Generosity: The Primary Buddhist Virtue


Last week we were speaking about Dana – or the practice of generosity – from the receiving end and today we are going to talk about it from the giving end –

We shared last week that there are preconceptions that Buddhism is all about meditation and kindness and how this is a partial misperception – we find this in the Dhammapada where the Buddha teaches

“There are three kinds of meritorious actions. Which are the three? The meritorious action consisting (a) in generosity, (b) in ethical action and (c) and meditation.

The practice of giving and the virtue of generosity is at the foundation of Buddhism since the time of the Buddha and generosity is the primary Buddhist virtue – which I find very interesting – many of you come from other traditions. Take a moment and think what was that traditions primary virtue -of your previous traditions. Mine was sexual purity.

I appreciate this quote I found from an anonymous writer in Tricycle magazine.

Generous giving is a wonderful entry point to Buddhist practice as well as expressions of mature practice. At its essence, Dana is revolutionary because it is a giving freely without any expectation of receiving something in return. Not only is it is an alternative to selfishness, greed, and possessiveness, it is an alternative to the commercial economy that is the basis of our society.

When I first read this, I found it interesting that the entry point to Buddhist practice wasn’t sitting in meditation but the practice of generous giving and receiving. When the Buddha was teaching the lay follower and householder Upali teaching him the gradual path – his first instruction was that of generosity.

I also found this from the Zen tradition

A monk once asked the Chinese Zen master Hui-hai, “What is the gate of Zen practice?” Hui-hai answered, “Complete giving.”

Lastly, I want to share a scene from the Pure Land Sutras

Furthermore Shariputra, in this Buddha Land people can always hear the sound of heavenly music. During the six periods of the day, flowers rain down multitudes of mandarava from the sky. In the morning the people of this land like to take flower baskets made of cloth and fill them with these wonderful flowers in order to make offerings to the Buddhas who live in countless other Buddha Lands.

I appreciate the imagery – and love that it is a cycle of giving and receiving – the flowers representing the unfolding of awakening the gift of the teaching – then returned to the teacher and giving again – generosity and gratitude working in a cyclic and ever-expanding awakening.

In Pali, the word generosity come from “càga ” which also means relinquishment or letting go. And the word “Dana” refers more to what is given. So the practice is generosity or the practice of letting go and the perfection of our generosity is through what is given or let go of.

When we look at giving we want to understand that there are skillful reasons to give and unskillful – the Buddha listed these as follows

There are eight ways of giving:

1) spontaneously
2) out of fear
3) to reciprocate a gift
4) in hope to receive a gift in return
5) by thinking it is good to give (to feel good about ones self)
6) by thinking it would be improper to deny food to a renunciant who has none
7) in order to get a good reputation ( to gain something in re
8) because it ennobles the mind, adorns the mind.”

Barbara Obrien has written,

What is the right or wrong motivation? In the Anguttara Nikaya, a collection of texts in the Sutta-Pitaka, the Buddha lists a number of motivations for giving. These include being shamed or intimidated into giving; giving to receive a favor; giving to feel good about yourself. These are impure motivations.

When we give we want to have pure motivations – we want to give empty handed – as Gyomay Kubose writes.

“In Buddhism it is said to “go with empty hands”… Suppose you bring beautiful flowers… to a friend some might say that taking something with you is not going empty-handed. However empty-handed does not mean nothing in the hands; it is a condition of the Mind. You simply want to give flowers out of real joy. There is no idea of I’m giving I will be thanked or I’m returning a favor. There are no expectations. This is empty handedness. Life as it is without speculation without intention.”

The Center Within page 8-9

The Buddha taught that when we give to others, we give without expectation of reward. We give without attaching to either the gift or the recipient. We practice giving to release greed and self-clinging. -we come empty-handed.

To give without expectations of reward –What does that mean to you? Why is it so challenging?

The practice of generosity is the practice of letting go – of focusing on others and turning away from the primacy of the small self and our identity with it. I think understanding this – expands the definition of what generosity is.

What can we give

In traditional Buddhism where monks were completely dependent on offerings from lay people to live – physical support was necessary for the monks to survive– material support is one thing that people can give and many of you do that for our fellowship – we are lay-led no one is paid to share the dharma

We can also give – material support for those affected by earthquakes, fires, and other hardships –

I also think that when we give it should hurt a little – otherwise, we are simply giving our excess. That is easy practice.

the Buddha taught that material support as important but the most important thing that we can be generous with is the teachings and our practice. We tend to think of “Dana” (generosity/offerings) as rather transactional – with economics being a primary metaphor for our Western lives – that is understandable – we may also think of the value of the gifts we give from a primarily economic or utilitarian perspective – but the practice asks that we give so much more than that – the practice is not so much about columns on spreadsheet but more about an awareness, and opening up and acknowledgment of our wealth beyond objects. I really appreciate this quote from a teacher Alexander Berzin – who I ran across some years ago

“Practicing generosity doesn’t mean that we must be rich; even if we’re extremely poor and have nothing to offer, we can still have the willingness to give. Otherwise, how would poor people ever be able to develop generosity? So, whenever we see a beautiful sunset, we can be generous in wishing that everybody else could enjoy it.

We can do the same thing with beautiful landscapes, good weather, delicious food, and so on. This all counts as generosity! We can be generous not only with the things we own ourselves but with things that don’t belong to anyone. In meditation, we can imagine giving all sorts of wonderful things to others, but if we do actually have something that can be of help to someone else and they need it, then we don’t just imagine giving it to them. We actually give it!”

This really resonates with me – we can give so many things, letting some into our lane in traffic, putting our shopping cart back, we can give an open-hearted smile, we can give patience, understanding, kindness – there is no limit of all the gifts that we can give one another –

As you know in our fellowship compassionate listening is a primary practice -and it is a practice of generosity – what a wonderful gift we can give to another human being than our whole-hearted compassionate attention? What an amazing gift to receive, that of being heard!

Why does being really heard feel like a gift?

I would like to share this story from Marianne Elliot

A week or so ago I was sitting at my kitchen table with a group of friends. One of my friends started talking about a situation in her life that was causing her a lot of pain. As I listened I noticed a part of my mind whirr into action, trying to think of what I could do to be of help to my friend. Thanks mostly to my meditation practice I actually noticed this happening and was able to bring my awareness back to my friend in front of me.

Instead of trying to predict what she might need, I simply asked her, “What do you need from me? What can I do to help?”

Her answer was something I couldn’t possibly have guessed. I also suspect it was something that she would not have told me had I not remembered, in that moment, to ask this simple question:

What do you need from me?

What do you need from me – that question is itself a great gift –and our receiving the gift can be transformative.

Being authentic being vulnerable is hard for most of us – we hide our weaknesses –I love this line from Rumi is when he says, Give your weakness to one who helps. Sharing the gift of our weakness – What a powerful teaching – of our ultimate and absolute interdependence – this is a large part of and the content of the Buddhas awakening –Rumi goes on to write…

Give up to grace. The ocean takes care of each wave ’til it gets to shore. You need more help than you know.

Ultimately the perfection of generosity is an invitation to practice and to open ourselves up to the world and the grace and abundance that surrounds us– it connects us to the world around us and to our true selves – and the practice is and never has been about what is given because ultimately it is as the poet Walt Whitman as written, When I give, I give myself – Everything a buddha – every action a buddha offering –

As Sharon Salzburg writes –

“The Buddha said that no true spiritual life is possible without a generous heart. Generosity allies itself with an inner feeling of abundance—the feeling that we have enough to share.”

May we cultivate a life a generosity and in the words of Mary Oliver –

“…practice “giving until the giving feels like receiving. “

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