Tonight we’ll talk about generosity, one of the six Buddhist paramitas or perfections. Dana in the Pali language is the enlightened quality of charity, giving, and offering. Its essence is unconditional love, a boundlessly open heart and mind, and a selfless generosity, which is free from attachment and expectation. When it is highly developed, generosity comes from the depths of the heart, allowing us to offer love, compassion, time, energy, and resources to serve the highest welfare of all beings. Giving is one of the preliminary steps of this practice, with the aim of being free of selfish desires for gratitude, recognition, advantage, reputation, or any worldly reward.
In his article, “No Strings Attached: The Buddha’s Culture of Generosity” (2009), Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes about his meditation teacher Ajaan Fuang’s gracious response when grateful students ask how they could ever repay him for his teaching: “by being intent on practicing.” Thanissaro Bhikku admired how his teacher never pressured students for donations. Ajahn Fuang’s generous dissemination of the Dharma is still a common practice throughout the Theravada Buddhist Forest Tradition. It stems from a passage in the Pali Canon referring to the Buddha’s deathbed statement that the highest homage to him is not material, but taking the Dharma to heart and practicing it in a way that fulfills a Dharma teacher’s compassionate purpose for sharing it.
Dana has literally kept the Dharma alive. Without the Indian tradition of generosity to monks, the Buddha would not have had the opportunity to explore and find a path to liberation. The monastic sangha would not have had the time or opportunity to follow the Buddha way and to practice his teachings. Dana is the first teaching that the Buddha used to guide disciples in a step-by-step appreciation of the Four Noble Truths.
When he stated the basic principles of Karma, the Buddha began with the statement, “There is what is given.” Giving leads to results both now and into the future, and it is the result of the donor’s free choice. When asked where a gift should be given, the Buddha replied simply, “Wherever the mind feels inspired.” In other words — aside from repaying one’s debt to one’s parents — there is no obligation to give. This means that the choice to give is an act of true freedom, and thus the perfect place to start the path to total release.
In the Dana Sutra, which I am adapting from a translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the Buddha taught monks and nuns on the Dharma path that six factors exemplify an ideal gift:
The donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is inspired; and after giving, is gratified. These are the three factors of the donor…The recipients are free of passion or are practicing for the subduing of passion; free of aversion or practicing for the subduing of aversion; and free of delusion or practicing for the subduing of delusion. These are the three factors of the recipients.” — AN 6.37
According to the Buddha, the responsibility for all six factors of generosity is shared. And this shared responsibility flourishes best in an atmosphere of mutual trust. For donors, this means that if they want to feel glad, inspired, and gratified, they should not see the gift as payment or wages for personal services from monks or nuns. Instead, they would be wise to look for trustworthy recipients: people who are training — or have trained — their minds to be clear and receptive. Donors should give their gift in a respectful way so that the act of giving will reinforce the gladness that inspired it, and will inspire recipients to value their gift.
The responsibilities of recipients are even more stringent. To ensure that the donor feels glad before giving, monks and nuns are forbidden from pressuring the donor in any way. Except when ill or in situations where the donor has invited them to ask, they cannot request anything beyond the barest emergency necessities. They are not even allowed to give hints about what they’d like to receive. When a donor asks where a prospective gift should be given, they are told to follow the Buddha’s example and say, “Give wherever your gift would be used, or would be well-cared for, or would last long, or wherever your mind feels inspired.” This conveys a sense of trust in the donor’s discernment — which in itself is a gift that gladdens the donor’s mind.
To ensure that a donor feels inspired while giving a gift, monks and nuns are urged to receive gifts attentively and with an attitude of respect. So that the donor feels gratified afterward, monks and nuns should live frugally, care for the gift, and make sure it is used in an appropriate way—thus showing that the donor’s trust in them is well placed. Throughout the dana process, their primary motivation is to work on subduing their greed, anger, and delusion.
By sharing these responsibilities in an atmosphere of trust, both donors and recipients protect the freedom of the giver and foster conditions that will enable not only the practice of generosity but also the whole practice of the Dharma to flourish and grow.
The principles of freedom and fruitfulness also govern the code the Buddha formulated specifically to protect the gift of Dharma. Here again, the responsibilities are shared. To ensure that a teacher is glad, inspired, and gratified in teaching, listeners are advised to listen with respect, to try to understand the teaching, and — once they’re convinced that it’s genuinely wise — to put it into practice. Like monks or nuns receiving a material gift, recipients of the gift of Dharma are responsible for treating the gift well.
The essence of generosity is a pure motivation of genuine concern for others. Some of you know Thuyet Nyugen, a venerable disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh and a member of our IMH sangha who has been ill and bedridden for many months. Two years ago, I told him that Ed, a friend of Mark’s and mine, had been murdered in Mexico, and that two innocent young men, Lalo and Gerardo, had been tortured, unjustly accused of the crime, and thrown into prison by corrupt police. When I visited the prisoners, Lalo mentioned that he had started practicing meditation to maintain his equilibrium while struggling to sleep on the floor of a cramped cell that contains four beds for sixteen men. Louisa, a member of the Cholula Vipassana Sangha—which Mark and I founded and led while we lived in Mexico—had provided Lalo and Gerardo with introductory materials about meditation in Spanish.
Soon after he learned about Lalo’s interest in meditating, Thuyet spontaneously purchased two of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books that were translated into Spanish, and he mailed them to me, with instructions to send the books to the Mexican prisoners. Although he has not met Lalo and Gerardo and may never do so, Thuyet is practicing a level of generosity that inspires me.
Just this week, Louisa sent me an e-mail attachment with a letter of gratitude from Lalo, which I translated for Thuyet. Here is an excerpt to demonstrate some of the spiritual rewards of such great generosity:
A cordial greeting and hug Señor Thuyet. I do not have the pleasure of meeting you, but you are a very considerate person to go to such trouble to give us gifts, which have arrived through Ginger’s help. Know that I have read with much interest the books that you have given me, and they have helped me be a more conscious person; they make me think in new ways and enjoy each day that God gives me. Today I can see that the Creator works through people of light, like you… who transmit Love, Peace and Joy…. Many thanks for all this support. You are a great example for me of power to change the world with actions like yours. Thank you. With affection, Eduardo
Ideally, our practice of giving aims to be free of discrimination regarding who is worthy and who is unworthy to receive. I prefer to transfer funds to support the education of my studious and grateful Nicaraguan godchild, Virginia Carolina, than to give money to a local, scruffy-looking panhandler, whom I suspect will use the donation for drugs instead of for self-improvement. Consiousness of how and when to expand the limits of my generosity is part of my Dharma practice.
It is wise to contemplate the enormous benefits of practicing generosity, the disadvantages of being miserly, as well as the fact that our body and our wealth are impermanent. These reflections motivate us to use our body and our abundance to practice generosity while we still have them. Generosity is a cure for the afflictions of greed, miserliness, and possessiveness. We can sense a physical contraction that comes from hoarding what might be shared, and our bodies feel more relaxed and open when we give spontaneously.
In this practice of giving, we may offer time, energy, money, food, clothing, or gifts to assist others. We can also offer fearless protection to insects, animals, and people, when they are in danger of harm, distress, and fear. By offering care and comfort, we can help others to feel safe and peaceful. We practice the perfection of generosity in an especially powerful way when we include all living beings in our heart.
EX: Now take a moment to reflect upon a moment when you acted generously in your own life. What emotions and body sensations are associated with this memory?
EX: Remember a time when you held back from a chance to give generously. What effect does this memory have on your emotions and body sensations?