Here’s Jan Chozen Bays’s contribution, “We Naturally Know What to Give,” to the “Joyful Giving” feature found in our January 2014 magazine. In it, she is joined by five other Buddhist teachers — Karen Maezen Miller, Judy Lief, Gina Sharpe, Norman Fischer, and Tsultrim Allione — to look at why generosity is the starting place of all the virtues.
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.