When you hear the word dana, what is the first image or thought that comes to your mind? Maybe it is giving an object—money, food, a present—to someone. But the external manifestation of giving—money, persimmons, time, affection—is only part of cultivating generosity. As important as this aspect of generosity is for our personal development, as well as the impact it has on communities and society, let us not limit ourselves to it alone. As any practitioner knows, there’s always more to it.
Another dimension of giving might be better conveyed by the related Pali word caga
(pronounced chaa-guh). Caga is the quality of the mind–heart that is fundamentally generous, the aspect of freely releasing, relinquishing, and giving with an open hand—automatically, as it were. It arises out of the freedom of a heart that doesn’t cling, but shares its gifts with kindness and friendliness in the spirit the Buddha suggests to us above: to withhold from another is to withhold from oneself; to be stingy with another is to be stingy with oneself.
The act of giving as we conventionally conceive of it—passing along that persimmon at the airport lounge, for example—can serve as a training, as an external scaffold, that supports the inner burgeoning of who (or what) the Buddha suggests we are in a more absolute way, guiding us to a sure heart’s release. Not overnight, but with sincerity and constancy, many dimensions of generosity can serve us—all of us—as the roots, heartwood, and fruits of collective liberation.
Giving and Receiving
There is—of course—still more. The heart’s capacity to receive kindness is not distinct from the ability to give it; when we think of generosity, we may overlook the importance of being able to receive from others and the world, as well as the ability to offer generosity to ourselves. When we cultivate metta in ever-widening concentric circles, we start with ourselves. Only then do we expand to our benefactors, good friends, neutral beings, those we have challenges with, and finally, all beings. If we experience sharing as the Buddha described it, it may not be obvious who is the giver, who is the receiver, and what is the gift. If we do not practice both receiving and giving, then the practice does not deepen.
Notice the offerings you are receiving in this very moment: the air that is supporting your life, the seat that is supporting your body, the medium by which you are reading these words. Each act of graciousness widens the capacity of our heart to feel abundance and, in turn, opens it further to share with others.
Gratitude and generosity form a circle. When we feel the abundance of our life, our hearts feel spacious. Numerous studies link gratitude to happiness and well-being. Through gratitude, we can “train” ourselves to be more generous. In a study conducted at the University of Oregon, neuroscientist Christina Karns observed the fMRI measurements of participants who kept a gratitude journal and found that over time, they derived increasing joy from giving. Pragmatically, the research suggests that at a minimum, one can proactively choose to practice giving to others in ways that increase one’s own joy. How neat is that?
Of course, sometimes I—and you, too?—observe an absence of generosity or mixed intentions in giving: wanting to be liked or to be thought of as generous, wishing for reciprocity, and so on. I try to have humor and laugh at myself without judgment; primarily, I endeavor simply to understand those beliefs, stories, and expectations with curiosity and loving interest. Shining the light of nonjudgmental, loving awareness on the landscape of the mind–heart with loving awareness—acknowledging what’s there, and what may get in the way—is an integral part of cultivating the practice.
I’ve heard that in Tibetan culture, in order to rehearse the act of letting go, one practices giving a potato from one hand to the other; gradually, one moves from potatoes to more precious objects. Such a playful yet wise practice. Give it a try with an object around you. What arises in your body, heart, and mind?
There is a wonderful and provocative teaching in the Visuddhimagga
, the “Path of Purification” commentaries written by Buddhaghosa in the fifth century BCE. In the chapter on metta, ten practices are offered to overcome resentment. They include practicing metta, considering the good qualities of the other person, reflecting on how resentment makes the bearer unattractive, contemplating the law of karma, and so on. If none of the previous practices effectively dispels resentment, the tenth one is deceptively simple: give a gift. The external act of giving shifts the internal dynamic of the heart to release the grudge. Try it! Let yourself be awed, as I have been.
However we practice dana, we aspire to give with integrity, as the Buddha instructed in the Sappurisadana Sutta
(“A Person of Integrity’s Gifts”):
These five are a person of integrity’s gifts. Which five? A person of integrity gives a gift with a sense of conviction. A person of integrity gives a gift attentively. A person of integrity gives a gift in season. A person of integrity gives a gift with an empathetic heart. A person of integrity gives a gift without adversely affecting himself or others.
The last instruction is noteworthy: don’t give too little, but also, don’t give too much. Mindful giving ought to be supportive of others as well as oneself, sustainable both for the giver and the receiver, nondepleting.
The gift of dharma is said to be the highest gift. Let us not limit our conception to only the written or oral form of teachings but instead wonder what other ways this “highest gift” may manifest for practitioners of all levels. Can we give the gift of our presence? Can we support someone with our time and resources—with kindness, offering safety, patience, engagement, equanimity—generously sharing the dharma as an embodied offering?
As we mature, we can trust that practice becomes our life, and our life becomes our practice. Our practice is no longer limited to an activity on the cushion in the morning or evening, ending on the border of our zabuton.
Similarly, generosity is not just something we do, a performative act of giving something to someone or a cause. At best, our mind–hearts become infused with generosity toward ourselves and others, permeating all aspects of our thoughts, speech, and actions—even if we don’t quite understand how it works.
The act of giving requires us to relinquish our attachment to an object; to release it to another, we need to let it go. This is the same exact movement of a heart that gets liberated: it lets go of clinging—to greed, hatred, and delusion—and releases into peace, into awakening. Awakening is not a badge we acquire. It’s a gift, a release, a giving away.
Gandhi was once asked, “Why do you give so much? Why do you serve all these people?” He answered, “I don’t give to anyone. I do it all for myself.” I have come to see my own giving as an act of participation in the circle of receiving and giving, where my unique humanity and particularities are expressed. At the same time, on an unfathomable level, I am participating in a mysterious dance, the egoless, empty, luminous flow of goodness endlessly passing from hand to hand.