In any presentation of the paramitas, dana, or generosity, always comes first — Nikki Mirghafori explains why.
When I started on the path of Buddhist practice, I was mainly interested in meditation. To my novice ears, other teachings sounded less relevant or interesting. I vaguely remember hearing in a dharma talk that the Buddha had emphasized the practice of generosity for lay folks such as myself. In the trilogy of meritorious deeds (puñña), he first and foremost taught generosity, or dana, which in Pali connotes both the act of giving and what is given. Only after the practitioner appreciated this teaching did the Buddha proceed to teach ethics (sila) and mental cultivation (bhavana); it was the latter I was jumping into, head (not heart) first.
Being part of the circle of giving and receiving, we are energetically engaged (virya) and interconnected.
My first response to dana was skepticism. Wouldn’t any leader of a monastic order espouse generosity, if for no other purpose than to sustain the order? Had I dared to share my cynicism with anyone learned in the tradition, they might have pointed out that while the rules of the early monastic community could have been designed to allow for the monk’s independence, they were in fact devised to foster interdependence between the lay community and the ordained.
The vinaya rules forbid monastics from handling money, cooking, or saving food for the next day—the monastics depend upon the generosity of the lay community, to whom, in turn, the monks freely offer daily practice and teachings.
A couple of decades older, many dimensions of generosity have opened up for me—not only in the ordinary expressions of giver, receiver, and gift, but also while meditating and teaching, when dana seems more the expression of a boundaryless free-flow of generosity. Dana, I now see, is the foundation of the practice.
Generosity is interconnected with, and informs, the other parami. One who embodies generosity of spirit has no need to harm, steal, lie, and so on, and naturally offers the safety of non-harming (sila) and truthfulness (sacca) to others. Practicing giving requires renouncing what is given (nekhamma). Through generosity we develop insight (pañña) into the three marks of existence. Being part of the circle of giving and receiving, we are energetically engaged (virya) and interconnected. Generosity does not come about overnight but is cultivated through patience (khanti) and determination (adhitthana). When we care for someone (metta), generosity instinctively flows, and in turn, generosity strengthens metta; these two, perhaps, are really one and the same. Finally, one who perfects generosity is at peace with the comings and goings of things and experiences, which is synonymous with the jewel of equanimity (upekkha).
Generosity supports insight into the three characteristics of existence: Practicing generosity provides insight into impermanence (anicca): things come, things go. Nothing is for me to keep, to hang on to. Holding onto things with a sense of scarcity creates more lack, more unsatisfactoriness, more suffering (dukkha). And in true generosity, we see that there is no separation between the giver, the receiver, and what is given (anatta).
I have come to understand dana not as a preparatory practice, or one of only merit-making for lay folks, but as synonymous with liberation itself in ways I couldn’t have imagined. It is no mystery why dana occupies the first, most honored position among the perfections.
The Joy of Generosity
Generosity does not and cannot come into its full fruition with an attitude of grim duty. The attitude of “I should be generous” or “I should let go” is one of forced expectation, and it works as well as hitting a donkey with a stick. The poor animal will move a few paces, then stop. Offering carrots, in contrast, can provide aspiration, where we take on a practice as a training with curiosity, interest, perhaps even zest, giving it our heart. We each know this from our own lived experience: when we feel bright with inspiration, we want to offer our time, skills, and resources for the benefit of another. Our hearts are uplifted in the celebration of release, relishing the goodness cocreated when another being benefits from our goodness.
In the Dana Sutta, the Buddha instructed his followers to pay attention to the joy of generosity: “In this world…there are three things of value for one who gives. What are these things? Before giving, the mind of the giver is happy. While giving, the mind of the giver is made peaceful. After having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted.” Before, during, and after!
Here’s an example of my own: I love persimmons. They make me happy. The sweet, bright orange fruit, whose name in Farsi is literally translated as “date–plum,” was the harbinger of autumn in Iran, where I grew up; persimmons can’t grow just anywhere, but they do grow in California, where I now reside. A few years ago, preparing to travel from San Francisco to Boston, I packed two persimmons, one of which I ate in the flight departure lounge, waiting to board the plane. A lady came up and asked from which store in the airport the fruit was purchased. She looked a bit disappointed hearing that it couldn’t be procured from any airport vendor and returned to her seat on the other end of the lounge. I thought to myself, I can give the second persimmon away. When I offered her the fruit, she at first demurred, but when I insisted, she was visibly glad and appreciatively accepted. I went back to my corner of the lounge, happy to have made someone else happy, and that, as far as I was concerned, was the end of the story.
Sometime during the flight, the lady caught up with me in the aisle to thank me again for the persimmon. She shared that she had grown up in Japan, where there was a persimmon tree in the yard of her childhood home. She now lived in Boston, where she hadn’t been able to find the fruit. The taste of this one persimmon was precious to her, reconnecting her with memories of her parents and grandparents the way only our senses of taste and smell are able, as if magically. Only then did the impact of this tiny act of generosity dawn on me. I am moved by it to this day, so much so that the taste of the persimmon I never ate gives me more joy than all the ones I have eaten, combined.
My experience is not unique, nor is the notion of generosity as a source of joy for the giver unique to Buddhism or its teachings. In the West, research has shown that acts of generosity for others make us happier than treating ourselves. A 2008 study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and colleagues found that despite participants’ predictions to the contrary, giving money to someone else increased their own happiness more than spending it on themselves.
Likewise, in a 2006 study with the National Institutes of Health, neuroscientists Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman discovered that giving to charities activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect. Altruistic behavior releases endorphins, producing the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high.” Studies on “targeted generosity,” where the giver knows the receiver, suggest additional positive impact in increased social connection and health benefits such as reduced fear, anxiety, and amygdala activation. The biological implications are startling, if not downright baffling—it would seem that humans, at least at certain times, are biologically “wired” to put others’ needs before their own, a reality somewhat at odds with our common assumption that self-interest drives survival.
Scientific studies only confirm what we can already know by paying attention to our own minds and bodies—both, after all, are investigations into experience and reality. As the Buddha said, “Practitioners, if people knew, as I know, the fruits of sharing gifts, they would not enjoy their use without sharing them, nor would the taint of stinginess obsess the heart. Even if it were their last bit, their last morsel of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it if there was someone else to share it with” (Itivuttaka 18).
The Inner Dimensions of Dana
When you hear the word dana, what is the first image or thought that comes to your mind? Maybe it is giving an object—money, food, a present—to someone. But the external manifestation of giving—money, persimmons, time, affection—is only part of cultivating generosity. As important as this aspect of generosity is for our personal development, as well as the impact it has on communities and society, let us not limit ourselves to it alone. As any practitioner knows, there’s always more to it.
Another dimension of giving might be better conveyed by the related Pali word caga (pronounced chaa-guh). Caga is the quality of the mind–heart that is fundamentally generous, the aspect of freely releasing, relinquishing, and giving with an open hand—automatically, as it were. It arises out of the freedom of a heart that doesn’t cling, but shares its gifts with kindness and friendliness in the spirit the Buddha suggests to us above: to withhold from another is to withhold from oneself; to be stingy with another is to be stingy with oneself.
The act of giving as we conventionally conceive of it—passing along that persimmon at the airport lounge, for example—can serve as a training, as an external scaffold, that supports the inner burgeoning of who (or what) the Buddha suggests we are in a more absolute way, guiding us to a sure heart’s release. Not overnight, but with sincerity and constancy, many dimensions of generosity can serve us—all of us—as the roots, heartwood, and fruits of collective liberation.
Giving and Receiving
There is—of course—still more. The heart’s capacity to receive kindness is not distinct from the ability to give it; when we think of generosity, we may overlook the importance of being able to receive from others and the world, as well as the ability to offer generosity to ourselves. When we cultivate metta in ever-widening concentric circles, we start with ourselves. Only then do we expand to our benefactors, good friends, neutral beings, those we have challenges with, and finally, all beings. If we experience sharing as the Buddha described it, it may not be obvious who is the giver, who is the receiver, and what is the gift. If we do not practice both receiving and giving, then the practice does not deepen.
Notice the offerings you are receiving in this very moment: the air that is supporting your life, the seat that is supporting your body, the medium by which you are reading these words. Each act of graciousness widens the capacity of our heart to feel abundance and, in turn, opens it further to share with others.
Gratitude and generosity form a circle. When we feel the abundance of our life, our hearts feel spacious. Numerous studies link gratitude to happiness and well-being. Through gratitude, we can “train” ourselves to be more generous. In a study conducted at the University of Oregon, neuroscientist Christina Karns observed the fMRI measurements of participants who kept a gratitude journal and found that over time, they derived increasing joy from giving. Pragmatically, the research suggests that at a minimum, one can proactively choose to practice giving to others in ways that increase one’s own joy. How neat is that?
Of course, sometimes I—and you, too?—observe an absence of generosity or mixed intentions in giving: wanting to be liked or to be thought of as generous, wishing for reciprocity, and so on. I try to have humor and laugh at myself without judgment; primarily, I endeavor simply to understand those beliefs, stories, and expectations with curiosity and loving interest. Shining the light of nonjudgmental, loving awareness on the landscape of the mind–heart with loving awareness—acknowledging what’s there, and what may get in the way—is an integral part of cultivating the practice.
I’ve heard that in Tibetan culture, in order to rehearse the act of letting go, one practices giving a potato from one hand to the other; gradually, one moves from potatoes to more precious objects. Such a playful yet wise practice. Give it a try with an object around you. What arises in your body, heart, and mind?
There is a wonderful and provocative teaching in the Visuddhimagga, the “Path of Purification” commentaries written by Buddhaghosa in the fifth century BCE. In the chapter on metta, ten practices are offered to overcome resentment. They include practicing metta, considering the good qualities of the other person, reflecting on how resentment makes the bearer unattractive, contemplating the law of karma, and so on. If none of the previous practices effectively dispels resentment, the tenth one is deceptively simple: give a gift. The external act of giving shifts the internal dynamic of the heart to release the grudge. Try it! Let yourself be awed, as I have been.
However we practice dana, we aspire to give with integrity, as the Buddha instructed in the Sappurisadana Sutta (“A Person of Integrity’s Gifts”):
These five are a person of integrity’s gifts. Which five? A person of integrity gives a gift with a sense of conviction. A person of integrity gives a gift attentively. A person of integrity gives a gift in season. A person of integrity gives a gift with an empathetic heart. A person of integrity gives a gift without adversely affecting himself or others.
The last instruction is noteworthy: don’t give too little, but also, don’t give too much. Mindful giving ought to be supportive of others as well as oneself, sustainable both for the giver and the receiver, nondepleting.
The gift of dharma is said to be the highest gift. Let us not limit our conception to only the written or oral form of teachings but instead wonder what other ways this “highest gift” may manifest for practitioners of all levels. Can we give the gift of our presence? Can we support someone with our time and resources—with kindness, offering safety, patience, engagement, equanimity—generously sharing the dharma as an embodied offering?
As we mature, we can trust that practice becomes our life, and our life becomes our practice. Our practice is no longer limited to an activity on the cushion in the morning or evening, ending on the border of our zabuton.
Similarly, generosity is not just something we do, a performative act of giving something to someone or a cause. At best, our mind–hearts become infused with generosity toward ourselves and others, permeating all aspects of our thoughts, speech, and actions—even if we don’t quite understand how it works.
The act of giving requires us to relinquish our attachment to an object; to release it to another, we need to let it go. This is the same exact movement of a heart that gets liberated: it lets go of clinging—to greed, hatred, and delusion—and releases into peace, into awakening. Awakening is not a badge we acquire. It’s a gift, a release, a giving away.
Gandhi was once asked, “Why do you give so much? Why do you serve all these people?” He answered, “I don’t give to anyone. I do it all for myself.” I have come to see my own giving as an act of participation in the circle of receiving and giving, where my unique humanity and particularities are expressed. At the same time, on an unfathomable level, I am participating in a mysterious dance, the egoless, empty, luminous flow of goodness endlessly passing from hand to hand.