Read an Excerpt
Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression.
We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous.
We experience joy in the actual act of giving something.
And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.
I say this chart to myself this way: If I intend to perfect my capacity for Generosity, I need to be alert for every opportunity that presents itself in which I can share. The sharing itself, the generous act, will become the habit by means of which I can experience directly the joy of not feeling needy, the ease of a peaceful mind. And I'll be inspired to cultivate that habit of sharing by recognizing that my life (and everyone else's too) is challenged, and that comforting and being comforted are pleasures. When I feel I have enough, I am content.
I have a framed Nicole Hollander Sylvia cartoon on the wall in my kitchen. Sylvia is typing a list of "responses you hope to have the occasion to say." Everyone always laughs at "Yes, it is unusual to have won an Olympic medal and the Nobel peace prize and could you bring me leather pants in a size two?" They laugh at Sylvia's answer to the question "Ma, do you want anything from the store?" "Just get me two of everything." And they chuckle, as I always do, when they read the response that tops Sylvia's typed list: "No, thanks. I have everything I need."
The best thing about generosity is enjoying the feeling of not-needing. It's a great freedom. So stop. You don't need to go on right now. The whole book will wait. Smile. Take a long breath in and out. In whatever position you are--sitting up or lying down--make yourself comfortable. In a minute, when you finish reading the instructions, you'll close your eyes. But now, as you read, notice that you can feel your body, especially now that I've directed your attention to it, even as you read. You'll notice that your body, in a regular pattern, fills with breath as air comes into it and then eases back down as the breath goes out. No one needs to do anything. Breathing happens all by itself, and awareness happens all by itself. In the next several minutes, after you've closed your eyes, you will be able to let your awareness rest just in this sensation. Think of it as a gift to yourself, a sabbatical. To support your gift, give away any thought that arises in your mind that might captivate or distract your attention. Even if it seems important, you don't need it. If it's important, it will come back later. Let it go. Open your hands, whether they are on your lap or alongside you, into a relaxed shape, a shape that shows you have enough. Now close your eyes, relax, and practice this Generosity meditation for as long as you like.
My friend and teaching colleague James Baraz tells the story of how he still experiences the pleasure that he felt thirty years ago sharing a piece of cake with three of his friends. I think I've heard the story at least two dozen times, and I still love hearing it. He tells it at retreats, as part of a Dharma talk (a lecture on what the Buddha taught), and seldom varies a single word of it. I know all the details--how, while he was a meditator at a silent retreat washing pots as his afternoon work assignment, one of the cooks offered him a piece of cheesecake, a rare treat that had not been part of the lunch for the retreatants. He describes his delight. Then he explains that in those days people washed their own dishes and cups and set them on shelves along the wall to await the next meal. James knew which dishes belonged to his friends. He describes cutting his cake into four pieces, eating one piece himself, and putting the three other pieces on his friends' dishes. By the time James arrives at the point in the story where he tells about the looks of pleasure and surprise on his friends' faces as they arrived for the evening meal and found the cake in their dishes, and how he felt seeing them, he is clearly reliving the happiness of that moment. I feel it sitting next to him. I hear it in his voice. I think everyone else in the room does too. The echo of that piece of cheesecake is still reverberating.
The particulars of Generosity stories vary, of course, but certain elements are present in all of them. Formal translations of traditional Buddhist texts say, "The proximal cause for the arising of generosity is realizing that something can be relinquished." This means that acts of Generosity are preceded by the awareness "I have this, and I can give it away. I don't need to keep it." What also has to be present is the awareness of having something that might be useful, pleasant, or comforting to other people, as well as a sense of other people's needs.
Louise M. Davies was the principal donor for the building of the very beautiful symphony hall in San Francisco. It's named for her. A newspaper story, just after the building was inaugurated, quoted her response to an interviewer's question: "Why did you give this gift of six million dollars?"
She was said to have replied, "Because I had it."
I thought her answer was wonderful. It was so uncomplicated. It was stating the obvious. Of course she had it. Otherwise she couldn't have given it. And although she could have offered an opinion ("San Francisco needs a symphony hall with modern acoustics") or a personal reflection ("I've always loved music. It's important to me"), she didn't do that either. She just said, "I had it." So simple.
Sitting in Davies Hall enjoying a performance, I've often thought, "She could have had it and not given it." Not feeling needy is what allows generosity to happen, but it doesn't obligate it to happen. The impulse to do something has to be present. Recognizing the possibility of creating delight or of alleviating suffering are both sources of that impulse. Both are responses to people other than ourselves. Both provide pleasure.
In 1990 James and I traveled to India with some of our friends to visit the venerable Advaita teacher Sri H. W. L. Poonja in Lucknow. Every day for three weeks we traveled (in three-wheel taxis, then by pedal rickshaw, then on foot) to arrive in time for morning darshan (teachings) at his home. We sat with perhaps twenty other students from all over the world, squeezed in close to each other on the floor of the small living room. Poonja-ji (the -ji is an affectionate honorific title for a teacher) sat on a raised platform in the front of the room. For three hours he told stories, laughed, and included each of us, one by one, in dialogue. We all loved it. On the last day he agreed to see James and me in a private interview.
"What do you teach?" he asked.
"We teach Mindfulness and Lovingkindness meditation," James replied, "and we especially emphasize Generosity."
"There is no such thing as Generosity," Poonja-ji said. James and I exchanged glances that said, "Uh-oh! Have we just started this interview and already done it wrong?"
"No such thing at all," Poonja-ji repeated. "There is only the awareness of need and the natural impulse of the heart to address it. If you are hungry and your hand puts food in your mouth, you don't think of the hand as generous, do you? If people in front of you are hungry and you feed them, it's the same, isn't it?"
James and I talked afterward. "Maybe he's right," I said. "Let's think this through. If in the spring, as I am putting away my winter clothes, I think, 'I didn't wear this at all. I'll give it to the Salvation Army,' maybe that isn't Generosity. Maybe it's just closet cleaning. Maybe Generosity is happening when I'm thinking, 'I did wear this a few times. It is still stylish. I like it. I could save it and wear it sometime, or I could give it to the Salvation Army,' and then finally decide, 'I'll give it away.' Maybe that's generosity." I looked at James. "Isn't that Generosity?"
"Maybe," James said, "it's a moment of realizing that not-needing has won out over needing."
"Or," I said, "that someone else's needing has won out over my needing."
I know it works that way for me. When I am not confused or frightened, I'm able to respond to needs beyond my own. I think that's true for everyone. When we are personally at ease, the pain of other people--even people we don't know--touches us, and we are moved to end it. Responding feels more comfortable than not responding. And I think that when people say "Thank you" in response to a kindness we've offered them, we say "It's my pleasure" because it is.
James and I ended our conversation by agreeing, "Maybe there is no such thing as someone who is generous. Maybe there are only causes and conditions for relinquishing and receiving. But there is Generosity."
Generosity arises in response to the awareness of particular beneficiaries and particular needs. When we deliver a gift personally, we get to have the pleasure of seeing the response. When we contribute to a cause--preserving national parks, or ensuring voting rights, or funding cancer research--we imagine how our gift will be received. I think Louise Davies must have been very pleased by the thought that thousands and thousands of people--including people like myself--would enjoy the music if she gave the gift that would build the hall.
Also, she had it.
ONE ROBE, ONE BOWL
At Spirit Rock Meditation Center there is a basket on the table in the entrance foyer of the Community Meditation Hall with a card that says dana on it. When newcomers arrive for a class, they probably figure out--especially if they are familiar with collection plates at churches--that the people stopping to put money into the basket are making some gesture of voluntary support. Dana is the Pali word for "generosity," and at Spirit Rock we teach it as a practice.
My ability to be generous varies--as does everyone's--with how comfortable I feel. Generosity depends on not feeling needy. I'd learned, before my first formal Mindfulness retreat, that the money I would be asked to pay for the retreat would be the cost of room and board at the retreat center and that, in keeping with the tradition in Asia, there was no established fee for the teachings. I liked the explanation given for the tradition: "Since these teachings are priceless, it's not possible to charge for them." I knew that retreatants, eager to express their gratitude and also aware that the teachers needed to support themselves, left gifts of money at the end of retreats.
I finished that retreat so inspired and happy about the possibility of freedom from suffering and so hopeful that practice might provide that for me that I thought, "This is priceless. I should give everything I have." Then I thought, "That can't be right. It doesn't make sense. I'm a householder. I have a family to care for." In the end, I made my dana offering a practice, as I do now, of deciding, given my current circumstances, on a responsible expression of my gratitude. The gift decision, though, was not what mattered. What mattered was that in the moment of impulsive, generous thought, I absolutely knew that the only thing I needed was freedom.
Not long after that, still in the early years of my practice, a group of Burmese monks were guest teachers for a week at a retreat at which I was a student in southern California. They were housed in one of the cottages at the edge of the retreat center. One morning after breakfast, the retreat manager announced, "The monks are leaving this morning. If you want to, you can stand outside their cottage as a gesture of respect as they leave."
I stood silently with the other retreatants and watched the monks walk out single file from their cottage, each one carrying his begging bowl in a string bag. I realized that whatever they were wearing, whatever they were carrying, and whatever was in the two suitcases on top of the minibus they were traveling in constituted all of their worldly goods. Watching the monks seemed to me a visual representation of the truth that not-needing--not needing more, not needing other--is the end of suffering. I thought, "They have everything they need."
At home these days, I keep a copy of a small book of poetry by the Zen monk Ryokan, One Robe, One Bowl, not on the bookshelf but someplace where I see it often--on the kitchen counter, or propped up on the piano next to the music. The title reminds me of the image of the monks. When my mind becomes cluttered, and therefore tense, with desires--with things I think I need or ways in which I think things need to be in order for me to be happy--I remember that the clutter itself is the cause of my suffering, and I think, "What is it that I really need?" When I see clearly enough, I can be generous toward myself. I can give away the clutter.
REALLY GREAT GENEROSITY
I've heard people use the expression "generous to a fault," as if it were possible to be too generous, that great Generosity would somehow be depriving oneself. I think the opposite is true. Being able to give freely means not being so absorbed in one's own needs that it becomes impossible to look past them at who else is in the world and what they need. Not being absorbed in one's own needs is--even before any generous act happens--a relief.
The Buddha taught that suffering is the extra pain in the mind that happens when we feel an anguished imperative to have things be different from how they are. We see it most clearly when our personal situation is painful and we want very much for it to change. It's the wanting very much that hurts so badly, the feeling of "I need this desperately," that paralyzes the mind. The "I" who wants so much feels isolated. Alone.
Generous acts are a relief because they connect. They are always in relationship. They can't be isolating. And generous acts don't require some thing to give away. I understand the Buddha's statement "We all have something we could give away" as including--in addition to material possessions--companionship, comfort, encouragement, and care. I think about realizing how the act of giving wholeheartedly--whatever one has to give--not only does not diminish one's resources, but can be lifesaving to both the receiver and the giver of the gift.
From the Hardcover edition.