Generosity, freely given

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As you may know, it is traditional for Buddhist monks in SE Asia to go out with their bowls into the community every morning and to only eat what they are given. The monks are completely supported by the community. It’s a lovely example of generosity.

Or is it?
When recently, the monks in a small temple in Thailand were sent off to rehab for meth addiction, the villagers were reportedly concerned that they now could not do any merit-making. It didn’t sound like the people interviewed were worried for the well-being of the monks or the temple, only that if they couldn’t donate a scoop of rice every morning, they would not receive merit.

Is this the true nature of generosity? Do we practice giving in order to be rewarded? This sounds a bit like the medieval Catholic Church selling ‘indulgences,’ the forgiveness of sins. But I could be wrong, misunderstanding what was reported or misreported. But it sparked a good topic for discussion about generosity.

In Buddhism, generosity, or dana, is one of the Pāramīs, wholesome qualities to be cultivated through our practice of meditation and by living with the guidance of the Noble Eightfold Path. That guidance leads us to a deeper understanding of the intrinsic interconnection of all life.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of Braiding Sweetgrass, wrote a wonderful essay in Emergence magazine titled “The Serviceberry” that I hope you will read or listen to. As a member of the Potawatomi tribe and a professor of environmental and forest biology, she is very in touch with the wisdom of nature and writes about our intrinsic interconnection with all life. In this article, she specifically addresses the gift economy. While eating berries with the birds in the field, she notes that she had not earned, paid, or labored for the berries. “There is no mathematics of worthiness that reckons I deserve them in any way…The robins and I know them as gifts. We both sing gratitude with our mouths full.”

She suggests that we would all be better off, as individuals and as a species, if we lived in a gift economy based on valuing and building relationships and abundance rather than a commodity economy based on the scarcity of goods.

Sharing this in class, one of my students said she lived with the sense of scarcity handed down from her parents, who struggled through the Depression of the 1930s. We looked at how differently that challenging period in history could have been if, instead of operating from scarcity and turning against each other, sometimes taking advantage of each other and denigrating those who suffered most, there had been a stronger sense of community and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all life? Many government safety net programs came out of that experience, but it didn’t change, and in some cases, exacerbated the way US citizens see each other and the isolating and other-making that is endemic in our society.

Robin Wall Kimmerer uses the example of a hunter who brought home a kill and sent out an invitation to feast rather than storing it away for the future for himself. Someone who lived in the “modern” world asked him why he wouldn’t use the techniques he had available to store the meat for his own personal future use. He answered, “I store my meat in the belly of my brother.”

This statement spoke to me so powerfully! What a very different way of thinking. He lived in an economy of ‘we’ rather than ‘I.’ The currency wasn’t something that could be hoarded. It was in relationships, interdependence, and ongoing cycles of reciprocity.

Her essay reminded me of how we suffer when we perceive ourselves as individual fortresses. For self-preservation, we grasp, cling, accumulate, and hoard for fear of not having enough. But in the process, we may cut ourselves off from the very web of living support systems that are cohesive, responsive, and life-loving.

As a civilization, we have commoditized everything, even the water that has flowed freely throughout history. We have bottled it up in plastic, and we sell it to create a hoard of wealth for some to the extreme detriment, and even death, of others.

How rarely we question this way of being in the world. How rare it is to pause and recognize that there is no separate self. Every molecule of our being is in a state of flux and exchange. The air we breathe is not ours but flows freely in and out of many mouths, nostrils, and pores. All our bodily functions intimately connect us with the rest of the world. Yet we pretend we are alone.

How does recognizing we are not alone but an intrinsic part of life and our communities change how we think about things? How does realizing the greatest gift we give — our exhalation of breath that is gratefully received by plants and reciprocated with oxygen-rich air — is given effortlessly change how we give? What would it mean to live with a sense of abundance rather than scarcity? Even with a slim bank account, we still have so much to offer each other.

For example, when we are driving, many of us make choices from the belief there is a scarcity of time. Sometimes perhaps, that feels true, but often it is just a habit. And anyway, getting someplace safely takes less time than the hassle and potential harm of causing an accident. What if we drove without competing for space? From a sense of abundance and generosity? That would change our own experience and that of other drivers around us.

Same thing in the line at the grocery store. When we operate from a sense of scarcity of time, we create a scarcity of kindness, and we miss out on the simple pleasure of being in a community and being fully present in the moment.

Scarcity may seem hardwired into all our functions, making us compete for space, time, and resources, but we have choices. Let’s make them wisely. Let’s recognize what really matters in life and access whatever we have in abundance to share freely.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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