Dāna pāramī : generosity, giving of oneself
One of the important reasons why the Buddha taught the Dhamma was to teach us to let go, not to hold on to things. The more we really know the Dhamma, the more we can let go. Those who know a little can let go of a little; those who know a lot can let go of a lot. — from Ajahn Lee, “Starting out Small”, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
At the beginning of the Buddha’s teachings, before meditation, before the eight-fold path and the four ennobling truths, is the practice of giving. By giving, we start to learn the counter-intuitive lesson that only if we let go of whatever we are grasping can wisdom enter our hearts and minds.
How this looks in practice can vary greatly. Each of us has opportunities for generosity, though they are not all the same. We wake up in the morning. Is someone else there? If we speak to them kindly, there is generosity. If we look in the mirror and have good will for the person staring back at us, there is generosity. If we go about our business in a way that doesn’t make others wait for us, there is generosity. If we defer to other cars on the road or other passengers on the bus, there is generosity. If we do our work (or study or caring) with patience and energy, there is generosity. If we make or buy two of something we want so we can give one away, there is generosity. If we pass up an opportunity to whine or criticize, there is generosity. If we bake a cake or cookies for our workmates or playmates, there is generosity. If we offer a ride to someone who might need it, there is generosity. If we telephone someone who is ailing or suffering to let them know we care, there is generosity. If we let the people we love know that we love them (in whatever way), there is generosity. If we offer strangers a smile, there is generosity.
Of course, there is also the sharing of our financial means. Do we think about how much we really need? What happens with the excess (if there is any)? Do we give regularly to causes or people whose needs are greater than ours? How does it make us feel to give?
The Buddha talked about giving well, as opposed to giving without thinking:
A person of integrity gives a gift with a sense of conviction. A person of integrity gives a gift attentively. A person of integrity gives a gift in season [i.e., at the appropriate time]. A person of integrity gives a gift with an empathetic heart. A person of integrity gives a gift without adversely affecting himself or others…
from AN 5.148 translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
In other words, we don’t use gifts to control others, but to make a heart to heart connection with them. We consider their feelings and needs and find a way for both parties to experience joy in the transaction.