Dear Still Water Friends,
For most of my life I thought of generosity primarily as the giving of money and material resources. I learned and internalized this sense of generosity from my parents who gave to many causes and charities and quietly gave financial support to a number of relatives who had fallen on hard times, including my father’s mother and her three sisters, my mother’s mother, and several cousins of my grandparents. For my father, to give to those in need, especially if they had a familial or social connection with you, was to be a mensch, a Yiddish term meaning a person of integrity and honor.
As I studied and practiced mindfulness in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, I learned that generosity can be about more than money and material resources. We can be generous with our time, giving our full attention to the concerns and suffering of others. We can look for opportunities to offer small kindnesses to family, friends, and strangers. We can be generous in our work, finding ways to assist people in need and care for our planet. And we can be generous as consumers, living simply so as to reduce our need for scarce resources, and, in so far as we are able, purchasing socially- and ecologically-responsible products.
There is another aspect of generosity that has been in my mind recently. The above paragraphs are about what we do when we are generous. We can also pay attention to what happens to us when we are generous. In the Buddhist tradition, the primary spiritual illness is self-cherishing: maintaining and defending a false sense of separation from our environment and others. Generosity, along with related beneficial mind states, such as loving kindness, compassion, and tolerance, is the medicine that heals us. We simply cannot be genuinely generous and fully maintain our false separation.
According to the Buddha, the benefits that accrue back to us are more than we can imagine:
O monks, if people knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would they allow the stain of niggardliness to obsess them and take root in their minds. Even if it were their last morsel, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared it, if there were someone to share it with. (Itivuttaka 26: 18-19, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.)
Right Effort is the sixth element in the Buddha’s Eight-Fold path to awakening and the cessation of suffering. It is often explained as the conscious encouragement of wholesome mental states such as generosity, and the conscious discouragement of unwholesome mental states, such as greediness. It is seen as something we can all do.
This Thursday evening, after our sitting and the recitation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we will share our experiences with generosity: what we learned growing up and how we currently understand it, practice it, and benefit from it.
You are invited to join with us.
You are also invited to join the Still Water community this Saturday, May 11, for a Day of Practice at Blueberry Gardens in Ashton, Maryland.
The text of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Second Mindfulness Training is below along with an excerpt on practicing generosity.
Still Water Special Tour of the Freer Gallery Buddhist Collection, Saturday, May 18, 2013, at Freer Gallery, Washington, DC
Deepening Our Practice: Savoring Life — A Three-session Study and Practice Group. Saturday, June 1 (also June 15 and 29), in Takoma Park, MD.
Touching Life Deeply: A Day of Practice, June 2, 2013 at Blueberry Gardens, Ashton, MD
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Second Mindfulness Training: True Happiness
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 working in a way that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.
From Two Treasures: Buddhist Teachings on Awakening and True Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh
Every person, no matter what their wealth, is equally capable of practicing generosity. Some people think that they can practice generosity only if they are wealthy. This isn’t true. Some people who are very wealthy do practice generosity, but many only do charity with the aim of gaining merit, profiting, or pleasing others. People whose lives are grounded in compassion are seldom rich because they share whatever they have with others. They are not willing to enrich their lives financially at the cost of others’ poverty. Many people misunderstand the Buddhist expression ‘practicing generosity’ to mean casually giving five or ten cents to a beggar on the street if we happen to have it in our pockets.
The practice of generosity is more beautiful than that. It is both modest and grand. Practicing generosity means continually acting in a way that will help equalize the difference between the wealthy and the impoverished. Whatever we do to ease human suffering and create social justice can be considered practicing generosity. That is not to say that we must become active in any political system. To engage in partisan political action that leads to a power struggle among opposing parties and causes death and destruction is not what we mean by practicing generosity.
How can a person practicing ‘knowing how to feel satisfied with few possessions’ also practice generosity? It is by living simply. Almost everyone who spends his or her life serving and helping others, sacrificing themselves for the sake of humanity, lives simply. If they live their lives worrying about making money and gaining merit, how can they practice generosity? Mahatma Gandhi lived a very simple life; nevertheless his merit helping humanity and saving human beings was immeasurable. There are thousands of people among us who live very simply, while being very helpful to many, many others. They do not have as great a reputation as Gandhi, but their merit is no less than his. It is enough for us just to be a little more attentive and aware of the presence of people like these. They do not practice generosity by giving money that they do not possess, but rather by giving their time, energy, love, and care — their entire lives.