Giving till it feels good

To round out the discussion of the second precept about taking only what is offered or given, I want to describe how the “economy of gifts” works in a small, temporary universe.

Last week I was the manager for a meditation retreat held at a Buddhist monastery. The teacher was a lay person, not a resident of the monastery. Towards the end of the 9-day retreat, he gave a talk about giving, and how it is different from purchasing services. If we go to a hotel, we pay an agreed-upon amount of money, and we expect certain things in return: a clean bed, functioning plumbing, etc. It’s a morally neutral exchange.

At this retreat, the food, beds and meditation hall were all offered freely by the monastery. The cook and his assistant (and the manager) were volunteers and expected no reward but the satisfaction of a good project, i.e., serving people training in and practicing meditation. The teacher also was offering two daily talks and multiple practice interviews without expectation of a particular reward.

In the talk on the subject, the teacher described the economy of the gift, where there is no set price. Each participant gets to decide how much, if anything, she will give, inspired by the generosity of the others giving them the gifts of a safe and clean space, food and teaching. So some people will give very little and think they’ve made a good bargain. They have missed out on a deep and essentially moral good feeling. Others might be momentarily inspired to give more than they can afford, or will think so later, at least. They also will miss out on the warm feeling of “rightness” that comes when the right gift is offered. But those who understand will appreciate how rare and precious it is to be given the gift of this opportunity. They will think about what they spend on other things they value in their lives, and how this retreat compares with those other things. In economic terms we would call this “opportunity cost”; when we choose to spend our money on one thing, we choose not to spend it on something else. They will give what they can to support the monastery and the teacher at a level that reflects both their ability to give and the relative value (to them) of the experience of this temporary but intense community.

The amounts given are usually anonymous, so there is no score-keeping on the part of the teacher and the monastery. The teacher said to me he doesn’t count the money until some time has passed, so it doesn’t feel like payment.

This model is so different from our consumer model that many people have difficulty even understanding it. In some small ways it seeps into our culture, though. Parents or other family members will give children their old cars and furniture or help with down payments as needed. Friends will often lend or give each other money in a particular moment of need. These are partial reflections of the economy of the gift. And generosity like this inspires more generosity, so there is some momentum to this flow.

For a more complete discussion of the economy of the gift, read this article:

Next subject: the training precept on harmlessness with sexual energy.

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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