The Practice of Giving

posted in: Dharma Topics | 0

Dear Still Water Friends,

Growing up, I learned two very different approaches to giving.

Oddly, holiday gifts tended to increase my self-absorption and self-centeredness. When I was very young, December gift-giving was all about what I got. Later, I was expected to also buy gifts for family members, so I did. But there was little joy in giving. It felt to me like an obligation, a task I had to do in order to keep the gifts flowing to me. Rather than being focused on the generosity of the act, or the pleasure received by the recipient, gift giving took on the flavor of a calculated economic act. My expectation was that the giving and receiving should balance out, or I should come out ahead. It was an attitude I learned in part from my family. I remember conversations in which my parents discussed what to buy for relatives, or the children of business associates, based on the economic value of gifts previously received from these individuals and families. Appearance was important. The gifts had to come in boxes from certain stores.

However, growing up, I was also intermittently aware that a quiet, uncalculated type of giving that was also going on. My parents made significant donations to religious organizations, charities, and special causes. Elderly family members in need were given financial support, often for decades. Not much was said about this giving. It was simply what was done by a “mensch,” a Yiddish expression for a genuine human being, a person of decency and honor.

In the tradition of mindfulness, dana, whole-hearted giving to others, is also esteemed. There is a recognition that when the focus is only on my pleasures, my things, having it my way – as it was for me in holiday gift-giving – though I may feel a temporary gratification, it doesn’t last. Inevitably, I feel deprived and unsatisfied. And it spreads to those around me.

Conversely, when I am truly able to give to others, offering something I value, without conditions, with the intent of relieving the suffering or increasing the happiness of others, my implicit concentration on my self is lessened. The person I give to gains, and I gain – there is greater ease and joy in my life. And usually, when ease and joy come into one’s life, other good things just seem to happen.

Thich Nhat, in his discussions of dana, reminds us that there are many things we can give in addition to money or material goods. Most important is our presence. When we are fully present, with our minds, hearts, and bodies, we can give a precious gift to loved ones and to those we pass on the street. When qualities such as stability, freshness, compassion, and understanding are alive in us, we can share them with others, and they will benefit.

Pema Chodron emphasizes that in giving we can identify, understand, and transform our clinging, our deep desire to hold on to things, or to keep things from changing. One exercise she offers is to visualize giving away what we most fear losing. In Comfortable with Uncertainty she writes:

The journey of generosity is one of connecting with the wealth of bodhichitta so profoundly that we are willing to begin to give away whatever blocks it. We open ourselves and let ourselves be touched. We build confidence in all-pervasive richness. At the everyday level, we experience it as flexibility and warmth.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we’ll focus our discussion on our experiences with the practice of giving. Are there changes we wish to make this holiday season?

You are invited to join us.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

Dana Paramita
by Thich Nhat Hanh
from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.

Every time you take one mindful step, you have a chance to go from the land of sorrow to the land of joy. The Pure Land is available right here and now. The Kingdom of God is a seed in us. If we know how to plant that seed in moist soil, it will become a tree, and birds will come and take refuge. Please practice crossing over to the other shore whenever you feel the need. 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 nonanger, you have to swim or row across. You have to make an effort.” This effort is the practice of the Six Paramitas. . . .

The first practice of crossing over is the perfection of giving, dana paramita. To give means first of all to offer joy, happiness, and love. There is a plant, well-known in Asia — it is a member of the onion family, and it is delicious in soup, fried rice, and omelets — that grows back in less than twenty-four hours every time you cut it. And the more you cut it, the bigger and stronger it grows. This plant represents dana paramita. We don’t keep anything for ourselves. We only want to give. When we give, the other person might become happy, but it is certain that we become happy.