Giving sustenance

“Monks, if people knew, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would they allow the stain of miserliness to obsess them and take root in their minds. Even if it were their last morsel, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared it, if there were someone to share it with. But, monks, as people do not know, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they eat without having given, and the stain of miserliness obsesses them and takes root in their minds.” (Itivuttaka 26, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

It may be difficult for us to imagine being hungry, having only one bite of food, and thinking of sharing that bite with someone else in need. All three parts of that scenario are likely to be outside of our experience. But what can we take from this verse? We can notice how we relate to food. Do we eat without thinking? Do we get cranky if we’re served something we don’t like, or if we have to wait longer than anticipated for a meal? When was the last time we actually felt hungry?

When we enjoy food (or anything), are we aware of our good fortune in having enough? Do we remember that there are many people in the world, perhaps not very far away, who face hunger or malnutrition?

A few ways we might share our good fortune are by donating money or food to a local food bank, or by volunteering at Meals on Wheels or at any source of nourishment for those in need. There are also international charities that focus on bringing food and water sustainability to those in dire need – Buddhist Global Relief, for example.

Giving food has a special place in the practice of generosity because it is (along with water) the most essential element for keeping our bodies alive. By giving food, by remembering whenever we eat that others also need to eat, we strike at the heart of our own greedy tendencies.

Conquer stinginess with giving (from Dhp 223, translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Sharing our time and attention are also important ways of giving, and provide similar benefits to our inner life. Whenever we give, we are countering our natural selfishness with the equally natural (and much pleasanter) energy of generosity. We only need to remember (and re-remember) this principle for it to do its work.

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Ways to give

“There are, monks, these five gifts of a superior person. What five? He gives a gift out of faith; he gives a gift respectfully; he gives a gift at the right time; he gives a gift with a generous heart; he gives a gift without denigration.” (from AN 5:148, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The sutta above goes on to list specific benefits of each type of giving. In the first case,  where faith is the motive, giving to virtuous people (maybe especially monks and nuns or other renunciants) one’s faith becomes apparent as a radiant physical beauty. We might recognize this as the inner beauty we easily perceive in people who are generous by nature.

What does it mean to give with respect? We thoughtfully consider the needs or desires of the recipient and select the most appropriate gift or gifts. We can demonstrate our respect by showing that we know and understand the recipient, for example with tuition support, a bicycle for transportation, or regular flowers or cards for someone who is shut-in. When one gives respectfully, one result is that others listen to the giver, and try to understand and apply what they hear. We can observe that respect begets respect.

When one gives at the right time, one of the results the Buddha mentions is that the karmic benefits of the gift will arrive “at the right time”.  One example here is the gift of space for someone who needs to be left alone for a while. Another might be reaching out to a bereaved or neglected person.

“Because one gives with a generous heart…his mind inclines to the enjoyment of excellent things among the five cords of sensual pleasure.” This section is open to interpretation. It could mean that when a person has a generous heart, she is likely to enjoy the less crude and more refined of available pleasures, for example, inspiring entertainments vs. violent ones.

“Because he gives a gift without denigrating himself and others, wherever the result of that gift ripens he becomes rich, affluent, and wealthy, and no loss of his wealth takes place from any quarter, whether from fire, floods, the king, bandits, or unloved heirs.”  The Buddha is referring here not to specific, instant causes and results, but to a larger karmic flow. If we understand that we cannot personally own anything in an absolute sense, then our attitude towards sharing will naturally be free, and we may not feel we have to struggle to hold on to what we have. We will give and receive happily as a normal part of living.

Giving in any of these ways will bring joy to the giver and the receiver.


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Generosity vs miserliness

“There are, monks, these five kinds of miserliness. What five? Miserliness with regard to dwellings, miserliness with regard to families, miserliness with regard to gains, miserliness with regard to praise, and miserliness with regard to the Dhamma. … The spiritual life is lived for the abandoning and eradication of these five kinds of miserliness.” (AN 5:254-55, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

“What is accomplishment in generosity? Here, a noble dwells at home with a mind free from the stain of miserliness, freely generous, open-handed, delighting in relinquishment, devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing. This is called accomplishment in generosity.” (from AN 4:61, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Miserliness might be a feeling we’re acquainted with, and the Buddha offers an interesting list of possibilities. Let’s consider where we stand in each of the categories listed above. Are we more miserly or more generous with respect to our homes? Do we invite others into our homes and welcome them? Or do we use our homes to avoid others and build a bastion of not-caring?

With respect to our families, do we consider our partner and children “ours” and find ourselves reluctant to share them, to have other people matter to them?

If we have more financial resources than we need, how do we balance saving and giving?  Do we have a tendency to hoard our wealth? Or to give so much that we find ourselves in need? As a wise minister I know once advised, “Give until it feels good.”

Are we slow to recognize and praise others? This could be a sign that we don’t want anyone else to have the spotlight because we want it for ourselves. We may be depriving ourselves of the positive feelings and mind states that praising others brings, whether they are present or not. Being generous with praise could be thought of as an extension to gratitude practice. When we appreciate others out loud, something lovely is planted in the world.

What  would miserliness with regard to the Dhamma look like? It could be a reluctance on our part to share what we know with others, or to acknowledge our own interest or confidence in the Buddha’s teachings. We could have an attitude that others wouldn’t understand or appreciate the wisdom that we’ve acquired. If we have a teacher we’re devoted to we may not want to share that person. Of course, there’s no point in teaching people who are not interested, but we can frame issues that come to our attention in terms of cause and effect, of actions and consequences, whether we say anything or not. If our words and actions are guided by generosity and an understanding of our responsibilities, then our lives will be our expression of the Buddha’s teachings. That is a most valuable form of giving.

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Right view -> right action

Just as a seed of neem, bitter cucumber, or bitter gourd, planted in moist soil and receiving water, would all lead to fruits with a bitter flavour, so for a person of wrong view…whatever bodily action, verbal action, and mental action he undertakes in accordance with that view, and whatever his volition, yearning, inclination and activities, all lead to harm and suffering. For what reason? Because the view is bad.

Just as a seed of sugar cane, hill rice, or grape, planted in moist soil and receiving water, would all lead to fruits with a sweet and delectable flavour, just so, for a person of right view…whatever bodily action, verbal action, and mental action he undertakes in accordance with that view, and whatever his volition, yearning, inclination and activities, all lead to well-being and happiness. For what reason? Because the view is good. (from AN 10:104, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The second section of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, is called Personal Training. The personal training referred to starts with generosity and moves on to various forms of moral conduct and culminates in loving kindness practices. But all of the training is dependent on having a mental framework that supports moving in a wholesome direction, that is, right view.

If we think that our actions don’t matter, that we can behave as we like without regard for effects on others and habits in ourselves, then we cannot develop. If we understand that whatever we do has consequences for ourselves and others, then we are facing in the right direction. Our intentions, motivations, desires and inclinations will all follow from our view.

One way we can understand ourselves better is by watching where our attention goes during any given day. Sometimes we feel that our life is just one interruption after the other and that we can’t actually “get” anywhere. Sometimes we feel adrift and aimless. Other times we may be so focused on one project or worry that everything else falls away. Through any of these or other experiences, we can remember that our interactions with other beings illuminate our view. The quality of the conversations we have, the tasks we remember or forget to do, the people we seek out or avoid – all of these are indicators of our view.

If we feel sour or sweet, we can observe the effects of our actions on other people, and take them as guiding evidence, showing us (and others) when we are spreading harm or benefit. No one is perfect, but if we give it our attention, our view can (gradually) become sweeter  and our influence more beneficial.

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The Golden Rule

Direct from the Pali canon, these words  are from SN 55:7, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

“What, householders, is the Dhamma exposition applicable to oneself? Here, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘I am one who wishes to live, who does not wish to die; I desire happiness and am averse to suffering. Since I am someone who wishes to live … and am averse to suffering, if someone were to take my life, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. Now if I were to take the life of another – of one who wishes to live, who does not wish to die, who desires happiness and is averse to suffering – that would not be pleasing and agreeable to the other. What is displeasing and disagreeable to me is displeasing and disagreeable to the other too. How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?’ Having reflected thus, he himself abstains from the destruction of life, exhorts others to abstain from the destruction of life, and speaks in praise of abstinence from the destruction of life. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to take from me what I have not given, that is, to commit theft, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to commit adultery with my wife, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to damage my welfare with false speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to divide me from my friends by divisive speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to address me with harsh speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to address me with frivolous speech and idle chatter, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. … How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?’

The beauty of this reflection is that it starts with considering how we would feel if someone treated us in specific, hurtful ways. It is easy to imagine how pained and angry we might be if we were attacked, robbed, lied to, etc. We might even enjoy exploring the sensations of righteous anger. But the essential step is the next one, to ask ourselves: How can I inflict on another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?

This is an exhortation to examine how we would like to be treated, in these seven specific areas, and to pause and consider whether we are inflicting any of these behaviors on anyone else. This should include everyone else – slow service people, people whose opinions we disagree with, friends or relatives who try our patience – everyone.

We can refrain from harming others, discourage others from causing suffering, and take every opportunity to sing the praises of people (in their presence or absence) who refrain from these forms of harm. These are things we can do, not because anyone has said we have to, but because this is how we can refine our own behavior and thinking. We can change our relationship with the world and everyone in it, gradually diminishing any harm we might be causing and increasing whatever benefits we bestow. These can be our gifts to the people around us.

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Know for yourself

The Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) is probably the most often misrepresented of the Buddha’s teachings.

“It is fitting for you to be perplexed, Kālāmas, it is fitting for you to be in doubt. Doubt has arisen in you about a perplexing matter. Come, Kālāmas, do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by the seeming competence [of a speaker], or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our guru.’ But when, Kālāmas, you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them.”

Many people are enchanted with the Buddha’s listing of sources NOT to trust as guides to behavior and don’t look any further; but the important point is to know for ourselves which actions lead to harm and which lead to benefit. This is not the same as saying, “Do what you like.” or “Use your intuition.” It’s using an evidence-based approach to figuring out how to live for one’s own benefit and the benefit of others.

“…But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should live in accordance with them.

“What do you think, Kālāmas? When a person is without greed, hatred, and delusion, is it for his welfare or for his harm?” – “For his welfare, Bhante.” – “Kālāmas, a person not overcome by greed, hatred, and delusion, whose mind is not obsessed by them, does not destroy life, take what is not given, transgress with another’s wife, or speak falsehood; nor does he encourage others to do likewise. Will that lead to his welfare and happiness for a long time?” – “Yes, Bhante.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation)

The Buddha points out that it’s impossible to consider the results of our (or anyone’s) actions and conclude that it doesn’t matter if we lie, steal, cheat, or harm living beings. If we observe closely what happens when people treat each other in these ways, we can see that harm and suffering ensue.

The most likely way for us to cause grief to others is by not paying attention to what we’re doing. We may continue habitual behaviors without considering that we have a choice. The five precepts are guidelines for making wholesome choices. The practice implied by this sutta is to STOP and reflect on potential consequences before we act. Failing that, we can review our actions and their actual effects on ourselves and others, and resolve to act (or not act) accordingly.



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Wholesome and unwholesome

One important point from the previous post is that the Buddha emphasized the moral efficacy of action; that all of our actions have moral consequences, for good or ill. This is a guiding principle that the Buddha taught to all people, of all faiths, in all situations. It was not a way of enticing people to follow him; it was a statement of a simple truth, intended to benefit the hearers.

The Buddha often followed on with a list of important distinctions between wholesome and unwholesome actions which are categorized as the five (or four, in early suttas) precepts.  Sometimes the principle of right speech, the fourth precept, is divided into the sub-categories of truthful, harmonious, gentle and meaningful speech.

When, friends, a noble disciple understands the unwholesome and the root of the unwholesome, the wholesome and the root of the wholesome, in that way he is one of right view,…

And what is the wholesome? Abstention from the destruction of life is wholesome; abstention from taking what is not given is wholesome; abstention from sexual misconduct is wholesome; abstention from false speech is wholesome; abstention from divisive speech is wholesome; abstention from harsh speech is wholesome; abstention from idle chatter is wholesome… and what is the root of the wholesome? Non-greed is a root of the wholesome; non-hatred is a root of the wholesome; non-delusion is a root of the wholesome.  — from MN9, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

For us, today, having these principles stated in the negative instead of positive form (non-greed instead of generosity, for example) can seem awkward. Part of the reason it’s phrased this way comes from a characteristic of the Pali language, and part of the reason is that these statements were not written down, but memorised, so repetition, with one version stated positively and one negatively, was easier to remember.

Still, even for us, there may be more clarity in “non-greed” than in another word. We’re pretty clear on what greed feels like in ourselves, and perhaps less clear about its opposite. Abstention from false speech is subtly different from always telling the truth. If we’re inclined to say something but can’t be sure that it’s beneficial, we might stay silent and wait. If we’re abstaining from a negative behavior, we might have a variety of reasons. It turns out that abstaining from a particular action is not the same as performing its opposite. Sometimes we’re not sure what to do, where the wholesome and unwholesome intentions lie, and doing nothing (for the moment) might be the best thing.

We’ll get back to reflecting on each of the precepts individually before too long, but for today let’s think about curbing our unwholesome roots as the first line of intentionality. We can recognize and release greed, hatred and (sometimes) delusion in ourselves. It’s likely that when hatred is set aside, love is what’s left, and when greed is set aside, generosity is there naturally.

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