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Buddha Is as Buddha Does
The Transcendental Gift of Generosity
May I perfect the sublime virtue of generosity,
which liberates and releases craving, grasping,
and brings joyous contentment.
Dana, the ancient Sanskrit word for the first paramita, or transformative practice, is most often translated into English as "generosity," but the full meaning of dana is much richer and more far-reaching, as we will see in this chapter. It refers not only to giving away our time, money, resources, or labor to help others, but also to having a liberality of spirit that doesn't erect barriers between self and others. True generosity is giving everything you have to every moment, and is the way of nonattachment.
In many respects, dana is similar to the Christian concept of caritas (Latin for "charity"). Being charitable in this sense means selflessly bestowing compassion and benefits on others without expecting any sort of return. Instead, the charitable person comes to experience the act itself as its own natural reward precisely because it's the best thing to do for everyone involved. An act of charity is, in essence, the purest way to apply the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Being generous according to the Buddhist concept of dana calls for the same kind of dynamic shift in consciousness. It means breaking through the self-oriented attitude that we're making a sacrifice or that we're martyring ourselves when we put the needs of others ahead of our own self-interest. We learn to welcome occasions for generosity as goldenopportunities to express our noble Bodhicitta and, in doing so, realize the wealth and abundance of our innate goodness. In giving, we too receive. Through being generous, we erase the troublesome, dualistic distinction between giver and receiver. Buddha said, "Generosity brings happiness at every stage: in framing the intention, in the act of giving, and in rejoicing afterward."
It can be difficult for any human being, concerned about survival needs and subject to countless preoccupations and desires, to rise above self-centeredness toward this kind of generosity. Living in an especially competitive, materialistic, narcissistic, me-first culture, we Americans are even more inclined to devalue and even fear generosity. Although we all respect philanthropy and support charities up to a point, each person is expected to pull his or her own weight. Unlike in more traditional Old World cultures, here beggars are regarded as bums. Rich people are exalted as heroes, often without regard for how they may have come by their fortune. Feeling isolated from each other, we are led to fear poverty as the greatest disaster and wealth as the highest mark of success.
The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was once teaching students about the six realms of existence in the Buddhist worldview. Just above the infernal demon realm is the realm of creatures called hungry ghosts, who are forever plagued by having huge stomachs (or addictive appetites) and extremely constricted throats, so that they can never satisfy their appetite. One student asked, "What is life like in the realm of the hungry ghosts?" Thich Nhat Hanh replied, "America." The hungry ghost symbolizes the starving spirit plagued by incessant and insatiable desire. The six realms of existence represent psychological states as well as places where beings are said to actually be reborn. For example, the angelic state of the devas, or deities, is a pleasurable realm of sensual satiation and complacent happiness, suggestive of those people who seem to have everything go their own way and enjoy lives of satisfaction, comfort, and ease without a care in the world, at least for the time being.
With this conditioning in our background, we may find it hard to accept or appreciate why generosity is so important to our spiritual growth. The Buddha, on the other hand, deliberately put generosity first on the list of paramitas. This contrast in attitude reminds me of a story told by my old friend Sharon Salzberg, a founder of the pioneering Insight Meditation Society, in her book Lovingkindness. A traditional forest monk from Thailand came to this country to observe Buddhism in America firsthand. After a few months, he confided to Sharon something that perplexed him. "In Asia," he said, "the classic sequence of the teachings and practice is first generosity, then morality, and then meditation or insight. But here in the United States, the sequence seems to be meditation first, then morality, and after some time, as a kind of appendix, there is some teaching about generosity. What's going on here?"
What is going on here? One response I'd make to this question is that even when we Americans do strive to break away from the materialistic, self-aggrandizing focus of our society, we still bring with us our cultural training as individualists. Many of us come to Buddhism in the first place as a means of self-improvement, and our initial focus tends to be on things we can do all by ourselves, and seemingly all for ourselves, such as meditate. It's true that meditation is a vitally important practice in Buddhism. As the fifth paramita, meditative mindfulness also permeates each of the other paramitas, so that effectively practicing generosity can't be separated from effectively practicing meditation. But the question remains: why did the Buddha give fundamental value to generosity by making it the first paramita or panacean practice in the sterling Bodhisattva Code?
For one thing, despite the fact that we may have some initial stinginess to overcome or override, it's relatively easy to be generous. We can begin right now, where we are, to be more compassionate and giving to others in our thoughts, words, and deeds. As we continue this process, we learn fairly quickly and vividly how good it feels and how valuable it is. This makes generosity an excellent, viable, readily accessible starting point for practicing Buddhism in the day-to-day world at any age.
An even more significant aspect of generosity, however, is that it acts as a direct remedy in our life for the primary cause of suffering and dissatisfaction: desire, craving, resistance, attachment. By giving up our own private agenda and possessions to help others, we help free ourselves from our misguided dependence on transitory things to define who we are and provide us with happiness and fulfillment. By manifesting a generosity of spirit, we help realize the true wealth and value that stem from our deepest identity. Giving more of ourselves reinforces our best selves.Buddha Is as Buddha Does. Copyright © by Surya Das. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.