Dharma Topic: The Practice of Generosity

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Dear Still Water Friends,

In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the Six Paramitas arepractices, ways of being, which have the capacity to transport us fromthe shore of suffering to the shore of Nirvana. Thich Nhat Hanh writesin The Heart of theBuddha’s Teaching:

TheBuddha said, “Don’t just hope for the other shore to come to you. Ifyou want to cross over to the other shore, the shore of safety, wellbeing, nonfear, and non anger, you have to swim or row across. You haveto make an effort.” This effort is the practice of the Six Paramitas.

(1) dana paramita     giving, offering, generosity.
(2) shila paramita precepts or mindfulness trainings.
(3) kshanti paramita inclusiveness, the capacity to receive, bear,and transform the pain inflicted on you by your enemies and also bythose who love you.
(4) virya paramita diligence, energy, perseverance.
(5) dhyana paramita meditation.
(6) prajna paramita wisdom, insight, understanding.

Beginning this Thursday, March 16, 2006, andonce a month in the months to come (perhaps skipping a few months overthe summer), during our program we will consider in turn eachof the six paramitas.

Dana, generosity, is a paramita many Buddhist groups, including StillWater, talk about a lot. Often it is a short-hand way of saying “Pleasemake a voluntary contribution, it is good for you.” In the tradition ofmindfulness, however, dana has a much larger scope.

It includes not just our financial or material resources, butalso, the way we are stingy or holding back with our presence,our freedom, our stability, our freshness, our understanding. We cantry to hold on to them, keep them for ourselves, or we canopen-heartedly share them with others.

One of the wonderful aspects of paramita practice is that in working toactualize a paramita, such as dana, in our lives, we are simultaneouslyacting wisely and training ourselves to be wiser. Pema Chodron explains:

Givingpractice shows us where we’re holding back, where we’re still clinging.We start with our well laid plans, but life blows them apart. From agesture of generosity, true letting go will evolve. Our conventionalperspective will begin to change.

It is easy to regard the paramitas as a rigid code of ethics, a list ofrules. But the bodhisattva’s world is not that simple. The power of theparamitas is not that they are commandments but that they challenge ourhabitual reactions.

Please join us this Thursday for our meditation and for a program onDana, generosity. The questions I would like us to consider are:

  • Thesedays, when (and with whom) am I less than generous?
  • What do I do when I notice myself being less than generous?

As usual, the best times to join uson Thursday evening are:

  • Just before the first sitting at 7 pm
  • At 7:25, at the beginning of walking meditation; or,
  • At 7:35, at the beginning of the second sitting.

Below is a parable from the Pali Canonabout the difference between faux generosity and true generosity.

Communitynote: Still Water friend, Joann Malone, has an article inthe current Pathways Magazine (Spring, 2006) on her trip to Vietnam andCambodia and the impact of the trips on her Peace Studies teaching. 

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

In the Payasi Sutta (No. 23 of theDigha Nikaya) we read of the debate between the skeptic Prince Payasi,who did not believe in an afterlife, and the Venerable KumaraKassapa.After listening to a brilliant series of parables from the monk, Payasideclares himself converted, and decides to establish a charity “forascetics and brahmins, wayfarers, beggars and the needy,” and heappoints the young brahmin Uttara to organize the distribution. Uttaracomplains that the food and clothing he is called upon to distributeare of such poor quality that Payasi would not touch them himself, andPayasi finally gives him leave to supply “food as I eat and clothes asI wear.” At the conclusion of the sutta, we are told of the rewards thetwo men received after death. Payasi, who had established the charitygrudgingly, was indeed reborn in a heavenly world, but in the verylowest, that of the Four Great Kings, where he was lodged in the emptySerisaka mansion (vimana). Here, indeed, he was visited by theVenerable Gavampati, an Arahant who made a habit of taking his siestain the lower heavens. And so the story was brought back to earth. ButUttara, who had reorganized the charity and given from the heart, wasborn in a higher heaven, among the Thirty three Gods.

From M. O’ C. Walshe: “Giving from theHeart”, in Bhikku Bodhi (editor), Dana:The Practice of Giving: Selected Essays (The WheelPublication No. 367/369) (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist PublicationSociety, 1990).