The Practice of Generosity


By Gil Fronsdal

“If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and 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.” – Itivuttaka 26

The practice of giving, or dana in Pali, has a pre-eminent place in the teachings of the Buddha. When he taught a graduated series of practices for people to engage in as they progress along the path, he always started by talking about the importance and benefits of the practice of generosity. Based on that foundation, he talked about the importance and benefits of the practice of ethics. Then he discussed the practices of calming the mind, and after that he described the insight practices, which, supported by a calm and stable mind, lead to enlightenment. Once a person had awakened, the Buddha often instructed him or her to go out to benefit others, to be of service. Service can be seen as an act of generosity, so the Buddhist path begins and ends with this virtue.

Dana refers to the act of giving and to the donation itself. The Buddha used the word cage to refer to the inner virtue of generosity that ensures that dana is connected to the Path. This use of cage is particularly significant because it also means “relinquishment” or “renunciation.” An act of generosity entails giving more than is required, customary, or expected relative to one’s resources and circumstances. Certainly it involves relinquishment of stinginess, clinging and greed. In addition, generosity entails relinquishing some aspects of one’s self-interest, and thus is a giving of one’s self. The Buddha stressed that the spiritual efficacy of a gift is dependent not on the amount given but rather on the attitude with which it is given. A small donation that stretches a person of little means is considered of greater spiritual consequence than a large but personally insignificant donation from a wealthy person.

For lay people, the Buddha considered the morally just acquisition of wealth and financial security to be a skillful source of happiness. However, he did not consider wealth to be an end in itself. Its value lay in the uses to which it was put. The Buddha likened a person who enjoyed wealth without sharing it with others to someone digging his own grave. The Buddha also compared the person who righteously earns wealth and gives it to the needy to a person with two eyes. The stingy person was compared to someone with only one eye.

The Buddha understood giving to be a powerful source of merit with long-term benefits both in this life and in lives to come. While the teachings on merit do not carry much meaning for many Western Dharma practitioners, these teachings suggest unseen pathways by which consequences of our actions return to us.

One way that the giver sees his or her generosity return is found in “instant karma,” the Buddhist idea that acts that you do have direct consequences on the state of your mind and heart, even as you do them. The consequences of giving are quite wonderful in the present moment; if we are present for them, we can receive these wonderful consequences during the act of giving.

The Buddha emphasized the joy of giving. Dana is not meant to be obligatory or done reluctantly. Rather dana should be performed when the giver is “delighted before, during, and after giving.”

At its most basic level, dana in the Buddhist tradition means giving freely without expecting anything in return. The act of giving is purely out of compassion or good will, or the desire for someone else’s well-being. Perhaps dana is more about how we are than what we do. Through generosity, we cultivate a generous spirit. Generosity of spirit will usually lead to generosity of action, but being a generous person is more important than any particular act of giving. After all, it is possible to give without it being a generous act.

Although giving for the purposes of helping others is an important part of the motivation and joy of giving, the Buddha considered giving for the purpose of attaining Nibbana as the highest motivation. For this purpose, “one gives gifts to adorn and beautify the mind.” Among these adornments are non-clinging, loving-kindness, and concern for the well-being of others.

(Chapter 8 in Issue At Hand)

The Practice of Generosity

Some provide from the little they have, Others who are affluent don’t like to give. An offering given from what little one has Is worth a thousand times its value. – Samyutta Nikaya 1.32

There are two ways of understanding generosity. One is as a spontaneous and natural expression of an open mind and open heart. When we are connected wholeheartedly with others and the world, it is not a matter of deciding to give; giving simply flows out of us. This type of generosity is, for example, the generosity of a mother with her children. The second way of understanding generosity is as a practice itself, which we can undertake even though it may not automatically be flowing out of us.

As a practice, generosity is not done simply because we think it is a virtuous thing to do. The practice has two important functions. First, it helps connect us with others and with ourselves. Giving creates a relationship between the giver and receiver, so acts of generosity help us to learn more about the nature of our relationships. It also develops those relationships. Practicing generosity together with a meditation practice helps ensure that our spiritual practice doesn’t occur aloof from others.

Second, through the practice of generosity we begin to understand where we are closed, where we are holding back, where we feel our fear. We learn what keeps us from being generous. We take on the practice to see where we resist it.

As an intentional practice, there are innumerable exercises in generosity that can be helpful. For example, give yourself a week to give a twenty-dollar bill to someone you don’t know. Watch what happens during that week. What does it bring up for you, how do you react, what do you learn about yourself in that situation? Jack Kornfield teaches a practice of acting on every impulse to give, no matter what, during a twenty-four hour period. If that seems too difficult, you could limit it to the practice of giving small things. Another practice is to give a dollar to every homeless person you encounter during a certain period of time.

Generosity is not limited to the giving of material things. We can be generous with our kindness and our receptivity. These forms of generosity are clearly not related to wealth. Generosity can mean the simple giving of a smile or extending ourselves to really listen to a friend. Paradoxically, even being willing to receive the generosity of others can be a form of generosity.

We can also give the gift of fearlessness, a quality that develops as we mature in our practice. As we become increasingly rooted in ethics, wisdom and fearlessness, other beings will have less and less reason to fear us. In a world filled with fear, such fearlessness is a much needed gift. One description of an enlightened person is someone who helps dispel other people’s fear.

Buddhist teachings emphasize that the manner in which we give is as important as what we give-we should give with respect, with happiness and joy. When we are practicing generosity, and it does not bring happiness and joy, we should pay close attention to our motivations for giving, and perhaps even re-evaluate whether to give at all.

The freedom of the Buddha is the freedom from all forms of clinging, and the most obvious antidote to clinging is letting go. Because giving certainly involves letting go, it develops our capacity to relinquish clinging. However, the practice of giving entails much more than letting go. It also develops qualities of heart such as generosity, kindness, compassion and warmth. Thus, giving leads us to the heart of Buddhist practice, while helping our practice to be well rounded and heartfelt.

(Chapter 9 in Issue at Hand)

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