dāna-pāramitā (Sanskrit). The Perfection of Generosity, the first of the Six Perfections (ṣaḍ-pāramitā) that make up the central element of the Mahāyāna path; its cultivation involves unselfish giving in three aspects: the giving of material goods to those in need, the giving of security and freedom from fear, and the giving of the Dharma.
The practice of generosity, the Dana Paramita. Paramitas are practices to cultivate on the path of awakening. Dana is giving with “open heart, open arms, and an open mind” . dana paramita, usually translated as generosity. Dana Paramita could be called “generosity that goes beyond generosity.” So right from the start we're saying that the word “generosity” can not cover what we intend to talk about. But we are talking about giving gifts.
Ryokan was a Zen master, but lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. 'You may have come a long way to visit me,' he told the prowler, 'and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift'
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. 'Poor fellow,' he mused, 'I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.'
Here's another, more modern story. Taezan Maezumi roshi was a modern zen master who taught in the United States many years until he died in 1995. He made several trips to Mexico City and there are now two of his dharma successors teaching there.
People used to bring him very expensive and extravagant gifts. I think they probably did this wanting to be closer to him or wanting him to acknowledge what good people they were. Not outright bribes, but subtle bribes. He was certainly aware of this and made these moments opportunities to teach.
One of his students told me about how, at a party, someone brought him what appeared to be a very expensive gift. Its wrapping paper alone was worth a lot of money. They caught his attention and with great pride and expectation said, “Here roshi, this is especially for you. We hope you'll like it.” Maezumi roshi gave his full attention to the person, took the package, and thanked them with great sincerity. As the giver was just starting to feel proud and happy about that, Maezumi turned to the next person nearby, gave them the still wrapped package, and said, “Here, this is especially for you.” and gave them the present.
The sutras identify 3 kinds of gifts. First there are material gifts. These would be things: packages that you could wrap and give to someone, or gifts of food or money.
Second there is the gift of fearlessness. One way this is described is the giving of comfort and protection to someone who feels threatened or afraid. I think the gift of fearlessness could also be living a fearless life as an example or encouragement for others. This gift could include the very important gift we give when we simply are present with someone who feels afraid, alone or in pain. Just by being with that person and by listening to them, we can give them a great gift that may bring them just enough relief that they can continue on the path to awakening.
And third, there is the gift of the Dharma, sharing the teachings with someone. It is said that the greatest gift is the gift of Dharma. One sutra says, “A gift of Dhamma conquers all gifts.”
In the oldest tradition of East Asian Buddhism, monks were not allowed to do productive work. They essentially had no material goods to give, but were dedicated to giving gifts of fearlessness and of the teachings. They sustained their lives on the generosity of the laiety who gave them food and clothing. No matter how poor you were, you could still give a few grains of rice to a monk on his begging rounds. No matter how rich, you could still receive teachings. This relationship is very important. In order to practice generosity, there needs to be someone to receive our gift. Both sides are giving something. If I am in need and you give me something, my neediness has given you the opportunity to do religious practice. Here is a quotation from the modern Theravada monk Thanissaro Bikkhu:
There were times on my alms round in rural Thailand when, as I walked past a tiny grass shack, someone would come running out to put rice in my bowl. Years earlier, as lay person, my reaction on seeing such a bare, tiny shack would have been to want to give monetary help to them. But now I was on the receiving end of their generosity. In my new position I may have been doing less for them in material terms than I could have done as a lay person, but at least I was giving them the opportunity to have the dignity that comes with being a donor.
a friend telling a story of walking on a mountain trail in Chiapas when she came upon a crude home made of not much more than sticks. A frail bent old woman came out of the home and seeing my friend and her companion she brightened and asked them to wait a moment. Then she went into an even cruder stick shack and after a moment came out with two eggs. She gave one to each of the women. How happy that woman was to give! How deeply moved were the women passing by just to be there.
At one part of the formal meal chant in zen monasteries, the monks chant “May we realize the emptiness of the three wheels: giver, receiver and gift.” All three are empty of a separate existence. Not one can exist without the others. Each one includes the others and is in turn included in the others.
You probably won't be surprised to hear that Buddhism places much emphasis on the intention or state of mind that one has in giving a gift. In one sutra, the Buddha lists several possible motivations for gift giving and the consequence that each has for the one who is giving.
One might give seeking something in return.
One might give with the thought of “this make me a good person”.
Another reason might be just because of custom. For instance thinking, “my family has always given to this cause, and so I should continue.”
Some gifts might be given with the idea that those with wealth have a responsibility to give gifts to the poor.
Another reason might be that it makes me feel better when I give someone something.
In each case, the Buddha says, the giver experiences some good consequences. Eventually, however, the merit of giving becomes exhausted and one returns right back to where they started from.
But if one gives a gift with none of these things in mind, and gives as a “support for the mind” it's different. I understand “support for the mind” to mean as a mind training, or giving just for the practice of giving itself. When one gives for this reason, there is also some transitory reward, but the giver never comes back to being the same as before.
In dana paramita, the intention is key. The exchange value of the gift is really not important. Of course it would be impossible to place an exchange value on the gift of the teaching or on the gift of fearlessness. But even with material gifts, it is the intention that matters the most. Any parent who's been given a drawing or a handprint or a poem as a present from their child knows that. And it's at the point of intention that we can really begin to train in the practice of dana paramita.
One sutra says, "Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, 'May whatever animals live here feed on this,' that would be a source of merit." How different that is from just mindlessly tossing out the very same rinsings.
My teacher, Norman Fischer, recommends to children that they can begin to practice dana paramita by giving gifts to themselves. These gifts can even be things that they already have: I give myself this ball (thank you) or I give myself this pebble (thank you) or this leaf (thank you). When a child becomes accustomed to giving to themselves it becomes easier and more natural for them to continue giving in other circumstances.
We can give a smile or a kind word, we can point out a rainbow or an interesting bird and give that. In The Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance Dogen says, “Offer flowers blooming on a distant mountain to the Tathagata.” He said, “Give yourself to yourself, and others to others. To accept a body and to give up the body are both giving.” We can give ourselves the gift of being ourselves and we can give others the gift of appreciating who they truly are instead of what we think they ought to be. He also said, “to leave flowers to the wind, to leave birds to the seasons, are also acts of giving.”
The Buddha gave us some more guidance in the practice of giving.
A person of integrity gives a gift with a sense of conviction.
That is to say that one gives truly, with certainty, without doubt.
A person of integrity gives a gift attentively.
One is mindful of giving, and treats the gift and the receiver respectfully.
A person of integrity gives a gift in season.
“In season” here means that one gives a gift that is appropriate and helpful. One time it's a book, another time a basket of fruit, another time cash.
A person of integrity gives a gift with an empathetic heart.
The giver does not see herself as above or separate from the receiver, but rather feels at one with the receiver.
A person of integrity gives a gift without adversely affecting himself or others.
One would not give a gift that causes harm, such as drugs or alcohol. One would give with the desire to remain capable of continuing to give.
Giving is non-greed. Giving is relinquishing all of those things that we could never truly possess anyway. It is relinquishing that illusion. In English people sometimes say “You can't take it with you” to justify spending lots of money on frivolous things. It's true that “You can't take it with you,” but the sutras say that it can still be saved if you give it away.
What the miser fears, that keeps him from giving, is the very danger that comes when he doesn't give.