Tis always the season for giving. Six Buddhist teachers on why generosity is the starting place of all the virtues.
By Karen Maezen Miller
I begged my father to take me to the store. It was the day before Christmas, and I had nothing to give to my mother except an art project I had brought home from school. It was a picture made with painted macaroni. How embarrassing. Even in kindergarten I knew that it wasn’t a real gift. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t the kind of thing anyone wants. Remembering it, I can still feel the full extent of a five-year-old’s self-criticism and shame. Dad took me to a convenience store and I emptied my piggy bank for a set of plastic drink coasters.
One day my mom cleaned under my bed and pulled out the macaroni picture from its hiding place. She showed it to me with questioning eyes. Now I know what she felt inside, her heart breaking with a sudden rush of tenderness for an injured child.
The most profound gifts are the ones that don’t measure up to any standard. They are not excellent or grand, but unexciting and ordinary. They may not look like gifts at all, but like failures. No matter how they look, they carry the precious essence of life’s true nature, which is love.
“Between the giver, the recipient, and the gift there is no separation.” This Zen teaching tells us that generosity goes beyond appearances. There is really nothing that divides us—nothing that defines the substance of a gift. All is empty and perfect as it is. We practice this truth by giving what we can whenever it is called for and by taking what is given whenever it is offered. When we give and take wholeheartedly, without judgment, separation is transcended. Stinginess is overcome and greed vanishes. We come to see that everything is already a gift that we have already been given. All that remains is to share it.
“I love it,” my mother said. And it was true.
In May, New World Library will release Karen Maezen Miller’s new book, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden.
By Judy Lief
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.
Judy Lief is the editor of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, a three-volume series of teachings by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
We Naturally Know What to Give
By Jan Chozen Bays
The Buddha said, “If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing…even if it were their last bite…they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift.”
But we cannot force ourselves to be generous. True generosity comes from a deeper place than acquiescence to the Buddha’s admonition. Generosity, like all aspects of our enlightened nature, lies partially dormant within us. It has been obscured by the inevitable wounds, duties, and worries of our busy human lives.
As people sit a silent retreat, their minds quiet, their hearts relax, and their faces regain the innocent glow of childhood. Often, when this happens, they come to me in tears, saying, “I feel such overwhelming gratitude just for being alive. So much has been given, is being given to me, all the time.”
When we meditate and quiet the mind, we get a deeper look at the true nature of our life and see that it is interconnected. This uncovers in us a well of gratitude. Can we open the mind’s awareness and investigate what we’re being given right now?
We notice our breath. What in the breath is given to us? We are given the air and the body that breathes. We cannot make air. We cannot build and manage our minutely complex body ourselves. We notice the pressure of the cushion under our seat. We are given its firm support. We notice the touch of clothing on our skin. We see the people who planted, weeded, and harvested the cotton, who wove the cloth, who cut and sewed, packaged and shipped, who drove the trucks, who opened the fitting-room doors, who took our payment. We realize that the life energy of many people covers and warms us in the form of this shirt, this pair of pants.
We are not self-made. We are made of the raw ingredients of sunlight, soil, and water, shaped into the flesh of plants and animals, shaped into our life. Our life is one big gift, given by countless beings. When we truly see this, gratitude naturally arises, as does the question, “How can I repay the many beings who are continually giving to me?”
Is there a gift we can give to anyone, anywhere, anytime? The greatest gift is the gift of dharma, the gift of relief from suffering. Who would not receive this gift gladly? We give this gift first to ourselves, studying and practicing it, transforming our own suffering into a greater measure of ease and happiness. As we do this, we pass this gift along to whomever we encounter. It could be a smile for the grocery-store checkout lady still reeling from an angry customer’s words, a nutrition bar and a look into the eyes of the homeless man asking for recognition on the corner at the stoplight, a hug for our child distressed by bullying, a refusal to bomb our far-away enemy.
We naturally know what to give. We don’t have to work to produce generosity. We just have to practice deeply. True and accurate generosity is the natural outcome of practice.
Jan Chozen Bays is a pediatrician who specializes in the evaluation of children for abuse and neglect. She’s the author of Mindful Eating.
The Heart of Generosity
By Gina Sharpe
The mental states we encounter when we sit in meditation—difficult emotions, negative thoughts, and even the pains in our bodies—are the consequences of life-long habit patterns and viewpoints that result in dukkha, or suffering.
We know from the second noble truth that the source of dukkha is greed, attachment, and craving. These cause us to hold on to what appears to give us relief from our suffering—things, people, viewpoints, habits. Yet, if these give any relief at all, it is at best temporary.
The heart of generosity—giving, sharing, and caring for others—breaks this cycle of attachment and the resultant suffering. Through generosity, we let go of self-centeredness and our mind/hearts open into loving-kindness, compassion, and tenderness. We experience our interconnectedness—how we rely on the generosity, caring, and hard work of others for our well-being. These realizations are direct antidotes to dukkha. Aligning our actions with them brings us true happiness.
Three aspects of the noble eightfold path help us practice giving: right understanding, the first aspect; right mindfulness, the seventh; and right effort, the sixth.
With right understanding, we know that selfishness and miserliness are negative states of mind. When selfishness asserts itself, we see it, and right mindfulness supports this seeing. Having become mindful of selfishness and attachment as unwholesome states of mind, we practice right effort: we make a balanced effort to abandon clinging and to cultivate the wholesome state of generosity.
One of the ten daily monastic reflections may be helpful in cultivating the generous heart: “The days and nights are relentlessly passing. How well am I spending my time?”
Imagine a world in which we all hold on tightly, where generosity is not an option or worse, is not even known? What would it be like to live in such a world, where we work only to get and hold on to whatever we can for ourselves, without any thought for the welfare of others? Is that a world in which we’d want to live? Or can we together create a world of kindness and compassion, in which we respond appropriately with generosity?
After retiring from practicing law, Gina Sharpe cofounded New York Insight Meditation Center.
Nothing to Give, No One to Receive It
By Norman Fischer
“May we with all beings realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver, and gift.”
Zen practitioners chant these words before eating a meal. They remind us that the food about to be eaten has not been earned; it’s a gift. But this gift is not to be understood in the usual way. “The emptiness of the three wheels” means that this giving isn’t a beneficent act one performs for another, an act you can take credit for or feel worthy or unworthy of. A Zen practitioner about to eat a meal remembers that giving is life—that everything is giving, everything is given. There are no separate givers, receivers, or gifts. All of life is always giving and receiving at the same time. This is our practice and our joy. So we practice giving—both receiving and giving gifts—in this spirit.
Some gifts we see as gifts (the birthday or holiday gift) and others we usually don’t see as gifts (the gift of sunlight, the gift of breath). The practice of giving extends to all forms of giving.
Traditionally, there are three things to give: material gifts, the gift of dharma, and the gift of freedom. But really there are many more things to give: the gift of listening, the gift of love, the gift of creation, attention, and effort. To make a poem or a painting is to practice giving, as is cooking a meal, cleaning a room, putting a single flower in a vase. In his fascicle “Four Methods of Guidance for Bodhisattvas,” Dogen writes that to launch a boat, build a bridge, and earn a living are acts of giving. To be willing to be born—and to die—is to practice giving.
I usually think of four simple ways to practice giving: giving yourself to yourself (that is, to be generous in your attitude toward yourself); giving materially to others (giving money or other material gifts to those in need and to those not in need); giving fully and without reservation the gift of your presence and respect; and giving yourself completely in your meditation practice.
There are six paramitas or perfections that define the Mahayana path: giving, ethical conduct, energy, patience, meditation, and wisdom. It is no wonder that giving is the first of these. The more you study it, the more it seems that giving is the whole of the Buddha way.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a Zen teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. His most recent volume of poetry is The Strugglers.
By Tsultrim Allione
There is a story of a rich man who said that he could not practice generosity because he was unable to give anything away. The Buddha’s advice to him was to begin by simply taking a piece of fruit and passing it from one hand to the other. The Buddha told him to notice how it felt to let the fruit go and how it felt to receive it. Using this method, the man began to experience both the joy of giving and the pleasure of receiving. Eventually he became a great benefactor.
Like that rich man, we may find that giving does not arise spontaneously and that we need to train in it. The ego-clinging mind always feels a sense of scarcity, so you might think, “I barely get along with what I have. How can I possibly give anything to anyone else?” There are, however, many ways to practice giving that transcend monetary and material means. You could give something simple like a poem, words of encouragement, or an act of kindness. True generosity brings the giver a feeling of openness, along with the enjoyment in the happiness of others.
Even imagined gifts can be powerful. There is a story about the great Buddhist king Ashoka that illustrates this. The story goes that a poor child was playing by the side of the road when he saw the Buddha begging for alms. The child was moved to make an offering, but—with nothing else to give—he spontaneously collected some pebbles and, visualizing them as vast amounts of gold, placed them in the Buddha’s alms bowl. Due to this act, in his next life the child became the powerful, wealthy King Ashoka and benefited countless beings.
To take the practice of generosity a step further, you can infuse generosity with the view that there is no inherent separate existence in the giver, the gift, or the receiver. This view, known as the threefold emptiness, turns practicing generosity into something beyond simple virtuous action. It helps us not be attached to the outcome of giving, thus setting us free from any expectations.
In chöd, a Tibetan meditation practice developed by the famed eleventh-century yogini Machig Labdrön, generosity is practiced for the purpose of severing ego-clinging. Chöd practitioners deliberately go to frightening places, such as a cemetery at night, and visualize making their body into an offering. Since these places provoke fear and clinging to the body, the offering is a direct confrontation with the ego. Many kinds of guests are invited to this imagined banquet, including personified forms of diseases, fears, and demons. As the guests arrive for the feast, chöd practitioners keep the view of three-fold emptiness and offer their body, which they visualize as nectar that satisfies all desires. The intensity of making the body offering in a frightening place is designed to push the practitioner into a state free from all clinging.
Although we may not be a chöd practitioner who deliberately goes to scary places, we still meet plenty of frightening inner demons, such as depression, anger, and anxiety. When this happens we have the opportunity to feed, not fight, these demons with the nectar of love and compassion. This goes against the grain of ego-clinging and allows the inner demons to transform into allies.
Here’s an idea: choose a day to devote to the practice of generosity. Maybe one Saturday from the time you get up until you go to bed, see how many opportunities you can find to be generous. Start by passing an object from one hand to the other mindfully. You might cook someone breakfast, offer your seat on the subway, make a donation, or spend some time with a child or someone having a hard time. See how many ways you can give in one day. Notice your motivation, how it feels to do it, and the reactions of others. At the end of the day, recall all the ways you were generous. Notice how you feel and what happened as a result of your generosity. ©
Lama Tsultrim Allione is the author of Feeding Your Demons and the founder of Tara Mandala, a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado.
Illustrations by Tomi Um