“According to the Buddha’s teachings, true happiness is
something that, by its nature, gets spread around.”
(from Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Generosity First” chapter, Meditations)
The first training that the Buddha gave for everyone was the practice of giving. To practice generosity is the most basic way to experience freedom. Happiness and inner calm grow when they are fed by generous acts. Try to recall a time in your own life when you gave something and felt good about it. Did you ever surrender your place in the grocery line to a mother struggling with young children? Have you held your peace to avoid aggravating a situation? Did you give just the right gift to someone? Do you remember people on the days that are important to them?
Generosity, the feeling that supports true giving, temporarily releases you from the pain of selfishness. An uncomplicated joy can arise, along with the relief of taking a break from being wrapped up in yourself. Conversely, acting without awareness allows your selfishness to go unchecked. You may get a sense of being boxed in by your own desires.
Generosity is the ideal starting point in learning how to let go of self-centeredness, and for seeing that a deep joy comes from releasing whatever it is you’re holding onto too tightly in a given moment. Holding on — to “me” and “mine”, and “what I want” – can create an inner problem; letting go can be the solution. If cultivated wisely, generosity can permeate every activity and bring confidence as well as joy. It is so simple that it would be easy to think it’s not important. But without generosity, the mind is confined to a small, tight space. Anything that strays from “me and mine” is off limits.
“… by the time you come to meditation through the route of giving and being virtuous, you’ve already had experience in learning that there are counterintuitive forms of happiness in the world.”
(from Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Generosity First” chapter, Meditations)
In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, the word for giving is “dāna” (pronounced “dahnuh”). The word for generosity, the underlying spirit of giving, is “cāga” (pronounced “chahguh”). The word cāga also has the meaning of “letting go” or “relinquishment”. It is this letting go activity that helps to weaken and reverse painful attachments and longings. Each time you let go of something which you are grasping tightly – a thing or an idea, an assumption or an expectation – there is a sense of relief, of having laid down a burden. It can be felt as the difference between a clenched hand and an open palm. Through the repeated exercise of letting go, your calm center can gradually become stronger, and your awareness of it can grow. If you know anyone who is naturally very generous, you might observe its practice and effects directly.
In the Buddha’s teachings, the highest form of generosity is to give your wisdom, both in words and in your behavior. When you help a friend make a good decision, or see both sides of a problem, or take a broader perspective, you are offering wisdom. When others see you as a wholesome role model, you are sharing wisdom. If you are a teacher, you are in a position both to demonstrate wisdom with your actions and to speak wisely. If you are a parent, caring for your children gently and with patience is a form of sharing your wisdom. Simply acting with kindness, speaking truthfully, and considering what is best for others and yourself, is to offer wisdom.
Offering attention and respect
If wisdom seems too much to ask, you might start with offering respect, good wishes, or simple politeness. For a single full day, try offering respectful attention to everyone you meet or talk to. Take the other person’s point of view. Let the person next to you on the bus or at the next desk be the most important person around. Even if you don’t see a smile, offer one. Notice how it makes you feel.
An important way to cultivate the “letting go” aspect of generosity is to give your full attention to others when you’re with them – physically, via telephone, or in any other way. You know that you feel honored and respected when you are listened to. Be the good listener. Open your heart and be there, without projecting your own ideas or pushing your own agenda. Look at the other person. Practice accepting her just as she is and focus your energy on trying to understand her. Simply being listened to with care can have a profound effect on anyone.
Don’t forget to give attention to the people you know and care about. Do they know you value them? Do you demonstrate your appreciation in ways they can recognize? It might be tempting to relax at home in such a way that those you love the most get the least of your attention. But putting someone else first is often a refreshing break for a tired mind. One of the 20th century’s great sages, Ann Landers (pen name of Eppie Lederer), repeatedly said in her newspaper columns, “If you want to feel better, do something nice for someone else”. Do it as a gift to yourself.
Generosity can easily be exercised with strangers as well. A man once asked Mother Teresa what he could give, since he had nothing. “You can always give a smile”, she replied. Notice how it makes you feel when you turn away or shut down. Notice how it makes you feel when you relax and offer a smile instead.
T. has the uncanny ability to home in on the person who most needs help. It’s like radar: scan, scan, zoom – the gentle question, the friendly touch or word – and suddenly the one who felt most left out, most afraid, or most inadequate is included, appreciated, even loved.
My mother-in-law was an extraordinary role model in her generosity. We had a saying among the relatives: “You can come into this family, but you can never get out”. I remember being amazed at the first holiday celebration I attended with my new in-laws. Among the crowd, divorced spouses and stray friends were welcomed into the fold. The long-armed and tender embrace of my dear mother-in-law would never let you go, once she knew you.
Whatever level your wisdom and kindness have developed to, offer the best of it as often as you can. One interaction at a time, one day at a time, just offer up your best.
Next in the hierarchy of generosity is giving material things. Give some thought to how tied down you feel by your possessions. Do you have something that you’re so attached to, you know you’d feel freer without it?
Once, I became aware that I was inordinately attached to a particular shawl. It had been brought back from India as a gift from a friend. This shawl was my talisman. It somehow made me feel like an insider, made me special, (secretly) better than other people. When I recognized this feeling, I knew it would be a good idea to give the shawl away – and that selfish feeling with it. When I did give the shawl away, I felt as if a burden had been let go.
Do you find that your home feels cluttered with “stuff”? You would not be alone if you did. Consider – would you feel lighter if you had fewer possessions? Could you get joy from giving away all the things that you like but don’t use? This could be an excellent opportunity to practice giving and noticing the lightness of heart that follows. Give some thought to who might really enjoy receiving something you have to give.
How to give
The Buddha also gave some specific instructions in how to give things away:
And how is a person of integrity a person of integrity in the way he gives a gift? There is the case where a person of integrity gives a gift attentively, with his own hand, respectfully, not as if throwing it away, with the view that something will come of it. This is how a person of integrity is a person of integrity in the way he gives a gift.
(MN 110.23 tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
If you accept this advice, then the way the gift is given may be as important as the gift itself. Giving in person and with one’s own hands brings meaning to the connection. Giving with an understanding that something of value is happening, and that good actions bring good results, enriches the experience for both parties.
The subject of money might bring up some anxiety. It can be very stressful when you feel financially insecure. How does generosity come into your thinking on the subject? How do you decide your financial priorities? What proportion of your income should go into housing? Luxuries? Gifts? Donations? How do you decide what to spend your discretionary income on and when and where to give your money away?
It takes some attention, but integrating generosity into your financial planning has a beneficial effect on you and others. Consider where and how you give, regular vs. spontaneous giving, and how much you give. When your income changes, do your priorities change? Do you plant your money where you think it will provide the most benefit to yourself or others? A wise friend once said, “Show me a person’s checkbook and I’ll tell you what they think is important.” Consider having a conversation with a trusted friend about how money and generosity work in your life. Do your financial transactions show a true picture of your priorities?
Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right balance between generosity and responsible conservation of what you’ve got. Please don’t avoid this challenge. It is an opportunity to take a fresh perspective in reviewing your real needs and the needs of others. Take some time with this; be honest about your emotions on the subject. Discuss it with anyone else affected, especially family members, and with anyone whose perspective you value. If you feel you’ve gone too far in one direction or the other, giving too much or too little, see if there’s some question you can ask yourself in the future to avoid making the same mistake again.
There is an important result to look for in practicing generosity. How does it make you feel? True generosity carries with it a feeling of joy or relief, the feeling of a heart releasing tension. When you give something, do you feel happy? Whether the gift is tangible or intangible, large or small, the giving of it is generosity only if it is given with an open heart, with the intention of a “transaction of kindness” with someone else. Check your intention in the moments leading up to the giving, during the act of giving, and afterwards. Is there an intention to improve someone else’s happiness? Are you responding to an inner need to give or to let go of something? Even if it’s mixed with other motives, if there is a feeling of release, then your generous nature is being nourished.
It can take some time to overcome an entrenched habit of stinginess; it must be worn away, bit by bit. Fortunately, the pleasure of true giving, once experienced consciously, is remembered and repeated because it feels good. The joy that comes from sharing what you’ve got enlarges your understanding and connects you to other people and to the physical world. When you notice and appreciate these results, the habit of generosity can thrive.
Giving is a mutual process. The free flow of gifts and generous acts is a type of temporary reprieve from the market economy. For the process to be complete, you have to be willing to receive with grace, as well as to give. When you receive something, turn your attention to the giver and to the intention behind the gift – to the love or thoughtfulness that motivates the giving. If feelings of unworthiness arise, or the thought, “I don’t need/want/like this”, put them aside and move your attention to the giver and her generosity. Giving or receiving a gift, material or not, is an opportunity for deep connection. See the opportunity and open yourself to it. Acknowledge and appreciate the experience. Say “thank you” and whatever else is in your heart to share.
An economy of gifts
During his life, the Buddha established a system for his followers that depends entirely on generosity. This system was used by others as well, but the Buddha codified it in the rules he laid down for his monks and nuns. It’s a system that relies on mutual generosity. He wanted to be sure that his teachings were never sold, that they would always be given freely. And he wanted his lay (non-monastic) followers to experience the joy of giving on a regular basis.
According to the Buddhist monastic code, monks and nuns are not allowed to accept money or even to engage in barter or trade with lay people. They live entirely in an economy of gifts. Lay supporters provide gifts of material requisites [food, shelter and medicine] for the monastics, while the monastics provide their supporters with the gift of the teaching. Ideally — and to a great extent in actual practice — this is an exchange that comes from the heart, something totally voluntary. There are many stories in the texts that emphasize the point that returns in this economy — it might also be called an economy of merit — depend not on the material value of the object given, but on the purity of heart of the donor and recipient. You give what is appropriate to the occasion and to your means, when and wherever your heart feels inspired. For the monastics, this means that you teach, out of compassion, what should be taught, regardless of whether it will sell. For the laity, this means that you give what you have to spare and feel inclined to share. There is no price for the teachings, nor even a “suggested donation.” Anyone who regards the act of teaching or the act of giving requisites as a repayment for a particular favor is ridiculed as mercenary. Instead, you give because giving is good for the heart and because the survival of the Dhamma [the teachings of the Buddha] as a living principle depends on daily acts of generosity.
(Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from article “The Economy of Gifts”)
This excerpt from an essay lays out both the actions and intentions that the Buddha recommended. It serves me as the basic example of true, everyday generosity. I find great joy in giving food or other necessary items to those who have renounced worldly life. And the teachings I receive also lift me up. For the monastics, there is an opportunity to offer teachings to the best of their abilities. The food they receive from us laypeople reminds them to live simply, without being choosy. There is in this exchange, in this environment, a freedom hard to find elsewhere.
Have you ever wanted something really badly? After you got it, did you feel a little burst of joy? That moment could be mistaken for the satisfaction of getting something. But in fact, the happiness is caused by the sudden release of the longing you were feeling before you obtained your object. Letting go of the tightness of wanting is what produces the joy. Unfortunately, it usually lasts a only few seconds or minutes.
It’s important to realize that the greed you sometimes feel is natural. The joy experienced with the release of greed is also natural. By giving attention to causes and results, you can start to direct your actions and speech, and eventually even your thoughts, away from greed and towards generosity. Don’t expect it to happen on its own. Only persistent attention can loosen the hold of deeply ingrained habits of greed. The most wonderful moment is when you realize for yourself that letting go of a compulsive desire is preferable to the feelings that greed produce.
What are the things that you cling to most energetically? Are they material things? Money? Comforts? Ego supports or points of pride? Opinions? Projections of “how it should be”? Does holding any of these things too tightly get you into strife? Cause arguments or rifts? Cause you to worry excessively? Have a look at where greed catches you and whether you can do anything to loosen its grip.
The joy of generosity can be subtle, both physically and psychologically. It may seem odd to choose a subtle (quiet) joy over a powerful (loud), ego-feeding emotion like greed, but it is an essential reflective practice to start recognizing what causes pain and what brings joy.
In the Buddha’s words:
“O monks, if people knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would they allow the stain of stinginess 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 stinginess obsesses them and takes root in their minds.”
– Itivuttaka 26: 18-19 (tr. Ven. Bodhi)
Generosity as pain relief
When generosity is highly developed, a type of physical pain is noticeable when grasping occurs. It’s a helpful signal that something needs to be released. Some people give material things with ease, some give attention and kindness with ease. Where might you practice the development of letting go?
If, by giving up a lesser happiness,
One could experience greater happiness,
A wise person would renounce the lesser
To behold the greater.
(Dhammapada 290 – tr. Fronsdal)