Generosity is a fundamental trait that is celebrated by all of the world’s religions. December means Christmas for my family, so I’ve been thinking about generosity and giving, especially in light of the Buddha’s teachings on this subject: “In the teaching of the Buddha, . . . the practice of giving claims a place of special eminence, one which singles it out as being in a sense the foundation and seed of spiritual development. In the Pali suttas we read time and again that [the] ‘talk on giving’ (danakatha) was invariably the first topic to be discussed by the Buddha in his ‘graduated exposition’ of the Dhamma” (Bhikkhu Bodhi).
This Christmas season I have the chance not only to give but also to receive, and I see that it’s not so simple. Living in a monastic community we receive offerings from laypeople, although as a monastic living in “The West,” donations from the lay community play a much smaller role than in Asian monasteries. Even so, this type of receiving still feels very new to me. At my new monastery in the United States, more gifts are offered to us than I’ve experienced before. A neighbor brings fresh muffins and cookies every Sunday, a practice group donated ten bags of winter clothing, another group brought individually wrapped presents for all the monastics, and there are still others who bring groceries every week. There was even a woman who, after meeting me once on a retreat, sent me a package of five pairs of thick woollen socks! Each act of giving has touched my heart deeply. At the same time, it has caused discomfort. I saw that I wanted to offer something back right away. I didn’t feel comfortable receiving such kindness. Of course, the cooking and cleaning that I take part in at the temple is an offering, as are the listening and sharing of mindfulness practice, and there is more. But being raised in the West, obsession with material objects runs deep in me. I felt I had to give something back in a tangible way, leaving me feeling grateful and conflicted towards these gifts at the same time.
Perhaps that’s the point. The offerings aren’t for me—they’re for the community, an expression of gratitude for the continuation of the teachings of the Buddha. I don’t receive as me but rather as part of the community. I see that in forgetting the individual receiver, as with the giver, I can find freedom in gifts exchanged, material and spiritual alike. And how to do this? Of course, the answer is to receive mindfully. I breathe and notice the breathing, notice the thoughts arising and then let them go. When I am mindful, there is enough space within to let gratitude fill me and to be fully present with the giver, whether it is someone making an offering to the sangha, a Sister bringing me food when I am sick, or while exchanging gifts with friends at Christmas. Just remembering that I can be present changes the experience.
This goes further than the material level. In practicing the Buddha’s path, we learn to greet insult and criticism with equanimity, but this must also be applied to thanks and praise. As I’ve explored how I receive material gifts, I’ve noticed that I have the same reactions with emotional gifts and praise. When I receive a compliment, perhaps after cooking a nice dish or offering a chant, my tendency is to immediately compliment the other person in return or to downplay what I did. It’s hard to just say “thank you” and to receive the gratitude offered. On the monastic path we stress the cultivation of humility, but I see that I haven’t been practicing mindful humility when receiving acts of generosity. In brushing off a compliment or repaying a gift with a gift, the generosity can’t be fully received because I am not being fully present.
The deepest level that I’ve recognized is that mindfulness of receiving can be applied in every moment of every day of our lives. There is so much that we receive, from the air that we breathe to the bodies that we live in, the love of our families and the food that has been cultivated for countless generations to make it to our plates and bowls three times a day. When I remember to be aware of how much I receive, of how my life depends on the kindness of the driver in front of me on the highway who didn’t get into an accident, of the sun which shines and keeps our planet warm, of the Buddha and all his descendants who transmitted beautiful teachings that bring joy and liberation to so many beings, I am filled with awe. It’s easy to be present to receive these gifts and to offer my gratitude in return.
Giving and receiving go hand in hand. If I don’t receive the gift offered, the other cannot give. It’s rather silly to feel so uncomfortable receiving as I love to offer many things, tangible and intangible. As I learn to receive mindfully, without the reflex to avoid feeling uncomfortable in receiving or getting stuck in attachment to praise, my sense of joy and ease increases. Mindful receiving is a gift to both the giver and the receiver.
This Christmas season, I’ve taken on receiving as a mindfulness practice. To truly give and receive, one must be present. When both giver and receiver are present then each exchange becomes an act of love. There is no real difference between the two, though most of us discriminate and prefer one over the other. There isn’t even a separation between the giver and the receiver. In this discrimination, we all get stuck in mindlessness and miss out on the truly transformative power of generosity to open the heart, gladden the spirit, and free the mind from the suffering of isolation. I have a long way to go to remain completely present in receiving, but I feel small transformations showing themselves every day. Again, I am so grateful. In this holiday season of Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, and the upcoming Lunar New Year, may we offer our true presence to one another—the greatest present.
For further information, see:
Dana—The Practice of Giving (Bhikkhu Bodhi)