Category Archives: Generosity

Posts & comments on the subject of practicing generosity

Showing we care

Giving, endearing speech,
beneficent conduct, and impartiality
under diverse worldly conditions,
as is suitable to fit each case:
these means of embracing others
are like the linchpin of a rolling chariot.
– – from AN 4:32, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The title given to this sutta in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, is “Four Means of Embracing Others”. This is how we show others we care, whether they are family members or strangers, participants in a community we are part of or from a group we are suspicious of.

We can think of each of these actions and their opposites to gauge the likely results. When we are generous to others, the mood of the recipients and any others who witness the exchange is likely to be lifted, even if the gift is as simple as a smile. If we send signals that we are protecting what we consider ours, we draw away from others, and they are likely to notice and respond in kind.

Endearing speech is probably the most useful way of neutralizing tension and promoting good will. If our tone of voice carries the clear intention of kindness, it shifts all the conversation in a positive direction. Likewise, if our words are combative or sarcastic, we spread a bad feeling and might cause others to withdraw.

An easy way to practice beneficent conduct is simply to move out of others’ way, whether in a vehicle or on foot. There is an art to creating space for others, and when we practice it, it may not be noticed, but it will have an effect, at least on us. Another type of beneficent conduct is when people help each other out unexpectedly. There were some recent stories in the news of people getting into strife in swift waters and the people nearby forming a human chain to rescue them. Most of us respond when we see others in difficulty, especially if it’s a dramatic situation. But even in mundane ways, we often take up opportunities to be of service to others. We can recognize these moments and appreciate them for the skilful actions they are.

“Impartiality under diverse worldly conditions” – what does that mean? We could think of it as a sense of fairness, of treating others and ourselves as equals. How this is embodied is not always obvious, but it could start with simple politeness.

When these four ways of being are practiced, the wheel of life runs smoothly; and when this linchpin is missing, the wheels are bound to fall off. We can prove this principle in our own lives. No matter what we’re up against, giving, kind speech, respectful conduct and fairness will help set things right.

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Filed under Causes and results, Friendships, General, Generosity, Harmlessness, Relationships, Speech

Anger

Among the mental defilements disruptive to social harmony, probably the most pernicious is anger. Since virtually all communities, including Buddhist monasteries, consist of people still prone to egotistical desires, they are in constant danger of being riven by anger, resentment, and vindictiveness among their members. For this reason, the control of anger is critical to communal harmony. The Buddha recognizes that while giving vent to anger brings a certain degree of satisfaction, he points out that angry outbursts ultimately bounce back upon oneself, entailing direct harm for oneself and entangling one in conflict with others. Hence…he describes anger as having a “poisoned root and a honeyed tip.”

– from the Introduction to chapter “Dealing with Anger” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Is there no safe haven from anger? Probably not from other peoples’ anger, but perhaps we can start with our own.

In our everyday life, what are the things that annoy or anger us? Recently I learned that, for a number of family members, traffic lights (while driving) can stimulate powerful anger. We talked about the fact that having this reaction guarantees that every time we get into a car we’ll become irate. We could all see that this was unhelpful and probably bad for our immune systems, but NOT getting angry seemed a remote possibility.

Later, sitting in very slow traffic, I felt frustration rising. Then I thought, “Exactly which one of these drivers in front of me am I angry at?” Everyone I could see was also stuck in the traffic jam, and was probably feeling some degree of frustration. There was no one to blame; everyone on the scene was deserving of compassion, including me. The anger that had been leaking into my body subsided. I recognised this as a breakthrough in patience.

There’s an old tale of a couple of people in a small boat at night. They navigate carefully through a narrow passageway and become aware of another small boat coming towards them. Since it’s nighttime, all they can see is a dim light in the bow of the other boat. As the second boat approaches, the passengers in the first boat call out – “Hey there!” When they get no response, they call more loudly, more insistently, more angrily. Finally, the boats meet and gently bump into each other, and the passengers see that the other boat is empty. They were furious with someone who wasn’t there. This seems an apt analogy for many of our experiences of anger. There’s no one there trying to harm us and no one to blame. Perhaps if we can remember this feature of experience we’ll spend less of our time fuming.

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Filed under Anger, Causes and results, Generosity, Patience

Fruitful practice

Monks, if someone were to give away a hundred pots of food as charity in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, and if someone else were to develop a mind of loving-kindness even for the time it takes to pull a cow’s udder, either in the morning, at noon, or in the evening, this would be more fruitful than the former. Therefore, monks, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by loving-kindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.’ Thus should you train yourselves. (SN 20:4, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Generosity is often considered the first, most basic training for releasing clinging. And yet here’s the Buddha saying that there’s a much more powerful way to move towards freedom from greed, hatred, and confusion.

What does it mean to develop “a mind of loving-kindness”? How do we know when we’re doing it and not doing it? Giving a gift is a specific, usually physical, action; developing loving-kindness (mettā) is internal and invisible.

James Baraz, a Dharma friend and mentor to me, once said that when he was conducting student interviews, his starting point was simply to dwell in loving-kindness with the interviewee. Regardless of what was going on with the person in front of him, she or he would benefit from an uncritical, freely given warmth. For me, being with a person in hospice care is much the same. Whatever they are experiencing at the moment, the best thing I can bring to the situation is unbounded kindness and open attention.

Does it take a special situation for us to bring this part of ourselves to the fore? We all have the capacity to fully let go into a period of boundless kindness, and it is a pleasant mindstate to be in. What habits of our minds get in the way of this? Sometimes we think others should behave or react differently from how they are, but we can’t know their histories and sensitivities. It may make boundless kindness easier to practice if we relax into the understanding that there is a lot we don’t know and can’t ever know about other people.

Many times in the suttas, the Buddha recommends “dwell pervading one quarter [of the world] with loving-kindess” and then spreading it to all quarters, plus above and below, expanding the care in all directions without limit. There don’t seem to be any more specific instructions than this about HOW to develop loving-kindness. Perhaps we could start in situations that make it easy for us to open our hearts, for example, gratitude to another person or group of people. It is a matter for us to consider and experiment with. When does loving-kindness, a desire for the well-being of others that asks nothing in return, come up naturally for us? Can we tap into that and develop it?

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Filed under General, Generosity, Sublime states

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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Filed under Generosity, Perfections

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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Filed under General, Generosity

Overcoming obstacles to mettā

We’ve been thinking about this marvellous quality, accessible and natural to all of us, mettā. We’ve noticed that it may be present at unpredictable times and places, and wondered how to cultivate it in our daily lives. Once again, Ajahn Sucitto has some wise words to guide us:

The ability to generate mettā [unbounded kindness] depends on both willingness and capacity. These may be in short supply. Those who have experienced sustained abuse can find it very difficult to experience kindness for themselves or for others; those who have not had the secure presence of goodwill can be subject to the insecurity that leads to attachment to views and becoming. Our capacity can also be limited by how we’re being affected in the present. Although conditions are always changing, when the mind is affected by visitors such as fear, worry, guilt and passion, it easily becomes fixed in that state. If the visitor is anger, then the mind becomes bristling and volcanic. If the visitor is remorse or guilt, the mind becomes an eddy that chases itself and sinks down. So we need to develop strengths and skills to stop being overwhelmed by these fixating forces.

Here’s where the pāramīs or perfections support each other. The first three perfections (generosity, morality, and renunciation) make well-being possible, because practicing them generates self-respect and confidence. An emotional brightness can gradually replace whatever ruts we’ve gotten into. It’s not an instant fix, but it is a reliable way to undermine destructive tendencies we may be carrying. So we can always begin again by committing to generosity, morality and renunciation, in whatever situation we find ourselves.

While we’re building our capacity for generosity, morality and renunciation, our best friends are patience, truthfulness, and kindness (mettā). Patience is essential to uncover and examine our internal obstacles. We can attribute our problems to any cause we like, in ourselves or in others or in our fates, but that doesn’t help us escape or transcend them. It’s the resolve to keep looking, especially at the self-other boundary, calmly and persistently, until a new understanding dawns that shows us the way out of our personal traps.

Mettā “is not about conjuring up any great feelings of emotional warmth, but a process of staying in touch, of not blaming oneself or others, and of not going into the past to rehash old issues. The ‘staying at’ that point of the hurt, ill-will and pain then begins to carry the awareness across to compassion and transpersonal wisdom.” (Ajahn Sucitt0). We can’t make mettā happen, but we can create the conditions for letting go to happen. And where there’s letting go, mettā naturally follows.

Dāna pāramī : generosity, giving of oneself
Sīla pāramī :
virtue, morality, proper conduct
Nekkhamma pāramī :
renunciation, letting go
Paññā pāramī :
transcendental wisdom, insight
Viriya pāramī :
energy, diligence, vigour, effort
Khanti pāramī :
patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
Sacca pāramī :
truthfulness, honesty, integrity
Adhiṭṭhāna pāramī :
determination, resolution
Mettā pāramī :
loving-kindness
Upekkhā pāramī :
equanimity, serenity

 

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Filed under Causes and results, Generosity, Harmlessness, Patience, Perfections, Sublime states