Judy Lief looks at why generosity is the starting place for virtue.
The practice of generosity may seem simple—it is learning how to give—but it is the ground that allows discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and wisdom to flourish. It establishes the basic attitude of magnanimity that is the defining characteristic of the path of the bodhisattva.
The word magnanimous, like the Sanskrit term mahatma, means “greatness of soul.” With magnanimity you are not pinched in your outlook or heart, but rather you have a quality of richness and spaciousness. There is room for everyone.
I once visited a temple that claimed to have one thousand Buddha statues. Among all of those buddhas, the one that most invoked the feeling of generosity for me was a statue of a very chubby Buddha embracing piles of children who were tumbling all over him. Laughing with delight, he maintained a sense of peace in the midst of their chaos. Instead of shooing the children away because he had more important things to do, he gathered them in with a big hug. He radiated love and happiness and acceptance.
That kind of effortless bounty is what generosity is all about, but to get there a little effort and reflection may be in order. To cultivate generosity it is necessary to understand the mental obstacles that cause us to hold back.
One obstacle is self-doubt. We may have an impoverished sense of our own capacities and doubt that we have all that much to offer. Another obstacle is stinginess. We may have a lot of resources, but no matter how wealthy we are, deep down we are afraid of letting go of even a small portion.
Generosity is based on interconnection, on looking outside oneself, noticing where there is a need and responding to it. So a third obstacle is self-absorption, being oblivious to what is going on around you. Generosity has the power to cut through such obstacles and it is available to us all.
The sense of richness that allows generosity to flourish isn’t dependent on external factors like wealth or social status. (In fact, studies have shown that the wealthiest Americans’ level of philanthropy is less than half that of the poorest Americans.) No matter how poor or rich we may be, we all have something to offer. And when we let go of our clinging and extend our hand to others, we find that we ourselves are blessed. Our pinched state of mind, which was so alienating and unpleasant, suddenly relaxes and we are brought into a larger and more inspired sense of the world and our own capacities. Instead of feeling that something is being taken away from us, we find that the more we give, the wealthier we feel.