A culture of generosity

I recently had the good fortune to spend some time at the Buddhist Monastery in Chithurst, “Cittaviveka,” which can be translated as “the secluded heart.” While there I was touched by many expressions of kindness and generosity all around, and struck by the beauty and power of the sharing that takes place there, and in monasteries around the world, every day. These monasteries  are founded on generosity or ‘dana’ as it is known,  and through them the dharma  teachings have been transmitted.  I find it a real blessing and deeply nourishing to reconnect with where this tradition comes from.

There is something very special and yet ordinary in the offering of food and other forms of material support by the laypeople to the ordained community of monks and nuns: The bubbling joy and delight of two young girls offering the flowers they had brought; The deep quiet pleasure of their grandmother giving out woollen hats which she had knitted for the nuns, monks, and novices, in the exact colours of their respective brown, ochre, and white robes; The smiling colourful groups of friends and families, making up the many people who had brought food and other gifts.  All these beings and their offerings being graciously received by the ordained community with warm smiles, friendly words and the traditional blessing chant, Being present amidst all this, I could not help but reflect on the wholesome transformative power of  sharing.  Right there in the middle of their silent three month winter retreat, in the monastery of the secluded heart, these kindly, dignified Buddhist  monastics invite the laypeople into their  quiet, tranquil space and receive the dana they offer. In this traditional meeting and exchange, it seems to me that the spiritual world and the material world come together and reveal that they are inseparable.

The foundation of our dharma culture could be understood as the process of giving and receiving, and this was how it felt to me at the time. There I was sitting on a new inflatable travel zafu (cushion)  which  I had received as a dana offering from a student in America, in the elegant and beautiful yet understated new dharma hall, which was completed last year through the generosity of many people. Having come prepared to camp off site, I had been spontaneously offered accommodation for a few days when this is generally not available during the winter retreat. It was like bathing in a fount of generosity in which the sense of support, nourishment  and inspiration was profoundly tangible.

In all its aspects, freedom is most truly revealed by what we can let go off, rather than by what we have.  Rather than the usual accumulation of possessions or experiences that we are conditioned to pursue, we are invited to let go. We can usefully consider our practise as not like a visit to the shops, to get more, but in fact a trip to the dump – to get rid of that we do not need to hold on to any longer. The effect of a visit to the dump is that we have more space at home to enjoy.  The inner space that opens up as we learn to let go becomes the basis of deep joy in the heart. The core dharma teaching of dukkha (dissatisfaction / suffering / limitation) and its end is twofold: understanding craving, clinging and holding to be the cause of suffering, and  practising non-clinging or letting go, as the basis of liberation.

The Buddha emphasised generosity and sharing as the foundation of the teaching he gave to laypeople, and made it the primary basis of the Buddhist monks and nuns existence. He once instructed his son Rahula with the well known statement, “if you knew what I know about giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing.” So important is this practise, that Joseph Goldstein describes generosity as “the first pillar of the dharma.”  Despite this emphasis however, it could be that we attend meditation retreats without hearing much teaching on generosity, other then the brief “dana talk” on the last day. In translating teachings and practises from the retreat to our life, the practise of dana: generosity and sharing is a crucial bridge. Generosity is the foundation of dharma practice, because you can always return to it as a touch point that uplifts the heart.

Dana is the first of the parami ,  the wholesome qualities of the heart that can be cultivated  and the basis of a culture of goodness. When the Buddha taught about generosity, it was not as a moral injunction, i.e  not “you should do this or you are not a good person.” Instead he would invite the listener to recall how they felt when they had received the generosity of others and how they had felt when they had been generous themselves. This reflection on how natural and good it feels to participate in generosity – in giving and receiving,  gladdens the heart and turns our motivation away from selfishness and towards an interest in the common good. Recognising that which uplifts the heart and connects us with our own goodness is much of the path. In the  English language, the word generosity derives from the latin “generosus,” meaning nobly born, which seems very apt, as the practise of generosity is the basis for the establishment of a noble life in dharma teachings.  Receiving is as much an expression of generosity as is giving. Giving expresses the release of holding and clinging, while receiving expresses that attitude which accepts what is offered, and so transforms our aversive tendency to reject our experience.

Like letting go, practising generosity and sharing is not always easy for us. The prospect of giving away what we have can confront us with the risk of not having enough for ourselves. This risk triggers our aversion to discomfort and insecurity and touches our deepest survival fears. Choosing to practice giving and sharing however, enables us to connect with a sense of having enough, releasing the grip of self-centred neediness, and dissolving the feeling of lack or poverty that we can experience at times. The pressure to get, to keep, to want more and more creates a contracted inner environment, in which we can feel trapped, identified with needing to protect or promote only ourselves. To give and share is to trust that there is enough for now, and therefore to live more fully in the present. On many occasions travelling in undeveloped regions of the world, I have been humbled by the enthusiasm and joy with which the simple poor people have shared their food with me.  Experiences such as this confirm that happiness is born from the condition of our heart, not what we own, have or control. In giving and sharing the heart opens, liberating us from the tyranny of fear and the isolated ego structure that is built on fear.

Generosity is the natural response of an open heart. I notice how often when I encounter wild-life around Gaia House – birds, squirrel rabbits etc, I experience what feels like a very natural urge to offer them food.  Of course it is not always possible, and sometimes actually not good for them, but the urge speaks to a felt sense of connectedness that finds its natural expression in the wish to share.  In this context however some wisdom is required. It can be that our impulse to give will not actually serve the recipients welfare, as is sometimes the case with feeding wild creatures. We must also recognise that we may not have the material capacity or degree of inner freedom needed to fulfil our generous impulses. I remember travelling in India, in my early twenties, feeling my heart poignantly touched by the desperate circumstances of so many poor people, and the thought occurring to me  “ I could give them all my “hard earned” savings and go back to the West now.” Even with recognising that it may transform some lives and would not harm mine in real terms, I found myself still too attached to my modest savings and travel plans to be able to give them away just like that. I was engaged in dharma practise at the time, and it was humbling to see and acknowledge the attachment in my own heart. Through the process of feeling into the suffering in my own holding,  it became clear that it is crucial to include oneself, with all ones limitations in the field of those who deserve our generosity. Kindness and generosity to oneself recognises that it is ok to take care of one’s own genuine need too, and to forgive ourselves for our limitations is itself an act of generosity. If generosity becomes equated with obligatory self sacrifice, or with “shoulds” and judgement, then demanding it from oneself or others becomes a form of taking which is actually opposed to the spirit of generosity.  Allowing generosity is much more skilful than requiring it, and then it can find an appropriate form.  In India I learned that giving away some but not all of what I had, was actually the appropriate response in my circumstances.

Receiving is also an act of generosity, as the author Stephen Donaldson once wrote, “to receive generosity is to honour the giver.” Although at first it looks as though it should be easy, receiving can also be difficult for us. Feelings of unworthiness can arise in a situation where generosity is being extended to us, leading us to reject the offer.  How often have we refused something offered to us that we would actually have liked to receive, because we were not comfortable with receiving? A longstanding friend of mine once who described a guiding principle of his life as “never refuse generosity.” This is great advice. Have you noticed how sometimes it can be hard to receive praise and not contradict it, or to receive gratitude without saying “it was nothing,” or to receive an unexpected gift when you have nothing to offer in return? Of course it is wonderful to be moved to make an offering in return when receiving a gift,  and wise to take praise with a pinch of salt, but we can be very conditioned to need everything to be an exchange, and uncomfortable in just receiving.  When someone says “thank you” I often notice the tendency to say “thank you” in return.  Instead of this response, which I notice has the affect of putting me back into the familiar and valued role of the giver, I make a practise at times of just staying in the humble vulnerable place of receiving,  accepting the expression of gratitude, and leaving space for the other to occupy the role of the giver, in their offering of appreciation or thanks. This is not always easy to do.  To receive that which is freely offered, requires a degree of humility, and vulnerability. We do not have to be generous, or become generous, but simply to learn to not impede the flow of that natural generosity which is an organic expression of our interconnectedness.

As well as reflecting on the effects of generosity, the Buddha encouraged his lay followers to reflect on how it feels to act selfishly, or affected by the selfishness of others, and in recognising that this led to an afflicted and contracted state of heart and mind,  to incline away from such action.  This is again an expression of discerning what actions truly serve our natural wish to be happy. So what happens when we reflect upon the experience generosity and of selfishness, in ourselves and in others?

Life is something we receive, like a meal, and when we understand that this very life is given to us, is an offering of something precious that we do not own,  our relationship to it is transformed. Forgetting that our life is not something we own, we can have a sense of entitlement, in which we tend to take for granted that which we have, and easily focus upon its shortcomings. This leads us to struggle with the limitations inherent in life. When recognise “the gift of our days and nights” as Kahlil Gibran puts it, we are much more likely to be grateful for our life, with all its imperfections, and less likely to look the gift horse in the mouth.  In understanding our very existence as a precious offering, that we have not had to earn, we open to gratitude for the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the breeze, the light of the moon, the kind presence of a friend, in fact anything and everything, even the difficult.

Giving and receiving is the very nature of life’s engagement with itself. Rather than being something that we do, sharing is actually what we are. In each moment our very breath is received from the world, the oxygen released by the metabolic processes of plants sustaining our biological survival moment to moment,  and the carbon dioxide  that we breathe out provides plants with what they need to sustain the photosynthesis that nourishes them, and upon which all life on earth depends. I find it so helpful to just remember that which I call “me” is an expression of an ever-changing, timeless and unstoppable process of giving and receiving, and in remembering,  relaxing again and again,  allowing it all to unfold.

It can be that we struggle to find time for practice in our lives and wonder how we can stay connected with the deeper aspirations of our hearts. The path can be summarised as dana, sila, and bhavana (generosity, ethical behaviour / non harming and meditation / cultivation ) and Buddha once suggested that if possible practise bhavana, if that was not possible, at least practise sila, but if that was not possible, he said that it is always possible to practise dana.  Although time for formal meditation is sometimes limited, there are so many opportunities in life to cultivate generosity. Sharing our resources such as goods,  money, time , space and understanding,  as well as kind actions of body, speech and mind,  can all be expressions of generosity. A culture of dharma is one that recognises generosity as a powerful basis for  the cultivation of happiness and well-being, and  as the expression of a liberated heart and mind. To live in accordance with Buddha-dharma, is to more and more align our lives with the spirit of giving and receiving, with the reality of the benevolence that is at the core of our being, and the joy that arises from allowing that goodness to express itself, through our shared existence.

May we all live with generosity,  abiding in goodness of heart, for our own welfare, and that of all beings.