This is the transcript of a talk given to the Paramitas study group on September 29th.
We start with Dana Paramita because that’s the whole basis of practice – a feeling of generosity, giving, loving kindness toward others. Our model for generosity is the natural abundance of being: the boundless generosity of time and space, the ongoing joyful giving of life itself. The universe keeps giving us days, one after the other, never asking if we are deserving, and asking nothing in return; life always goes on making more life, sometimes more than we asked for if it’s something like weeds in the garden or mould on the fruit or an infestation of mice. Life is exuberant; we don’t need to fix or create it, so much as just stepping out of its way.
From this perspective, maybe the best expression of Dana Paramita is Zazen itself. When you sit in Zazen, you are sitting in the middle of the immense fact of life giving itself to life. You’re not interfering with it or obstructing it; you’re just sitting in the middle of it. We could sit there all cramped into our thoughts and worries, obsessed with the fact that things don’t always go the way we’d like – but the effort we make in Zazen is to let all that go, and let life open you up, to let your constrictions fall away and to sit in the middle of the vast, mysterious unfolding of life as it is.
But of course that’s not the whole story. Traditionally, there are three kinds of giving:
These three are interrelated. Although the giving of the dharma is considered superior to the giving of material goods, for people without the material capacity to care for themselves, that’s the first concern. An early sutra, The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom says:
Do give gifts, for poverty is a painful thing. One is unable when poor to accomplish one’s own welfare, much less that of others.
In modern times, this idea is restated and expanded upon in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was first described in 1943. Maslow said that the first needs to be met are physiological: air, water, and food, and protection from the elements. Once these needs are satisfied, safety takes precedence – freedom from the violence of war, disaster, and abuse; it may include economic security, and a sense of security around health and well-being. The third level of human needs is interpersonal and involves a sense of social belonging, whether that comes from family or friendships. Once these basic needs are met, there is the possibility of what Maslow called “self-actualisation” – the pursuit of altruism and spirituality: “the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos”.
Norman Fischer points out that in Hebrew, the word translated as ‘giving’ actually means ‘justice’. It’s just and fitting that everyone should have what they need. So in “giving”, we are simply practicing fitting the abundance of the world – that which was given to us – to the need of the world.
Ideally, this effort should be supported by social custom and perhaps social institutions as well. Personal acts of giving are always limited in the face of the overall problem of suffering, which is monumental. Helping one person is laudable, and necessary, but authentic generosity requires more than our individual acts on behalf of those in distress. We are also called to give our attention to the political world in which institutional abuse gives rise to unnecessary suffering. Much of the pointless suffering in the world can be alleviated through intelligent political action, and it was part of the Buddhist agenda from the very start to transform society into one in which the basic needs of food, shelter, and safety are met so that everyone has a chance for happiness, well-being, peace and dignity.
In Mahayana Buddhism, this is part of the the idea of the “Mahayana”, the “large vehicle” on which all members of the society move toward some form of enlightenment together, even when the disparity between the most and least highly developed is immense.
Once basic material and psychological needs are met, the practice of generosity falls short if it doesn’t extend to the dharma, to supporting the liberation of all beings; otherwise, you’ve left people well off but without a gateway into the spiritual life. At this level, too, the achievement of individuals requires this larger cultural framework as a foundation. People are enabled to value generosity, to admire it, to cultivate and practice it, only to the extent that the society’s history and language have made that possible. Wholesome attitudes and social structures can be a necessary expression of the dharma, just as much as the actions of individuals.
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The Diamond Sutra, which emphasizes the concept of emptiness, says that real giving goes beyond concepts of giving. The practice of Dana Paramita helps us to see through our normal concept of giving, which is something like “I’m over here, and I’ve got this – and you’re over there and you don’t have it. Now I’m going to give this to you, and I can give myself credit for doing that, and you’re going to be grateful to me for it.”
This way of giving is deluded. It assumes I have something and you don’t. True giving is the recognition that nothing I have has ever been mine, and that you are not separate from me. Perfect giving means going beyond the conceptual framework of giver, receiver, and gift. Separation is a concept, but it’s not the reality.
We all start practice from a place of self-centred interest: we want to be a better person, and that’s where we begin. Through the practice of generosity, we open bit by bit, to the possibility of unselfconscious giving which doesn’t see a separation between self and other.
There’s a fascinating aspect to this practice. Although we do nice things for people we like, we also come to like the people we do nice things for. There’s a modern name for this; it’s called the Ben Franklin Effect, and predictably, it’s been promoted as a way to manipulate people, but we’re looking at it here as a technique for self-cultivation. (By the way, the opposite is also true: we tend to despise people we have harmed).
So generosity is a training program through which you come to understand, not just intellectually, but as a felt sense, the reality of non-separation by acting as if we’re all in this together, which happens to be true.
And who should we be generous to? Everyone, without consideration, without holding back – and that includes ourselves.
Thich Nhat Hahn says we can offer our joy, our happiness and our love. These are manifestations of the dharma. (Isn’t it a wonderful thought that the cultivation of our own happiness is an aspect of the practice of Dana Paramita?)
We can also share our presence, and our time, and attention. Unlike material goods, where our share is diminished when we give part of it to someone else, being present to another person does not diminish us at all; on the contrary, it enables us to better take in the gift of their existence.
Recognising and acknowledging the existence of another person – just a word, or a smile – can be a profoundly valuable gesture. And there can be times when this gift of recognition is crucial. There are occasions when a person is overwhelmed by the pain of their own existence. Sometimes the pain has a discrete cause – the death of a family member, or a personal failure or disappointment; at other times the cause is harder to determine, like the pain of anxiety or depression. Simply to notice and to communicate a sense of understanding and care is an important aspect of the practice of generosity.
Thich Nhat Hahn also talks about the gift of stability. This is another way to think about equanimity. If we’re stable, we can remain present in the face of another person’s pain or distress, without either turning away or rushing in to fix them. That’s not only giving the gift of dharma, but is a form of the gift of fearlessness.
Sometimes people default to isolating themselves in order to manage their own distress. The ability to see through someone else’s avoidance or distancing of themselves, and to give them the benefit of the doubt, is both a form of generosity and a sign of our own freedom not to be jerked around by our own reactions. It’s never a good idea to take someone else’s behaviour personally, even when it’s intended. Sometimes the gift that a person needs is precisely NOT to conform to their aloofness, but to demonstrate the courage of meeting their suffering with both equanimity and compassion. In such circumstances, we are both giving them companionship in their place of suffering, and lending them our fearlessness.
Another form of giving is apology, with or without amends. Admitting that we acted harmfully, or even just insensitively, is a relinquishment of our own need to be right, and may be exactly what the situation needs. Paradoxically, when we carry shame over something we have done, we may need to relinquish the shame before we can engage with the situation sufficiently to make amends.
On the other side, forgiveness is an act of generosity: a relinquishing of resentment. It doesn’t mean no wrong was done, nor that we’ve forgotten the wrong that was done, but we can give up the grudge we hold against the doer.
And of course wisdom is needed always. Even the most selfless acts of generosity may be misguided and have unintended consequences. Consideration is necessary of both the situation of prospective recipients and the wider context of the situation, as well as our capacity to be generous and helpful in the future.
In a sense, there’s a balance to be struck between self-concern and concern for the well-being of others. It serves no one to give in such a way that you or others are harmed, or your ability to go on serving is undermined. Stories of heroic self-sacrifice may be glamorous, but not always the greatest good. Balance is an inescapable practical necessity.
Lastly, perhaps the most powerful way to cultivate generosity is to realise that everything we have, from material goods to our very lives, has been a gift. Life itself was given to us; we did nothing to earn or deserve this greatest gift of all, and the only appropriate response – as well as the one that feels best – is gratitude. Gratitude ripens us – it softens and sweetens us, and leads us to want to share the gifts we’ve been given.
Some questions to consider as you turn your attention to the practice of Dana Paramita in your own life:
In any given situation, what is needed? What can you give? Who would benefit? How might your giving affect others? What unintended consequences might there be? Is the receiver of the gift empowered or disempowered by it? What are the impacts on relationships – both between you and them, them and others, and you and others? What are the long-term effects?
What motivates you? What rewards do you hope for? Are you hoping to receive something in exchange? To be accepted? To be admired or praised? To simply think well of yourself? There is nothing wrong with any of this; it’s where most of us start, and continue for a long time, though it does change over time. We all give according to our understanding of the separation and connection between ourselves and others. As we develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of who we are and how we fit into the larger world, generosity becomes a more natural act, and eventually simply a spontaneous response to the fact that others are in need or there is good to be accomplished.
What are the likely downsides or difficulties or obstacles to the full expression of what you have to offer? Time? Resources? Attention?