In any presentation of the paramitas, dana, or generosity, always comes first — Nikki Mirghafori explains why.

When I started on the path of Buddhist practice, I was mainly interested in meditation. To my novice ears, other teachings sounded less relevant or interesting. I vaguely remember hearing in a dharma talk that the Buddha had emphasized the practice of generosity for lay folks such as myself. In the trilogy of meritorious deeds (puñña), he first and foremost taught generosity, or dana, which in Pali connotes both the act of giving and what is given. Only after the practitioner appreciated this teaching did the Buddha proceed to teach ethics (sila) and mental cultivation (bhavana); it was the latter I was jumping into, head (not heart) first.
Being part of the circle of giving and receiving, we are energetically engaged (virya) and interconnected.
My first response to dana was skepticism. Wouldn’t any leader of a monastic order espouse generosity, if for no other purpose than to sustain the order? Had I dared to share my cynicism with anyone learned in the tradition, they might have pointed out that while the rules of the early monastic community could have been designed to allow for the monk’s independence, they were in fact devised to foster interdependence between the lay community and the ordained. The vinaya rules forbid monastics from handling money, cooking, or saving food for the next day—the monastics depend upon the generosity of the lay community, to whom, in turn, the monks freely offer daily practice and teachings. A couple of decades older, many dimensions of generosity have opened up for me—not only in the ordinary expressions of giver, receiver, and gift, but also while meditating and teaching, when dana seems more the expression of a boundaryless free-flow of generosity. Dana, I now see, is the foundation of the practice. Generosity is interconnected with, and informs, the other parami. One who embodies generosity of spirit has no need to harm, steal, lie, and so on, and naturally offers the safety of non-harming (sila) and truthfulness (sacca) to others. Practicing giving requires renouncing what is given (nekhamma). Through generosity we develop insight (pañña) into the three marks of existence. Being part of the circle of giving and receiving, we are energetically engaged (virya) and interconnected. Generosity does not come about overnight but is cultivated through patience (khanti) and determination (adhitthana). When we care for someone (metta), generosity instinctively flows, and in turn, generosity strengthens metta; these two, perhaps, are really one and the same. Finally, one who perfects generosity is at peace with the comings and goings of things and experiences, which is synonymous with the jewel of equanimity (upekkha). Generosity supports insight into the three characteristics of existence: Practicing generosity provides insight into impermanence (anicca): things come, things go. Nothing is for me to keep, to hang on to. Holding onto things with a sense of scarcity creates more lack, more unsatisfactoriness, more suffering (dukkha). And in true generosity, we see that there is no separation between the giver, the receiver, and what is given (anatta). I have come to understand dana not as a preparatory practice, or one of only merit-making for lay folks, but as synonymous with liberation itself in ways I couldn’t have imagined. It is no mystery why dana occupies the first, most honored position among the perfections.

The Joy of Generosity

Generosity does not and cannot come into its full fruition with an attitude of grim duty. The attitude of “I should be generous” or “I should let go” is one of forced expectation, and it works as well as hitting a donkey with a stick. The poor animal will move a few paces, then stop. Offering carrots, in contrast, can provide aspiration, where we take on a practice as a training with curiosity, interest, perhaps even zest, giving it our heart. We each know this from our own lived experience: when we feel bright with inspiration, we want to offer our time, skills, and resources for the benefit of another. Our hearts are uplifted in the celebration of release, relishing the goodness cocreated when another being benefits from our goodness. In the Dana Sutta, the Buddha instructed his followers to pay attention to the joy of generosity: “In this world…there are three things of value for one who gives. What are these things? Before giving, the mind of the giver is happy. While giving, the mind of the giver is made peaceful. After having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted.” Before, during, and after! Here’s an example of my own: I love persimmons. They make me happy. The sweet, bright orange fruit, whose name in Farsi is literally translated as “date–plum,” was the harbinger of autumn in Iran, where I grew up; persimmons can’t grow just anywhere, but they do grow in California, where I now reside. A few years ago, preparing to travel from San Francisco to Boston, I packed two persimmons, one of which I ate in the flight departure lounge, waiting to board the plane. A lady came up and asked from which store in the airport the fruit was purchased. She looked a bit disappointed hearing that it couldn’t be procured from any airport vendor and returned to her seat on the other end of the lounge. I thought to myself, I can give the second persimmon away. When I offered her the fruit, she at first demurred, but when I insisted, she was visibly glad and appreciatively accepted. I went back to my corner of the lounge, happy to have made someone else happy, and that, as far as I was concerned, was the end of the story. Sometime during the flight, the lady caught up with me in the aisle to thank me again for the persimmon. She shared that she had grown up in Japan, where there was a persimmon tree in the yard of her childhood home. She now lived in Boston, where she hadn’t been able to find the fruit. The taste of this one persimmon was precious to her, reconnecting her with memories of her parents and grandparents the way only our senses of taste and smell are able, as if magically. Only then did the impact of this tiny act of generosity dawn on me. I am moved by it to this day, so much so that the taste of the persimmon I never ate gives me more joy than all the ones I have eaten, combined. My experience is not unique, nor is the notion of generosity as a source of joy for the giver unique to Buddhism or its teachings. In the West, research has shown that acts of generosity for others make us happier than treating ourselves. A 2008 study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and colleagues found that despite participants’ predictions to the contrary, giving money to someone else increased their own happiness more than spending it on themselves. Likewise, in a 2006 study with the National Institutes of Health, neuroscientists Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman discovered that giving to charities activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect. Altruistic behavior releases endorphins, producing the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high.” Studies on “targeted generosity,” where the giver knows the receiver, suggest additional positive impact in increased social connection and health benefits such as reduced fear, anxiety, and amygdala activation. The biological implications are startling, if not downright baffling—it would seem that humans, at least at certain times, are biologically “wired” to put others’ needs before their own, a reality somewhat at odds with our common assumption that self-interest drives survival. Scientific studies only confirm what we can already know by paying attention to our own minds and bodies—both, after all, are investigations into experience and reality. As the Buddha said, “Practitioners, if people knew, as I know, the fruits of sharing gifts, they would not enjoy their use without sharing them, nor would the taint of stinginess obsess the heart. Even if it were their last bit, their last morsel of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it if there was someone else to share it with” (Itivuttaka 18).

— Nikki Mirghafori