Generosity Brings Happiness
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Dear Still Water Friends,
The Still Water Working Group decided to focus in June on Dana, the practice of generosity. “Oh, no,” you might be thinking. “They are going to ask me for money.”
We will—but not now. This Thursday evening we want to discuss the practice of generosity because it is a core practice of mindfulness and because our challenges and struggles with when, what and how to give are omnipresent in our lives. From unsolicited mailings, to emails from friends and relatives, to the homeless person on the street, our lives are full of opportunities and requests—some urgent, some less so—to give. Developing a mindful relationship to these opportunities and challenges is something we want to do.
We will look together at the deepest roots of the practice of generosity. According to the Buddha (and most other spiritual teachers and traditions) practicing generosity is intimately entwined with spiritual growth.
Why? What is it about generosity that promotes spiritual growth? To start our thinking, here is the Buddha’s comment, as quoted by Sylvia Boorstein in her book Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness.
Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous. We experience joy in the actual act of giving something. And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.
In this same book, Sylvia summarized Buddhist insight into some of the mental states that precede generosity and that are necessary for generosity to manifest:
Formal translations of traditional Buddhist texts say, “The proximal cause for the arising of generosity is realizing that something can be relinquished.” This means that acts of Generosity are preceded by the awareness “I have this, and I can give it away. I don't need to keep it.” What also has to be present is the awareness of having something that might be useful, pleasant, or comforting to other people, as well as a sense of other people's needs.
Therefore, the practice of generosity contains all of the elements of the awakened state: we are present to what is occurring and we are free of fear. We are listening and looking deeply, so that what we give truly answers the needs of the other. In addition, we are in touch with compassion and loving-kindness: wishing happiness and an end of suffering for others.
Thich Nhat Hanh notes: “What you give is what you receive, more quickly than the signals sent by satellite. Whether you give your presence, your stability, your freshness, your solidity, your freedom, or your understanding, your gift can work a miracle. Dana paramita is the practice of love.” (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, p. 196).
On this Thursday, we will take time to explore moments in our lives when we have felt generous or impoverished. We will touch upon practices that will help us to open our hearts, and explore question of what it is that is within our ability to give.
Below is a story about the concept of generosity, also from Sylvia Boorstein’s book.
May you be safe from harm, free from suffering, and may your heart be filled with joy.
Hope to see you Thursday,
Generosity and Not-Needing
by Sylvia Boorstein, from Pay Attention, for Goodness' Sake : The Buddhist Path of Kindness
In 1990 James and I traveled to India with some of our friends to visit the venerable Advaita teacher Sri H. W. L. Poonja in Lucknow. Every day for three weeks we traveled (in three-wheel taxis, then by pedal rickshaw, then on foot) to arrive in time for morning darshan (teachings) at his home. We sat with perhaps twenty other students from all over the world, squeezed in close to each other on the floor of the small living room. Poonja-ji (the -ji is an affectionate honorific title for a teacher) sat on a raised platform in the front of the room. For three hours he told stories, laughed, and included each of us, one by one, in dialogue. We all loved it. On the last day he agreed to see James and me in a private interview.
“What do you teach?” he asked.
“We teach Mindfulness and Loving-kindness meditation,” James replied, “and we especially emphasize Generosity.”
“There is no such thing as Generosity,” Poonja-ji said. James and I exchanged glances that said, “Uh-oh! Have we just started this interview and already done it wrong?”
“No such thing at all,” Poonja-ji repeated. “There is only the awareness of need and the natural impulse of the heart to address it. If you are hungry and your hand puts food in your mouth, you don't think of the hand as generous, do you? If people in front of you are hungry and you feed them, it's the same, isn't it?”
James and I talked afterward. “Maybe he's right,” I said. “Let's think this through. If in the spring, as I am putting away my winter clothes, I think, 'I didn't wear this at all. I'll give it to the Salvation Army,' maybe that isn't Generosity. Maybe it's just closet cleaning. Maybe Generosity is happening when I'm thinking, 'I did wear this a few times. It is still stylish. I like it. I could save it and wear it sometime, or I could give it to the Salvation Army,' and then finally decide, 'I'll give it away.' Maybe that's generosity.” I looked at James. “Isn't that Generosity?”
“Maybe,” James said, “it's a moment of realizing that not-needing has won out over needing.”
“Or,” I said, “that someone else's needing has won out over my needing.”
I know it works that way for me. When I am not confused or frightened, I'm able to respond to needs beyond my own. I think that's true for everyone. When we are personally at ease, the pain of other people—even people we don't know—touches us, and we are moved to end it. Responding feels more comfortable than not responding. And I think that when people say “Thank you” in response to a kindness we've offered them, we say “It's my pleasure” because it is.
James and I ended our conversation by agreeing, “Maybe there is no such thing as someone who is generous. Maybe there are only causes and conditions for relinquishing and receiving. But there is Generosity.”
Generosity arises in response to the awareness of particular beneficiaries and particular needs. When we deliver a gift personally, we get to have the pleasure of seeing the response. When we contribute to a cause—preserving national parks, or ensuring voting rights, or funding cancer research—we imagine how our gift will be received. . . .
The best thing about generosity is enjoying the feeling of not-needing. It's a great freedom. . . .
I've heard people use the expression “generous to a fault,” as if it were possible to be too generous, that great Generosity would somehow be depriving oneself. I think the opposite is true. Being able to give freely means not being so absorbed in one's own needs that it becomes impossible to look past them at who else is in the world and what they need. Not being absorbed in one's own needs is—even before any generous act happens—a relief.