Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Perspectives - Dana: The Practice of Giving


A nice article from the Tricycle archives on the spiritual practice of giving - something most of us can learn from and do more of in our daily lives. This article offers ideas and perspectives on Dana from different Buddhist teachers - here are the first two sections.

This is a Buddhist practice, but Christianity and other major religions have their own versions, as well.

Dana: The Practice of Giving

What is dana? Why do we practice it? What is the “right” way to give? What are some benefits of and obstacles to giving?

Dana (pronounced “DAH-nuh”), noun. Sanskrit, Pali, roughly “gift, alms, donation”; voluntary giving of materials, energy, or wisdom (dharma) to others; generosity; regarded as one of the most important Buddhist virtues. Simple acts of giving - whether material, emotional, or spiritual - are often riddled with ambivalence arising from craving and attachment. This section provides suggestions for our most common dana dilemmas and poses questions to help you determine where you are on the path to true generosity.

DANA (“GIVING”) IS THE MOST fundamental of all Buddhist practices. It is the first topic in the Buddha’s graduated talks, the first step on the bodhisattva’s path to perfection, and the first of the ten paramitas(perfections) in the Mahayana tradition. It therefore sets the tone for all that follows in the spiritual journey.

The act of giving purifies intention, the quality of mind with which any action is undertaken. For a brief moment, the giver’s self-absorption is lifted, attachment to the gift is relinquished, and kindness towards the recipient is developed. All actions - of thought, word, and deed - undertaken for the sake of others rather than for one’s own selfish purposes become transformed by the power of generosity.

Giving needs to be practiced and developed because our underlying tendency toward attachment, aversion, and confusion so often interferes with a truly selfless act of generosity. Consummate observer of human nature that he was, the Buddha pointed out the many ways we can give with mixed motives: we give out of fear, or in accordance with tradition; we give with the expectation of return; we give in hope of gain, or a favorable reputation or rebirth; we give to adorn our mind, or simply because giving brings joy.

All generosity is valuable. When asked by King Pasenadi of Koshala, “To whom should a gift be given?” the Buddha replied, “To whomever it pleases your mind.”

All schools of Buddhism recognize that giving brings the most benefit when coupled with wisdom. In the Mahayana tradition, this means recognizing the inherent emptiness of any true distinction between giver and recipient. In the earlier schools, less attention is paid to the metaphysics of giving and more to its psychology, focusing upon the intention of the giver, the nature of the gift, and the worthiness of the recipient.

An act of giving is of most benefit when one gives something of value, carefully, with one’s own hand, while showing respect, and with a view that something wholesome will come of it. The same is true when one gives out of faith, respectfully, at the right time, with a generous heart, and without causing denigration. Under such circumstances, according to the Buddha, “before giving, the mind of the giver is happy; while giving, the mind of the giver is made peaceful; and having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted.” One who is accomplished in dana is said to “dwell at home with a mind free from the stain of stinginess, freely generous, open-handed, delighting in relinquishment, devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing.”

ANDREW OLENDZKI, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, in Barre, Massachusetts, and is editor of the Insight Journal.

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The nature of the gift itself is less important, and is adapted to suit various populations. It is appropriate for people of means to give freely to those in need, for lay people generally to give the basic requisites of a simple life to monks and nuns, and for all people to give less tangible - but much more valuable - gifts to one another at every opportunity.

One of the most important acts of generosity involves Buddhism’s five precepts. By giving up killing, stealing, false speech, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants, one “gives to immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.” And the highest gift of all is the gift of dharma - by teaching (if qualified) or by facilitating the teaching of others.

In a profoundly interdependent world, generosity is fundamental to the entire economy of life. Even the simplest biological function involves receiving something from others (nutrients, oxygen, life), processing it in some unique way, and then passing it on to all other members of the matrix of life. We all do this whether we want to or not, and whether or not we are aware of it. The practice of giving becomes perfected when we align ourselves very deeply with this truth, by consciously and mindfully offering everything we do or say - even everything we think - as an act of universal generosity.


The Jataka Tales comprise a collection of 550 stories recounting the previous incarnations of the Buddha. Together, the tales illustrate the perfection of virtues on the path to enlightenment.

This painting depicts a portion of the story of the Buddha’s final incarnation. In this tale the Buddha is born as Prince Vessantara, renowned for his generosity. On the day of his birth, an auspicious white elephant is also born, and is given to the newborn as a childhood companion. Years later, a delegation of Brahmins arrives from a neighboring kingdom and explains that their citizens are suffering from famine and drought. They beseech the eminently generous prince to donate his white elephant, believing it will help allay their suffering. Vessantara gladly assents, and pours water over his guests’ hands to signify that he does not expect repayment.

Vessantara performs acts of ever-greater generosity,eventually relinquishing even his children. His generosity is ultimately tested, however, when a god descends and asks Vessantara for his wife as a servant [depicted in the painting]. When Vessantara complies, the gods bestow blessings upon the prince, and he is reunited with his wife and children. The Tibetans have a practice to cultivate generosity. They take an ordinary everyday object such as a potato or a turnip, and hold it in one hand and pass it to the other hand, back and forth, until it becomes easy. They then move on to objects of seemingly greater value, such as a mound of precious jewels or rice. This “giving” from hand to hand ultimately becomes a symbolic relinquishment of everything - our outer material attachments and our inner attachments of habits, preferences, ideas, beliefs - a symbolic “letting go” of all the ways that we create a “self” over and over again. In our Vipassana practice, this is really what we are doing, but without the props. We learn to give and to receive, letting go of control, receiving what is given - receiving each moment of our lives just as it is, with the trust that it is just right, just enough for our spiritual growth to unfold from.

As our dana practice deepens, we begin to know more directly the ephemeral nature of all things. What can we really possess, after all? Our realization that there is actually nothing that can be held on to can become a powerful factor in cultivating our inner wealth of generosity, which is a wealth that can never be depleted, a gift that can forever be given, a seamless circle that feeds itself. As the Buddha tells us, “The greatest gift is the act of giving itself.”

The Buddha taught “kingly or queenly giving,” which means giving the best of what we have, instinctively and graciously, even if none remains for ourselves. We are only temporary caretakers of all that is provided; essentially, we own nothing. As this understanding takes root in us, there is no getting, possessing, and giving; there is just the spaciousness that allows all things to remain in the natural flow of life.

Someone once asked Gandhi, “Why do you give so much? Why do you serve all these people?” Surprisingly, Gandhi answered, “I don’t give to anyone. I do it all for myself.” The aim and the fruit of our dana practice is twofold: we give to help and free others, and we give to help and free ourselves.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to help determine if we are giving and receiving with mindfulness:

”What is happening in my body when I give?

”What is happening in my mind?

”Is there a sense of ease, openness, and nonsentimental lovingkindness and compassion in my heart, body, and mind?

”Is there a feeling of depletion, weakness, fear, anger, or confusion - a contraction of my heart, body, and mind?

”Can I go beneath my stories, ideals, and beliefs about how I want the exchange to be or not to be, or how I believe it is “supposed to be” or “not supposed to be”?

”Can I mindfully recognize when I am caught in stories, beliefs, or wishful or aversive thoughts in relation to generosity?

Mindful attention can also help us to know more clearly how much to give in particular situations - or whether or not it’s appropriate to give at all. Here are some questions to consider:

”Am I giving beyond what is appropriate, or giving beyond what may be healthy for myself emotionally and/or physically?

”Are my heart, body, and mind relaxed, open, and joyful when I feel I’ve given “just enough,” or do I experience anguish and contraction of the heart, body, and mind in giving “too much”?

”Am I aware of when the most generous act might be to step back and simply let people take care of themselves, to let go and allow a particular situation to “just be” and work itself out?

Using these questions as guidelines, we can begin to understand the “middle way” of the Buddha’s teaching of dana. Mindfulness is what allows insight to arise in a perfectly natural way and what allows us, in turn, to let go - to recognize ourselves as aspects of the natural flow of life, and in this recognition to give and receive effortlessly in healthy and wise ways.

MARCIA ROSE is the founding and guiding teacher of Taos Mountain Sangha Meditation Center and the Mountain Hermitage, both in Taos, New Mexico. She also teaches in Barre, Massachusetts, at the Insight Meditation Society and the Forest Refuge.

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