“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” – Iti 1.26 (Itivuttaka [The Buddha’s sayings], p. 18)
Dana (“generosity”) is one of the ten paramis (Skt. paramitas), or “perfections of virtue.” There are many ways to practice generosity—by giving material goods, money, time, energy, work, and love. Letting go of material possessions helps to diminish attachment and craving, and so this teaching is often emphasized. In an age of over-consumption, generosity is a much-needed practice to counteract both individual and collective greed.
As practitioners of the Buddha’s path, we can also go further by understanding the interdependent relationship of giver and receiver. There is virtue in giving away what you have, but there is also virtue in allowing others to give, by receiving. The first time my notions of giving and receiving were turned upside down was when I was traveling in India in 2004. I was in a taxi with a wealthy woman who lived in the town I was visiting, a friend of a friend. I had only been in India a few weeks and it was a swelteringly hot day just before the monsoon. At a stop light, a young girl came up to the window and asked for money. She was about ten years old, wearing a tattered pink dress coated in dust and dirt. Her eyes were at the same time both hungry and bored. The woman rolled down the window to give her a few rupees and the girl ran off.
Strangely, I found myself stunned that the girl didn’t say thank you. In Canada, I was raised to always say “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” to everyone. Whenever I gave money or food to someone begging in Canada, it was always received with a “thank you,” or at least a nod and a smile. I asked the woman about this, because the interaction felt strange to me. The woman said that in the Hindu concept of karma, a person who gives money to someone begging receives merit and thus the little girl had allowed her to gain merit. The girl didn’t need to say “thank you” since it was the woman who had received the most from the interaction. This was very different from the Eurocentric, materialistic worldview that I had been raised with. I saw for the first time that while I thought I practiced generosity freely, I still expected something in return, albeit something as small as a smile. This was the first time I saw that my giving was not as free as I thought it was. Seeing this subtle layer of craving helped me to understand a deeper layer of freedom—that of giving without even needing a “thank you.” I can now see why, in many Buddhist cultures, monastics do not say “thank you” when receiving donations, as this ensures that no one makes offerings to build up their pride. This was the beginning of my changed understanding of generosity, from a unidirectional flow of materials and energy to a reciprocal relationship.
This shift deepened in 2007, when I found myself diagnosed with cancer. I was 29 years old. After four years of traveling and studying meditation, I was once again living with my mother and quite ill. While traveling, I had cultivated a long list of family and friends that I kept in touch with through group e-mails. So I wrote an e-mail about my situation asking these people to send prayers and healing energy to me. However, before sending the e-mail, I paused for a moment. Many people are quite private about health matters, and I wondered whether this was in fact something I might want to keep to myself. But I knew I needed all the support I could get, so I hit “send.” The outpouring of love that I received over the internet was overwhelming and incredibly healing. I felt that I was the clear recipient in this situation. But bit by bit, friends and family started writing to me, not only sending their love and prayers but also thanking me for sharing my experience and allowing them to offer something, even prayers, from thousands of kilometers away. It was a true relationship of dana, a loving expression of our interdependence. I saw how important it is not only to give, but also to allow others the chance to give, even if we feel a little embarrassed or awkward in receiving. We can learn to be honest and vulnerable with those we are close to and step into a flow of giving and receiving that has no expectations or conditions, even if it feels challenging at first. The fruits are certainly worth the effort.
It is important to cultivate generosity to deflate the ego’s pride, but we must also be careful that we don’t mask our pride in false humility. Traditional practices of dana that point to diminishing craving and pride are not ends unto themselves. They serve as a doorway to an embodied experience of anatta (Skt. anatman, or “non-self”)—our interdependent, true nature. When your joy is my joy and your well-being is my well-being, we are relating to each other on a level that goes beyond the mundane worldview of self as a separate entity, that goes beyond being different or being the same. We can engage in an embodied experience of our Buddha Nature. This is why I value the practice of dana so much.
My most recent experience with the inter-being of giver and receiver came up at my birthday. I had asked friends to bring a poem or song that carried a special meaning in their lives. I received funny, touching, and insightful “gifts” from many friends. Then, the next day, a friend who hadn’t been able to come the night before took me aside to offer a poem. As she read it to me, I realized that she was reading a poem that I’d written and shared with her the year before. It all started when she found a rough draft of a poem in the recycling bin. She figured out who had written it, asked if I had any more, and I shared some poems with her. I felt a little embarrassed, but didn’t want that to stop me from practicing generosity. As she read the poem, her voice made it her own. It became a whole new poem. It was a beautiful gift, yet again challenged my ideas of giver and receiver, once again bringing me into the heart of inter-being—our interdependent nature. Who was the giver? Who was the receiver? No matter. We were both consumed in dana, delighting in both the giving and the receiving, and there was no need to define or separate ourselves.
In the next weeks, perhaps you might consider how generosity shows up in your life. Does it fuel pride? Shame? Joy? Frustration? Does it show up at all? Before you try to change anything in your practice of dana, look deeply into your experience and relationship to giving and receiving. Start to recognize that even the air you breathe and the earth you tread upon are gifts from the universe. When you can feel the immense generosity that supports all of life, you are ready to go further. Are there one or two ways you can bring more generosity into your life? Maybe you could let someone board the train ahead of you or give your seat to someone in need with a joyful heart. You can offer a smile to the teller at the grocery store. And, of course, you can make offerings to charities and temples knowing that it is a privilege to do so. It needn’t be a heavy moral obligation. In fact, duty and obligation are impediments to the perfection of generosity. Generosity, practiced with mindfulness and unconditional love, is a delight. May your giving be fruitful!