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Practicing Generosity

The Paramitas are a foundational concept in Buddhist teaching. In the Mahayana tradition, there are six: Generosity (Dana), Morality(Sila), Patience (ksanti), Diligence (Virya), Meditation(Dhyana), and Wisdom(Prajna).

The word Paramita is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “Perfection,” So, the Paramitas can be seen as the Teachings Of Perfection. The word Para in Sanskrit means “the other shore”. These teachings are the teachings of the Bodhisattva way and the means by which we benefit sentient beings. To understand and practice these teachings we need to go beyond what we think we know about them. When we live the Buddha Way, we are frequently stretching and challenging what we’ve come to know. The Paramitas are no exception.

Today, let’s start at the beginning with the paramita of Generosity. Dana (dah-nah) Paramita.

Maybe it’s easier to think of what the Perfection of Generosity is not. To do this we’ve got to think about some of the motivations for giving. For instance:

  • Giving to receive some kind of reward (like a tee-shirt or coffee mug)

  • Giving out of guilt (buying a gift for someone because you feel you have to)

  • Giving to get a tax write-off

  • Giving to get rid of something you don’t want anymore.

Now, none of these (except maybe guilt) are bad or wrong reasons to give. They are just not what Dana Paramita teaches. In short, Dana Paramita is about giving without a thought of getting something in return. It’s about giving the best of what we have, not the leftovers. It’s giving that’s spontaneous and comes from the heart. This is both a teaching about releasing attachments (to both the gift and the person receiving it) and about releasing greed. The Buddha taught this when he begged for food. It was a way for people who had very little to be able to give something of what they had, and it was also a teaching to the Buddha about receiving.

In the Soto-Zen tradition in Japan, this is called Takuhatsu. The monks wear huge straw hats that block the monks' faces from the giver and block the face of the giver from the monk. No one knows who is giving and who is receiving. In the Christian faith, this is a little like Matthew 6:3, “Let no one know you are giving, but when you do give, let not the right hand know what the left hand is doing.”

So, how does this work in real life? How do we perfect our practice of Generosity? We have to cultivate a generous spirit, and this involves responding to the needs of the world in a wholehearted but appropriate way. Giving what IS needed, not what WE think is needed. It means being open and ready to give even when it’s not convenient for us. It’s about knowing that the heart of giving for us might not be what it is for someone else - and that’s ok because we are not in a giving competition. We are just wholeheartedly doing what’s in from of us to do. At the moment.

Remember that when we practice generosity we practice pulling aside and stepping through the curtains of our ego, giving from our hearts, and learning to receive graciously and without thought to reciprocity. It's a lifetime practice.


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