Dharma Topic: Generosity and Making an Effort

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Dear Still Water Friends,

The Thursday Evening there will be a Still Waterorientation at 6:30, our usual hour of sitting and walking meditation, and thena discussion focusing on "Making an Effort – Practicing Generosity and theSix Paramitas."

(Also, since this is a long note, I’ll put my otherannouncement up here – the Smiling Like a Buddha workshop starts thisWednesday, April 6 at Circle Yoga. There are still places open. Email me at Mitchell@StillWaterMPC.orgif you would like to join us.)

Several conversations in the past few days started methinking about generosity. Does prosperity, happiness, joy come to us when weare stingy, when we hold on, or when we are generous, when we let go?

There are many rich teachings in the Buddhist traditionabout generosity, or dana as it is called in Sanskrit. Many of the teachingshave to do with what the act of giving does for the giver. Andrew Olendzkiwrites in a Tricycle article:

The act of giving purifies intention, the quality of mind with which any action is undertaken. For a brief moment, the giver’s self absorption is lifted, attachment to the gift is relinquished, and kindness towards the recipient is developed. All actions–of thought, word, and deed–undertaken for the sake of others rather than for one’s own selfish purposes become transformed by the power of generosity.

Giving needs to be practiced and developed because our underlying tendency toward attachment, aversion, and confusion so often interferes with a truly selfless act of generosity. Consummate observer of human nature that he was, the Buddha pointed out the many ways we can give with mixed motives: we give out of fear, or in accordance with tradition; we give with the expectation of return; we give in hope of gain, or a favorable reputation or rebirth; we give to adorn our mind, or simply because giving brings joy.

When Thich Nhat Hanh discusses generosity in The Heart ofthe Buddha’s Teachings he focuses especially on the giving of non-tangiblegifts:

The greatest gift we can offer anyone is our true presence. . . .

What else can we give? Our stability. . . .

What else can we offer? Our freedom. . . .

What else can we give? Our freshness. . . .

What else can we offer? Peace. . . .

What else can we offer? Space. . . . .

We cannot buy these gifts at the market. We have to produce them through our practice. And the more we offer, the more we have. When the person we love is happy, happiness comes back to us right away. We give to her, but we are giving to ourselves at the same time.

In the Mahayana tradition, discussions of of generosityoffer occur in relation to the teaching on the Six Paramitas, usually translatedas "the six perfections," but literally meaning something like"ways of going over to the other shore." The image is that we are onone side of the river, with sadness, depression, and fear, and the paramitas arehow we get across to the other side, where there is joy, vibrancy, and calm. Howdo we get across? Thich Nhat Hanh explains:

The Buddha said, "Don’t just hope for the other shore to come to you. If you want to cross over to the other shore, the shore of safety, well being, nonfear, and non anger, you have to swim or row across. You have to make an effort."

We get to the other shore not by thinking about it, not byhaving someone else carry us there, but by making an effort: by doing, and doingagain, and doing again. By practicing the Six Paramitas, the six ways of gettingacross:

  • dana paramita    giving, offering, generosity.

  • shila paramita    precepts or mindfulness trainings.

  • kshanti paramita     inclusiveness, the capacity to receive, bear, and transform the pain inflicted on you by your enemies and also by those who love you.

  • virya paramita     diligence, energy, perseverance.

  • dhyana paramita     meditation.

  • prajna paramita     wisdom, insight, understanding.

Pema Chodron calls the Six Paramitas the "sixactivities of the warrior" and (in The Places that Scare Us) offersdefinitions complementary to those of Thich Nhat Hanh:

  • Generosity. Giving as a path of learning to let go.

  • Discipline. Training in not causing harm in a way that is daring and flexible.

  • Patience. Training in abiding with the restlessness of our energy and letting things evolve at their own speed. If waking up takes forever, still we go moment by moment, giving up all hope of fruition and enjoying the process.

  • Joyful enthusiasm. Letting go of our perfectionism and connecting with the living quality of every moment.

  • Meditation. Training in coming back to being right here with gentleness and precision.

  • Prajna. Cultivating an open, inquiring mind.

You are invited to be with us this Thursday for ourorientation, our meditation, and our program.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner 
Senior Teacher