Starting a new calendar year, most of us are gathering our tax documents together, including charitable deductions. I’ve heard it said that Americans are the most generous people in the world. That is a wonderful compliment.
Generosity is a universal virtue, and happens to be the first of one set of training practices in Buddhism called the Six Paramitas: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. “Paramita” sometimes is translated as “perfections, ” but more literally means the qualities that take us across – in this case, the means to move from a world of suffering to a world of happiness, peace, and understanding. In “Turning Confusion Into Clarity,” Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche calls the paramitas “the practical means for helping all beings discover their true nature.” In the case of the paramitas, it is said that the order of approach is important and the first practice is generosity (Sanskrit: dana).
My first thought when I learned about dana was, Of course. The monastics lived on the gifts of the lay community. That’s what the begging rounds were about. In ancient India, monastics would walk to the nearest village with begging bowls and stand outside a home, moving from one home to another until the bowl was filled. Sometimes wealthier people might prepare a meal or offer gifts of cloth for robes. Sometimes really wealthy patrons donated land for the monastics to live on and build practice centers. The monastics in turn offered teachings and guidance to any who asked.
Practicing generosity is not limited to material goods or interactions between lay people and monastics. It’s a very important part of living with each other in all circumstances. In being generous, we loosen the bonds of self-centeredness and move toward a realization of what Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” I think this is why generosity is named as the gateway to the paramitas.
One form of generosity is with material goods – food, clothing, shelter, cash. We donate to a number of charities and causes. Another form of generosity is volunteering. These are very concrete ways of “letting go” of that which we think makes us who we are – our possessions, our energy, and our time.
The paramita of generosity goes beyond these common ways of giving and indicates less physical, but just as tangible, gifts. One of these is called the “gift of Dharma.” Dharma is the collective teaching and practice of Buddhism. The monks that offered guidance and instruction to the villagers offered the gift of Dharma. We can offer this gift by saying a kind word to a friend, suspending judgments about another, or paying attention to each other, undistracted by thoughts or cell phones or tasks. Sometimes the gift of Dharma is given in a smile. One of the greatest gifts is our true presence.
A third type of gift is that of “non-fear.” Most of us spend a least part of our lives being worried or afraid, in regret or despair. Someone who has meditated and practiced enough to feel solid, calm, and compassionate offers the gift of non-fear to us. Being with such a person helps us to settle down. We can take a deep breath with them and bring ourselves present to the moment, not lost in the past or future.
Here are four ways I’ve found helpful to cultivate the paramita of generosity in my life:
1. Keeping a gratitude journal or reflecting each morning on at least three people, things, events, or conditions that I am grateful for. Beginning the day with gratitude makes the effect last longer in my conscious mind. The effect I’ve found is that the more I acknowledge my gratitude, the more abundant I feel; and the more abundant I feel, the more inclined I am to share. When I feel strapped for anything – money, time, possessions – I start clinging to them. Gratitude shows me how to stay in the flow of life and not dam it up by holding on.
2. Being generous in my thinking by actively letting go of judgments about people and events. Often my mind makes critical commentary about how someone looks or acts. I counter that by reminding myself that I don’t know everything that is happening in someone’s life that might be causing this behavior. I try to open my heart and mind to allowing someone to be. I’ve heard this called “generosity of the spirit.” Still, I must make a decision on how I am going to act in any situation, but remembering my own limited knowledge helps me not draw hard lines around someone else, wall them in (or out) with my own beliefs .
3. To be able to offer the Dharma of non-fear, I need to make sure it is strong within me, by making the effort to meditate daily, meet often with my spiritual community, and follow my breath when I’m feeling buffeted by strong winds of uncertainty. I’ve learned to recognize when anxiety and fear are moving my words and actions, and then I rely on my friends and practice to help me.
4. Remembering that generosity is not about “me giving to you” or “you giving to me.” It’s about seeing how we are all in this together. Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story about hurting his left hand. The right hand naturally moves to hold the injured hand, without the thought of ‘I am doing this for you.’ When we see how we inter-are, how each of us individually is integrated with everything and everyone around us, we reach out to one another as easily and selflessly as caring for our injured hand.
Just as with most Buddhist practice, it’s impossible to check off any of the paramitas as “done.” Generosity isn’t a “been there, done that” kind of action. Our depth depends on continuing practice. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana says in EIGHT MINDFUL STEPS TO HAPPINESS, “the Buddha’s path...actually works more like a spiral.” Each paramita supports the others; practicing one will be practicing all.
The quality of generosity is not limited to Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Wicca, Bahai, or any other form of religious practice. It is not even limited to human beings. Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.” In my view, that criteria can be easily used to define generosity: are the world and those around us bettered by our thoughts, words, and deeds?