The Gift of Generosity

The chaos of Christmas week in the UK delayed my foray into exploring the importance of generosity in Buddhist practice. I had intended to use the seasonal themes of giving and goodwill as a starting point, but since for Buddhists generosity isn’t just for Christmas the topic is no less relevant now that the Christmas lights have been back in their boxes for a few weeks . Generosity, or dana as it is in Pali, is a core practice in Buddhism, being a key part of the very first set of qualities that we cultivate in our first steps at the beginning of the practice. But sometimes it is a quality that we can overlook, especially when we have so many excellent Dhamma resources available to us – when we are more accustomed to achieving development through learning, as we are in many Western societies, it is only natural that we incline towards the things that are most familiar to us.

When we want to develop a skill we might generally spend time reading about it, listening to learned people, going on a course, and so on. So when we want to learn how to meditate it can be a bit confusing when someone tells us that the first thing we have to do to learn how to meditate is to be generous. This challenge to our normal way of doing things is just one sticking point we need to work through; another is that generosity is not, sadly, something we spend a lot of time developing in the West, so it can actually be surprisingly challenging to give ourselves over to it wholeheartedly. It is possible to start our practices with a surprising amount of resistance to generosity, not because we are inherently mean, but because we have all kinds of ideas and baggage to work through, and this unpacking process is as much a part of our development as the more obviously positive qualities that we will develop through being generous.

But it is a point worth noticing that as Western students of Buddhism, our experience of the path is often the other way round to the order of the steps of graduated training that the Buddha suggested:

“Many Westerners first encounter the Buddha’s teachings on meditation retreats, which typically begin with instructions in how to develop the skillful qualities of right mindfulness and right concentration. It is worth noting that, as important as these qualities are, the Buddha placed them towards the very end of his gradual course of training. The meaning is clear: to reap the most benefit from meditation practice, to bring to full maturity all the qualities needed for Awakening, the fundamental groundwork must not be overlooked. There is no short-cutting this process.” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This can, perhaps, make fully embracing generosity a little more difficult; when your attention is focused on learning to meditate, and all the benefits that come from that, being ‘sent back a class’ to do beginners practices can sometimes meet a little internal resistance.

Quite how generosity improves your ability to sit in meditation doesn’t seem terribly self explanatory to begin with, but this fundamental preliminary practice serves many purposes: it tempers our greed, loosens our attachment to material acquisition, and cultivates a humbleness that starts to weaken our sense of our own self importance:

“Giving is of prime importance in the Buddhist scheme of mental purification because it is the best weapon against greed (lobha), the first of the three unwholesome motivational roots (akusalamula). Greed is wrapt up with egoism and selfishness, since we hold our personalities and our possessions as “I” and “mine”. Giving helps make egoism thaw: it is the antidote to cure the illness of egoism and greed.” Giving in the Pali Canon by Lily de Silva

One of the things that dana practices can do more effectively than self-investigation is make some of our foibles inescapably obvious to us – such as our ideas about being ‘too advanced’ to do beginners’ practices for instance. It can smoke out our stinginess when we otherwise thought we were quite generous, and expose our deeply hidden biases and opinions when we perhaps find out that we consider some people more ‘deserving’ or ‘worthy’ of our generosity than others. It can also give us a sharp kick up the backside when we realise that we are all in favour of generosity to those who are grateful; but when our gift is received with indifference, or outright rejection, we respond with indignation, or disappointment, and suddenly being generous isn’t so much fun any more. These are incredibly rich lessons to learn, and while it is possible to dig these things up in meditative reflection, the visceral impact of generosity practice delivers a learning experience that little else can compare to. The clinging that generosity helps us to weaken isn’t only for material things, but also to other things that we are reluctant to let go of like our views and opinions, our fondness for sensual desires, and our unskillful thoughts and behaviours. Without loosening the grip of these unwholesome tendencies, the development of the rest of our practice will be constricted by our continuing to hold onto ideas and actions that hinder the practice.

But dana does require us to share our material wealth too, and the dana economy is fundamental to the operation of Theravadan Buddhism. Monastics are required to not handle money or to earn an income, so they must be sustained by the generosity of the community. In return they are expected to teach the Dhamma for free to those who wish to hear it. It is a symbiotic relationship that allows lay people to develop their generosity, but also ensures that the monastics remain connected to the community in a way that they wouldn’t if they were self-sufficient. I think this was a very shrewd move by the Buddha, as it meant that the monastics would never be able to evade their accountability to the lay community. I feel that this is well illustrated in the suttas by the incident where where an enormous row broke out in one of the monasteries between two different groups of monks. The Buddha tried to intervene to end the dispute, but the monks were so caught up in their arguments that they told the Buddha they didn’t need his help and that they would sort it out themselves! The Buddha wasn’t one to flog a dead horse, so he decided he would leave that monastery and go somewhere a little more peaceful instead[1]. But in the end it was the monastics reliance on dana that eventually caused the dispute to be resolved – when the lay people found out that the Buddha had left because of the argument they stopped giving the monastics alms food, and that was what forced them to stop their self-absorbed squabbles and go to the Buddha for help to resolve the issue.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has another interesting point to add about the importance of dana, suggesting that dana was a crucial condition not only for the continued existence of Buddhism, but for its creation too:

“It’s well known that dana lies at the beginning of Buddhist practice. Dana, quite literally, has kept the Dhamma alive. If it weren’t for the Indian tradition of giving to mendicants, the Buddha would never have had the opportunity to explore and find the path to Awakening. The monastic sangha wouldn’t have had the time and opportunity to follow his way.” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So dana doesn’t just keep the wheel of the Dhamma turning, it was also instrumental in bringing it into the world in the first place, which when you think about it is pretty amazing. All of those people in India back in the time of the Buddha, giving food and shelter to anyone who was committed to practice regardless of their doctrine, created the conditions that allowed a buddha to arise in the world, and the lost Dhamma to be refound.

It is possible though to generate jaded opinions of the practice of giving to support monastics, as it can seem as if in certain places, and for some people, the emphasis is on merit making rather than genuine practice. But as someone living in the UK, I personally feel it has been a real blessing for me to be exposed the kind of spontaneous generosity that comes from being brought up in cultures where giving is a quality that one starts to cultivate from childhood, and I have absolutely no doubt that it has helped to make me a more generous person. In many places in the modern world we have developed a mindset of wanting something for nothing, looking on the internet for free content and thinking nothing of downloading a pdf copy of a book that we find online; but seeing the great mounds of dana in the form of food, clothing, tools, office equipment, and just about anything else you can think of given on a festival day like kathina is a lesson not only in kindness, but in the understanding that we have to give in order to receive – if we want there to be a monastery and teachers then we have to do something to make that happen.

My own sense of generosity was tempered for a long time by the sense that I didn’t have enough resources to be able to give much of them up, but an article on the White Wind Zen website gave me a different perspective on what it meant to be at the receiving end of generosity and made me rethink whether I was actually so short on things to give:

“The earth, our planet, our precious blue pearl, our home, is a sometimes decadently generous place. Humans do nothing and yet buds and leaves and flowers burst forth in cycles appropriate to their growth. In northern climes tiny flowers will bloom and carpet the tundra when the warmth of the sun increases intensity with the revolutions of the planet. At the equator lush tropical growth relentlessly reclaims land that has been stripped, burned, and leached by human misjudgement and misuse…
The basic generosity of life is presented moment-after-moment in our own experiencing. All we need do is look…The bodymind adapts to the tiniest changes in environment, regulating temperature, renewing cells, and putting in place emergency programs and procedures to deal with too much, too little, or bad food, not enough, too much, or bad water. Bacteria and virus and parasites occupy and colonize the bodymind and it adapts. The skin is cut, a bone is broken, a baby is conceived, and the bodymind adapts. The generosity of the bodymind is so vast that when someone stops smoking after even forty or fifty years the cells that make up the bodymind start to cleanse and repair. The moments of life tick by unfolding the fabric of old age, sickness, and, inevitably, death. Even then the generosity of the bodymind would continue to present itself as food for beings if the process is not stopped by human intervention.” Dana Paramita by Ven. Shikai Zuiko sensei Dainen-ji

In my reluctance to give I could see there was a sense that I had not received enough, but when I pondered this article it really opened my eyes to the generosity that was around me at all times and how often I had been the recipient of it. The earth was growing food, the sun was giving light and heat, the air was there to be breathed, all given freely and with no request for anything in return. The generosity of the body in expending its energy to repair the physical form I am dependent on is especially pertinent to me, after all it was only 11 months ago that I was cut open and sewn back together again after abdominal surgery. Throughout that entire time I have been utterly amazed at the speed and ability of the healing process – only one day after my operation I was able to stand up and walk, which is quite incredible; only 11 months later I am not only fully healed but stronger and fitter than I was before.

I might have previously only thought of this as nothing more than the basic healing function of the body, but I can now understand that I have been gifted much hard work and diligent effort on the part of my body and its systems to heal itself. I do receive, and in so many ways; I am constantly being given something that enriches my life and my experience, be it from the teachings of the sangha, from people around me, from the earth and the universe, and even from this body. And it is seeing this that has opened up my perspective on what I have to give. The natural world gives all the time, not gifts and money but things that feed and enrich us, and now I look at generosity as not just being about an equation between income and outgoings but more about participating in the flow of energy from one life form to another that is happening around us all the time.

The generosity of the universe can be humbling sometimes, and I think this is another quality that generosity gives us a rare opportunity to work on. I recognise that humility is a bit of an old-fashioned notion these days in our super-competitive, individualistic, and performance focused world. Consider how bizarre it would seem to submit a CV for a new job where you described yourself as ‘completely average, moderately efficient, and somewhat effective’. It’s not our fault if we’re not humble though, we simply aren’t given any opportunity to be, and perhaps that plays a part in us forgetting that humility has some positive dimensions to it too. On the path of practice being humble helps us to be more generous, because if we think we are better than someone else then we can justify why we should keep a resource and not share it, whereas if we think we are no better than anyone else then the question instead is ‘why should I keep this all to myself?’ Being humble loosens our sense of ownership too; instead of clinging tightly to something because it is ‘mine’, we recognise that even if it is ‘mine’ then that isn’t so important in the grand scheme of things, and that makes it easier to let it go.

I’m going to finish up this exploration of generosity with a famous passage where the Buddha is talking about just how important he considers it to be:

“This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift. But because beings do not know, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they eat without having given. The stain of selfishness overcomes their minds.”” trans. By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This wonderful passage conveys very clearly the gravity of generosity, but it does have a slightly cryptic element in it too – it seems that the Buddha didn’t explain any further what he meant by this statement, or at least I haven’t yet been able to find anyone who was able to expound on what the Buddha meant when he talked about the results of giving and sharing, or why it was of such importance that this would extend all the way to not eating without having someone to share it with.

Even so I still think it is a very powerful statement on its own without knowing any more about it, it has the capacity to open our hearts and minds to being generous even without any further explanation. Was he referring to the skillful qualities that we develop by being instinctively generous? Or was he talking about the potential merit that could be made? Or of the cultures and societies that arise out of innate generosity? Or even to the role it plays in ensuring that the Dhamma can arise in the world again in the future? I honestly don’t have a strong inclination to any particular answer; perhaps it is only one of them, or perhaps it is all of them, or perhaps the only way to know is to try it for ourselves. Words, ideas, and concepts are only really there to point us towards the actual practice, the actual ‘doing’. Like so many of the Buddha’s teachings, generosity isn’t meant to be a concept, it is supposed to be a practice, and it is by doing it that we learn what benefits it brings.

[1] This delightful sutta is said to be the story of the much more amenable situation the Buddha found himself in just after leaving the feuding monastery.

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

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