all Buddhist practice.
Giving is a dharma that pervades all faiths. Outside its religious context, however, giving is as instinctive to all of us as a wish to help others. But, what is the perfection of giving?
The short answer is giving up our attachments. It is our own personal attachments that make us insensitive to the needs of others. So, giving is made possible by cleaning up one’s own backyard first.
Attachments are elusive because what is an attachment for one person is not for another—so it takes some honesty to identify attachments and undermine them. Only when we undermine our own attachments can we give freely and with the intuition to recognize when it will be helpful.
“Knee-jerk” giving is common with people obscured by attachments; they don’t recognize that, sometimes, people who seem in need are really growing by working out of their own difficulties—and should be left to do so. One who has given up his own attachments is less likely to be moved by emotion but more by intuition and sensibilities, enabling him to give.
When giving up our attachments, it never goes as expected. There is always an entailment, and it will beg the question of how far into the rabbit hole we are willing to go.
I learned the unpredictable nature of giving and the hidden entailments as a young man of 23. I had the idea to become a monk after two years of wandering Nepal and India, seeking teachers, and practicing lots of meditation. I entered a monastery two weeks after my return to America.
Once I committed myself, the first discovery I found was that everyone slept sitting up as Master Hsuan Hua did.
“Shall I follow them, lay down and sleep, or leave?,” I wondered.
It was a tough choice, so I put off deciding—until the next day as I slept sprawled out on a guest couch in the back of the meditation hall, as everyone else slept sitting up in the front of it.
My next entailment I discovered the following day: everyone ate once a day as the master did.
“Should I eat three meals (as was permitted) or go with the majority?,” I wondered.
“Shouldn’t I have inquired about some of this stuff when I asked the monks if I could stay on my day of arrival?”
But, upon reflection, I comforted myself with the thought that no one would ask, “Do you sleep lying down?”
I decided to stay and join the crowd. But, sleeping seated and eating once per day were unexpected entailments that made a monk’s life far more difficult than I had imagined. But, isn’t this something we find again and again in our daily lives? That committing to one thing invites unforeseen add-ons?
It is out of the scope of this brief essay to speak of Paramahansa Yogananda‘s life, and many of my readers are surely familiar with his name as the great yogi who was one of the first to start the yoga and meditation movement in the West. My own spiritual journey was inspired 50 years ago by this great saint.
As with all yogis of great stature, perfection of giving is a major discipline and the slightest infraction is viewed as an offense and an indication of a breach in the discipline. Yogananda was made painfully aware of a breach at the most inauspicious time—during the visit to his guru after a 30-year absence.
Common sense tells most of us that when shopping for others, avoid purchasing something for ourselves—a rule we casually break as laypeople. But, for a yogi, such conduct is a major offense.
The story below, summarized from Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, illustrates a breach in the perfection of giving, which proved to be a painful reminder for this great yogi:
When Paramahansa Yogananda journeyed to India from America to see his guru, Sri Yukteswar, he had been absent from his homeland and separated from his guru for 30 years. Before he left America, he shopped for friends and family, but, of course, his focus was on his guru. He purchased two suitcases of gifts, and resisted purchasing anything for himself—but, he couldn’t resist an umbrella, which he sorely needed, and was his last purchase.
Upon arriving in India, his family whisked him away to their Calcutta home, where a huge welcome of extended family members was organized in his honor. Yogananda, of course, the perfect guest, full of love and warmth, was anxious to see his guru more than anything else; yet, he managed to conceal it quite well until the opportunity to see his guru came the following day.
With great anticipation, he went off to see his guru, accompanied by a family member, and a carload of gifts. Yogananda was in ecstasy. It was monsoon season, and the umbrella he had purchased came in handy as they unloaded the trunk of gifts and entered the Yukteswar Ashram.
Loving embraces and inquiries went on for some time, and then Yogananda presented the gifts which he had so carefully selected. Yukteswar received them graciously, and after they sat for morning tea and snacks, they retired to the shrine room to sit in samadhi. The two minds merged for several hours until the time came for Yogananda to depart.
As Yogananda departed, however, Yukteswar noticed the umbrella and asked if he might have it, having lost his own somewhere. Of course, Yogananda gave it lovingly to his guru; but, the impromptu and intuitive lesson offered by his guru wasn’t lost on Yogananda.
Yukteswar’s request got him thinking about the perfection of giving, which often requires yielding what we wish for ourselves.
None of us would ask of a friend for his umbrella in a rainstorm, but a guru with divine intuition might ask such of his chela if it might teach him a lesson. No doubt, Yogananda was aware that his guru knew he meticulously avoided purchasing anything for himself, and was awed that his guru intuited his singular breach in an otherwise perfectly kept discipline.
The above story may resonate with many of us; for isn’t it that no matter how generous we may be, our generosity only brings forward attachments we have yet to give up, no matter how hard we have been trying?
A dharma said to lead to the perfection of giving is “give when asked.” Many masters have perfected giving following this simple vow. Nine times out of 10, it may be easy to give when asked. But, inevitably, there will come a very difficult decision to make: shall I give and keep my vow, or not give and damage it?
It is said that it is better not to make a vow you can’t keep, then to make a vow you break. If we choose when a vow is kept or broken, it won’t be effective.
The perfection of giving is relinquishing attachments when we are called upon to do so, and our generosity only underscores what our attachments are.
In everyday life, we experience this phenomena in countless ways. We may decide to clean our house on a Saturday and, in the process, discover the allotted time is insufficient and another day is required. Do we give up our Sunday, too? How often have we given to a charity only to invite upon ourselves newly unsolicited requests? Or, gone to help a friend fix his car, only to be asked if he could borrow ours when we are not using it?
These kinds of traps are endless and there are far better ways to practice giving than walking into them.
A proactive approach toward giving would be to begin by reducing as much as possible our own attachments to things, people, and events. If we have few desires, we will give of ourselves freely. As human beings, we naturally like to give, but unfortunately—because of our desires—we focus more on giving to ourselves than we do to others.
This is reversed when we gradually simplify our lives and discipline desires and attachments. Whether we want, power and recognition, material things, or people to control, attachments make it difficult to give.
When Jesus Christ said, “It is more blessed to give than receive,” he indicated a powerful shift in priorities, that—if achieved—would perfect giving. Easier said than done!
Buddhists advise beginning with very small steps. Tibetans sometimes carry black and white pebbles in their pockets. Whenever they get something they really don’t need throughout the day, they put a black pebble in their empty pocket; and, whenever they fulfill the need of another—offering tea to a friend, a coin to a beggar, doing a chore at a temple, and so forth—they put a white pebble in their pocket. At the end of the day, they count the white and black pebbles. Gradually, they become less inclined to satisfy personal hankerings and more focused on others.
It is said that grand gestures of giving are the main reason people aspiring to perfect giving fail. They give more than they can afford of their time or material things and, at the end, regret it. But, those whose gifts are small but consistent, stay in the game for the long haul and eventually perfect giving.
Giving is nonattachment. It is the feeling that we own nothing, anyway.
Free from attachments, we are free to give anything with true joy and realize the truth of Christ’s words when he said, “It is more blessed to give than receive.”
Finding joy in giving to others as we would to ourselves is a hat trick—not easy to learn, but the effort is well worth it.
Author: Richard Josephson
Ediotr: Leah Sugerman
Copy Editor: Emily Bartran
Social Editor: Nicole Cameron