Engaged Generosity

Engaged Generosity

Discussion date: Thu, Jan 14, 2010 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Since ancient times, generosity – freely giving of our possessions, time, and energy to those in need – has been a cornerstone of mindfulness practice. The Buddha taught that when we feel separated from others we suffer. Acts of generosity, even if they last for only a few minutes, cut through our self-absorption. They open our hearts and give us a a glimpse of what is possible.

Many of us know people who practice what I think of as everyday generosity. They are kind to the people around them, sensitive to the needs of others, and freely give whenever they can. Often it is with small actions: a smile of thank you to a clerk, or holding a door for a person laden with packages. There are many opportunities each day. This week I was touched by an act of generosity described (on the internet) by a rental agent. It occurred on the last night tenants could pay their monthly rent.

There was a bit of a line early on. One man had scrimped money together but was still $45 short. When I say scrimped, he was paying with small bills and even coins. Anyway, he paid what he had and left.

The next man came to the desk. His balance was $615. He paid $620. When I told him he would have a $5 credit he pulled another 2 $20’s out and said he wanted to pay the last guy’s balance using his $5 credit. We verified that was what he really wanted to do and he said yes. So I have him a receipt showing the other guy’s balance $0 after the $45 payment.

During a quiet minute, I went and told the first guy that another had paid his balance. He was speechless. I thought he was going to cry. He just kept asking why with an amazed look on his face. I’ve had people sometimes cover for friends, but these men were strangers to each other. The first guy didn’t ask or even know that the second would pay it. This was true generosity.

I believe I was touched because this was such a spontaneous, uncomplicated act of giving. There was a need. The giver had the resources. He gave. He moved on.

In the Second of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to practice everyday generosity and also to expand our awareness. The Training begins: “Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting.”

This suffering “caused by “exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression” is vast and entrenched. It cannot be resolved with donations or a few caring gestures. Additionally, and painfully, we indirectly benefit from it. The products we buy are less expensive because of it. Our income we is greater because of it.

For many of us, as we become more aware, our immediate emotional response is immobilizing guilt. We turn away from the suffering. We may think or say, “I know. I know. Don’t show me any more pictures. Don’t give me any more facts. They just depress me.”

However, if the feelings of guilt are there, they are affecting our lives, whether we are facing the suffering or turning away.

The practice of mindfulness teaches us to develop a calmness and steadiness of mind, so that we look directly at our fears and mental blocks, embrace them, understand them, and find ways to address the underlying concerns. Bit by bit, we learn to live more courageously, more contentedly, and with fewer fears and regrets. My sense is that it would be helpful for us as individuals and as a community of practice to look deeply into our feelings of immobilizing guilt, so that they can be transformed, bit by bit, into an attitude of heartening generosity.

Some years ago I met at Plum Village a Japanese Soto Zen Roshi who was the directing teacher for a network of practice centers. I asked him why he had come to Plum Village, what he hoped to learn. He replied that he just wanted to be in the same room as Thich Nhat Hanh. He explained that Thay was one of the very few people in the world who could at the same time enjoy eating a cookie and hold the suffering of the world.

This Thursday evening, after our sitting meditation, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Our program will focus on the second training on generosity. We will begin the discussion exploring ways we have learned (or not yet learned) to balance the enjoyment our cookies and being open to the suffering of the world.

The text of the Second mindfulness training is below, and also an except entitled “Mindfulness Must Be Engaged.”

I invite you to be with us this Thursday.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

The Second Mindfulness Training
Revised June, 2009 by Thich Nhat Hanh

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting.

I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

Mindfulness Must Be Engaged
By Thich Nhat Hanh, from Peace is Every Step

When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?

We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things. Are you massaging our Mother Earth every time your foot touches her? Are you planting seeds of joy and peace? I try to do exactly that with every step, and I know that our Mother Earth is most appreciative. Peace is every step. Shall we continue our journey?


in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jan 14, 2010


This week
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
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Columbia Sunday Evening Practice

Mon, May 20

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

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Tue, May 21

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Tuesday Evening Gaithersburg Group

Wed, May 22

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

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Thu, May 23

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Fri, May 24

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Sat, May 25