The Gifts We Give and Receive

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Silver Spring, Maryland, Community Online on Thursday Evening
December 24, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all Online on Friday Evening
December 25, 7:00 to 8:45 pm

Dear Still Water Friends,

When I was growing up, holiday gift-giving was a burden for me. From the time I was twelve, I was expected to buy gifts for everyone in the family, including two grandmothers and several great aunts. I didn’t have much of a relationship with them, and I wasn’t given any advice about what they might like. So each year I wandered department stories for hours, hoping to find something they might appreciate. I was never successful: at best I got a cheerless smile, at worst a scowl.

Receiving wasn’t much different. I usually was given  clothes I didn’t like, toys I didn’t want, or a card with money that communicated to me that the giver didn’t even want to reciprocate the effort I was putting into looking for an appropriate gift for them.

Thankfully, as an adult, I learned from others how to notice what people liked, and how to talk with people about what they might want. Giving, and receiving gifts became much more satisfying.

It wasn’t until I was fifty that I learned from Buddhist teachers about the “three kinds of gifts.” This teaching helped me appreciate that, through the years, I had received many priceless gifts, which I had never thought of as gifts.

The “three kinds of gifts” teaching comes from the The Dharma Sangraha, a Mahayana Buddhist Sutra believed to have been written in second century. The Sutra simply enumerates three types of gifts:

The gift of material things (āmiṣa-dāna)
The gift of friendliness (maitrī-dāna)
The gift of the dharma (dharma-dāna)

Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) elaborates on their significance in For a Future to Be Possible:

In Buddhism, we say there are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is to help people rely on themselves, to offer them the technology and know-how to stand on their own feet. Helping people with the Dharma so they can transform their fear, anger, and depression belongs to the second kind of gift. The third is the gift of non-fear. We are afraid of many things. We feel insecure, afraid of being alone, afraid of sickness and dying. To help people not be destroyed by their fears, we practice the third kind of gift giving.

Red Pine (Bill Porter), in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, also elucidates the three gifts:

In the practice of charity, Buddhists distinguish three kinds of gifts: material, emotional, and spiritual. Material gifts include such things as food and clothes and medicine. Emotional gifts include comfort and protection. And spiritual gifts include guidance and instruction. In terms of their benefits, material gifts put an end to greed; emotional gifts put an end to anger; and spiritual gifts put an end to delusion.

This Thursday and Friday evenings (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), our Dharma sharing will focus on the gifts we give and the gifts we receive. We will begin with these questions:

  • Do you have experience with all three kinds of gifts?
  • What are the most memorable, wonderful, presents you have given or received?
  • What are the important lessons you have learned about gift-giving and gift-receiving?

A short teaching by Thay on the gift of non-fear is below.

You are invited to join us.

You are also invited to join us also for a New Year’s Day Celebration on Friday, January 1, and for a Five Mindfulness Trainings Transmission Ceremony on Saturday, January 2nd.

Many blessings,


The Gift of Non-Fear
From Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology by Thich Nhat Hanh

Buddhist texts speak of three kinds of gifts—material resources, sharing the Dharma with others, and non-fear, which is the greatest gift. Because bodhisattvas are free from fear, they can help many people. Non-fear is the greatest gift we can offer to those we love. Nothing is more precious. But we cannot offer that gift unless we ourselves have it. If we have practiced and have touched the ultimate dimension of reality, we too can smile the bodhisattvas’ smile of non-fear. Like them, we don’t need to run away from our afflictions. We don’t need to go somewhere else to attain enlightenment. We see that afflictions and enlightenment are one. When we have a deluded mind, we see only afflictions. But when we have a true mind, the afflictions are no longer there. There is only enlightenment. We are no longer afraid of birth and death because we have touched the nature of interbeing.

Those who work with the dying especially need to practice solidity and non-fear. Others need our stability and non-fear to be able to die peacefully. If we know how to touch the ultimate dimension of reality, if we know the reality of no birth and no death, we can transcend all fear. Then, when we are sitting with a dying person, we can be a source of comfort and inspiration to them. Non-fear is the greatest practice in Buddhism. To free ourselves from all fear we must touch the ground of our being and train ourselves to look directly into the light of interbeing.

The Heart Sutra describes how the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, because he is able to look deeply into the nonself nature of the Five Aggregates, discovers the nature of emptiness and immediately overcomes all afflictions. From this he receives the energy of non-fear, which is why he is able to help so many others. Once we have seen that our afflictions are no other than enlightenment, we too can ride joyfully on the waves of birth and death.

A gardener does not chase after flowers and try to run away from garbage. She accepts both, and she takes good care of both. She is not attached to either nor does she reject either, because she sees that the nature of both is interbeing. She has made peace with the flower and the garbage. A bodhisattva handles enlightenment and afflictions in the same way a skillful gardener handles flowers and garbage—without discrimination. She knows how to do the work of transformation, and so she is no longer afraid. This is the attitude of a Buddha.