Category Archives: generosity

There’s an app for that!

There are a number of apps on my phone that I don’t have a clue how to use. You too? Well, that’s like the Paramitas, the perfections of the heart we have been discussing. These qualitparamitas appies or states come pre-installed in our being. We don’t have to go to the app store to get them. Some of them are familiar. Some we think we understand but could use a little reminder. Others we aren’t even aware we have. In this series on the Paramitas, we are opening each ‘app’ to discover how it functions in our lives.

Last week we were talking about the first Paramita: Generosity. Dana Paramita. Now let’s look at ways we obscure the generosity we are born with. If our basic needs are met, our hearts are naturally generous. As an example, my granddaughter spent her free time in kindergarten yesterday making a card for her little sister. She drew a picture of the two of them holding hands and dancing together. She told me she made it because her sister’s birthday is coming up ‘and also she’s still a little bit sick’, so she was thinking about her.

Her generosity rises up naturally. Later in the day the girls fought over some toy, as kids will do. Where was her natural generosity then? It was obscured by the desire to obtain a pleasure or the fear of losing a pleasure. She was the exact same generous-spirited girl, but she was going through some inner turbulence, wasn’t she?

We all go through inner turbulence from time to time. Things don’t go our way. We feel threatened. We get caught up in the desire for something or the fear of losing something, and it feels as if we are being tossed around in a storm of volatile emotions. Can we become more skillful in how we navigate these turbulences that pass through the field of our experience? Can we recognize and even embrace the temporary nature of all conditions?

We can do so more effectively if we come to know and rely on our true nature to help us through difficult conditions. The Paramitas, these perfections of the heart, are aspects of our true nature. When they are obscured by turbulence or simply lack of awareness, we can pause to cultivate clarity. This is much easier when we have a regular practice of meditation that helps to create ease and spaciousness in our body-mind. We can recognize that we are not our thoughts. We are not the turbulence. And we can more readily feel the presence of the Paramitas as joyful states of being.

These perfections of the heart are not gold stars for being good, doled out to some and not to others. They are not achievements to be admired. When we think of them in this way, we get caught up in striving, judgment, comparison and confusion. But if these qualities are inherent in our very being, what keeps them hidden?

We can apply the Buddha’s Five Hindrances from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to find the answer to that question. If you remember, these are Sensory Desire, Aversion, Worry/Restlessness, Sloth/Torpor, and Doubt.

Let’s look at these Hindrances in relationship to Generosity:

  • In our hunger to satisfy sensory desire we might not share our chocolate ice cream.
  • In our aversion to ‘getting involved’, we may resist offering assistance to someone in need.
  • When worried about our finances, we may put off donating to our favorite charities.
  • When we are restless, we may have difficulty really listening to someone who needs our attention.
  • If we are feeling sluggish and slothful we may not feel able to get off the couch and do any act of generosity, even to ourselves.
  • If our minds are clouded and confused, in a state of torpor, we may not be able to think clearly enough to activate generosity.
  • And if we are in a state of doubt, we may not be able to imagine that anything we could do would have an impact.

The Hindrances give us a useful framework for looking at any of the Paramitas, don’t they? If one of them resonates, we can bring wise intention and wise effort to bear. We can spark some generosity and apply it to the Hindrance that is troubling us. For example:

  • We might find the sensory pleasure in generosity. Eating chocolate ice cream is even better when someone else is enjoying it too.
  • We might discover that offering assistance and getting involved brings us great joy and a sense of meaning.
  • We might calm our worries about finances by recognizing others in greater need, and sending metta, infinite loving-kindness to ourselves and them: May I be well. May you be well. May all beings be well.
  • We might sooth that sense of restlessness by focusing attention on someone we care about and really listening to what they have to say.
  • We might disrupt our slothful mode by recognizing that a brisk walk would be a generous gift to ourselves.
  • We might clear the torpor by activating generosity in any form as it clarifies our intention in the world and sets other things in motion.
  • And, if we are in a state of doubt, we can think about acts of generosity that have meant a lot to us, and recognize that it is the little things that make a world of difference.

 

In class we discussed the person on the curb holding a sign, asking for money. One student said that by the time she had mentally worked through her concerns that her dollar would contribute to the person’s death in the form of liquor or drugs, she was already a block away. In most communities there are services for those in need. If we contribute to those services, we may be doing a greater generosity in the long run. But what about in that moment? Maybe there is no harm in following through on an impulse to be generous. Who are we to judge how the money is spent? This is a deeply personal choice, and whatever decision we make, let it be one that doesn’t leave us feeling guilty. At the very least, and it is no small thing, we can be generous with respect, with kindness, with well-wishing. We can acknowledge that not just ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ but ‘There go I’. This person is not different from me. He or she is part of my family, the family of all beings. And at a cellular level and a spiritual level there is no separate self. We are all the same expansive infinite being. We are all made of the same stardust. We all meet the same fate. Sending metta — ‘May you be well. May you be free from harm. May you be happy.’ — is not a cheap kiss-off platitude, but radiant and generous beyond measure.

As we explore the rest of the Paramitas, we will discover each in turn, see what obscures them and learn how to access these amazing ‘apps’ that are built-in to our being.

Generosity: An exploration

Perfume Pagoda photo by Curt Firestone

Perfume Pagoda in Vietnam, dedicated to Lady Buddha. Ceremonies performed by women monks. Photo by Curt Firestone.

When I lived in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury District in the fall of 1966 and spring of 1967, I remember how the spirit of generosity was at the core of the community of young people who lived and flocked there. The Diggers, a totally volunteer group, supplied free meals in the Panhandle. The Haight Ashbury Free Clinic provided health care. And, although it is hard to imagine now — but I was there and remember it well — all up and down Haight Street people were continually handing each other flowers. In fact it felt selfish to receive a flower and hold onto it. I was not alone in feeling compelled to give it to the next person I saw, so that the flowers became like hot potatoes. Giving felt joyful and in the flow. Possessing was an encumbrance.

Where did that celebration of generosity come from? For the most part, it rose out of the potentially liberating experiences of getting high on marijuana and LSD that were free flowing. In that intensely elevated state it was so easy to see the unity of all being. There was no ‘other’. For a brief period in the history of humankind there seemed to be a great leap in consciousness. But because it came from drugs, it faltered and fell into ruin with all the damaging and deadly effects plain to see. I remember that every time I was high on acid, I would turn to my friend and say, ‘Remind me not to do this again.’ Not that it wasn’t amazing and trippy. It was. But I could feel the toll it was taking on my body and mind.

I was fortunate to have an experience that was a turning point for me in my spirituality. While high I had a vision of a mountain in the distance and earnest people making their way up the mountain on a variety of paths, some steep and rocky, some leisurely through meadows, but all going up the mountain. I noticed I was already at the same altitude as the top of the mountain, so I laughed at all their earnest efforts, quite self-satisfied with my so easily-achieved elevated state. But then I realized I was in a hot air balloon and it was starting to descend. Hmmm. It was that experience that showed me I needed to find my own non-drug-induced path up the mountain. And I did. My individual path eventually led me to the well-trodden path of Theravada Buddhism. Walking in the Buddha’s footsteps has proven to be a ‘sustainable high.’

A regular practice of meditation and especially giving oneself the gift of going on silent retreats provides a deepened understanding of the nature of being, with the added bonus of being able to stay in that state– fully present and fully aware of the oneness of all being in its ever-changing and permeable nature — for longer and longer periods. This is awakening.

It is not surprising that generosity is first on the list of Paramitas that we discussed in the last blog post. Generosity is a natural aspect of awakening. If we struggle with generosity, it is out of a sense of isolation, separation and fear. It is difficult to be generous when we are afraid. Whatever we have doesn’t feel like enough, so how can we even consider sharing it? We are tight and contracted in our being. We may feel we have nothing to offer. We may not value what we have and be too ashamed to offer it.

Small children are often naturally generous. Other animals can be generous too, like the cat who sets the dead bird or lizard on its beloved human’s doorstep or pillow. There is a generous impulse in us all. Do we nurture that impulse and follow through on it? Or do we feel the impulse and then talk ourselves out of it?

This has certainly been an ongoing inner conversation for me. I set and reset the intention to act on my initial impulse to generosity with varying degrees of success. I can observe how the follow up inner talk is based in fear and lethargy. There’s the fear of not having enough and depleting finite resources. There’s the risk of the recipient having future expectations. Am I setting up a pattern of dependency here? Or just a slew of further solicitations from organizations who take my donation as an invitation to ask for more and more? Am I committing to more time than I have to spare? Then there is the inertia that sets in as I get busy with something else. The initial impulse has become just another chore on my to do list, and I may begin to resent it.

I find I can be very generous with my time but have a bigger challenge with money. I know this is based in scarcity issues stemming from when I went hungry for a few weeks, camping in Bois de Boulogne in Paris at the age of twenty, waiting for a wire of funds from my parents that kept not coming. Now if you are going to starve, that’s a really lovely place to do it, but… The experience shook me up and has infused my view of material well being throughout my adult life. Just ask my husband. He had to witness me having a panic attack when we were in a town in northwestern Italy that looked very French in its architecture, and the ATM kept rejecting our card. Uh oh! Deja vu for me. A new rather alarming view of his usually calm and competent wife for him.

Does some past experience shape your relationship with generosity?

As I say my troubles with generosity come from a sense of scarcity, it is interesting to note that often the people who have the least are the most generous. Why is that? Is it because if you have nothing, you have nothing to lose? Or does your own lack in material wealth make you see your potential recipient more compassionately? The best restaurant tippers are people who have themselves been waiters. Clearly that’s because they understand how much those tips mean. Their action of generosity is quite different than the generosity of the well-off person who pronounces himself a ‘big tipper’ and wants to be seen as successful and in a position to be magnanimous.

Giving is good, and the waiter is appreciative of every tip regardless of motivations. But it is valuable to explore our intention and motivation when we are being generous.

And you don’t have to be poor to be truly generous. In recent years over 75 billionaires have committed to giving away at least fifty percent of their wealth to worthy causes through the Warren Buffett and Gates Foundation Giving Pledge. Hopefully their example will impact others who live excessively while their employees make so little that they qualify for food stamps. Living our best intentions is a form of generosity because we offer those around us the inspiration to do the same.

Are you generous? If you say no, it’s possible your family, friends and community can produce evidence to the contrary. If you say yes, look closely to see if your generosity comes with strings attached. Those strings indicate that we are basically ‘buying’ control. So it is not generosity but seeking power. This is a worthwhile personal investigation, but do it with kindness.

As I have spent the past week or so letting ‘generosity’ be a focus for me, I have listened to dharma talks by other Buddhist teachers and read up on the dana paramita. But I have also just let myself notice what arises in my experience. What I have found is that allowing the word ‘generosity’ to sit in the center of my being makes me feel more spacious and creates a sense of ease. I have begun to recognize that beyond the social contract, the tit for tat nature of giving and receiving, is a much larger ongoing reciprocity that is not limited to one on one interactions. The trees are generous in providing oxygen and I am generous in providing them with carbon dioxide with every breath. My mother’s generosity in raising me and my father’s generosity in funding my whole childhood, make me the person I am. They and the rest of my family, friends and teachers fuel my own outpouring of love of and concern in a generous way towards my own children and grandchildren, as well as my husband, extended family and friends. My whole sense of the world becomes one of rich interaction: people on the street generously taking the time to explain how to get from here to wherever it is I want to go, and my own joy in being able to tell a stranger in town that the Wells Fargo is two blocks up on the other side of the street. These daily interactions that we barely think about are all expressions of our innate and developing sense of generosity. The wider our circle of perceived community, the more generosity we feel. We become radiant like the ever-generous sun. And we are filled with gratitude for the generosity we recognize in everyone we meet, in all of life burgeoning forth in infinite generosity.

The word infinite is key to breaking out of the confines of finite calculated generosity. It is especially important to notice if we are giving ourselves away. This happens quite a bit with women who as wives and mothers give all manner of nourishment, labor and support to husbands and children. If we are giving from a finite source, we can make ourselves ill. I know this from experience. But if we can learn to be generous first to ourselves by tapping into the infinite through the daily practice of meditation and caring for ourselves first, then we become conduits for infinite loving-kindness. Best job ever, whatever we are doing!

No discussion of generosity in Buddhism would be complete without mentioning karma (or kamma). Gil Fronsdal, a Bay Area Vipassana teacher, says that he spent the better part of a year in a monastery in Burma and was never expected to spend any money. Everything was given to him. He said that generosity is ingrained in the culture there because of the belief that generosity will bring good fortune in a future life. Young men and women often spend a few months as monks or nuns to develop good karma, for themselves and for their parents. This may seem a little calculated and self-serving, but I imagine it is so ingrained in the culture over generations that it has become a natural expression.

We practice generosity when we sit and meditate. People sometimes think meditation is a selfish thing, because we’re alone when we do it and it makes us feel good. But what happens when we meditate? We come into a sense of balance and ease that makes us a lot more pleasant to be around, doesn’t it? As long as we’re not proselytizing about meditation, people appreciate being around us more when we’ve been meditating than when we haven’t been. We become better listeners. We are less whiny and more appreciative of whatever is happening. We’re more alert and often more ready for fun, and if someone’s going through a difficult time, we are likely to be a more calming presence to have around. You might say meditators tend to be more tuned in, less reactive and more responsive. So our practice is a form of generosity, generating ease, lovingkindness and compassion.

What are the thoughts and emotions that this discussion bring up for you about generosity? I would love for you to comment below.

Gratitude & Generosity in an Infinite Loop

On our cultural calendar we have a day of giving thanks, feeling gratitude, followed by a season of giving and being generous. It strikes me how natural the flow is in this arrangement. When we feel grateful and count our blessings, high among them is usually the people we love – our family and friends. The upwelling of that sense of gratitude quite naturally turns into a desire to express that gratitude to them in the form of generosity. Because we care about them we want to do what we can to give them joy. Voila! Tis the season of giving! We are also thankful for our health, safety, the roof over our heads, and the food on our table. So it’s no surprise that what follows is a desire for others to be housed, fed, healthy and free from harm. So it’s not surprising that  we are much more likely to give and to volunteer during the season that follows. Clearly gratitude should come with a warning label! ‘Caution: May cause a tender heart.’

But what if we are not feeling grateful? This is also a season of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted and put upon. Traditions put us in a choke hold, making us do things we just don’t feel up for. Christmas again? Are you kidding me?

And some of us are dealing with loss — of health, a loved one, abilities, freedoms, hope — and it’s challenging to feel anything but the suffering we are experiencing.

Oddly, that’s when a deeper sense of gratitude, one that  has nothing do do with what we have, is actually easier to find. When our lives are in a turmoil we tend to hunker down. If we don’t get lost in distractions or addictions, we can sense into this present moment as a refuge from all the trials and tribulations we have been experiencing and all the worry of what is to come. This moment fully experienced can be a sweet haven.

One student in class this week said that before she falls asleep at night she thinks of three things she is grateful for. Lovely! But if she has had a really rough day and it’s too hard to come up with anything, she is grateful for the softness of her mattress. Fabulous! In that moment she is fully present, anchored in physical sensation. That is exactly where we need to be in any given moment to go deeply into the joy of being present with what is.

(For more about this deep kind of gratitude, check out this post from 2009, titled ‘Gratitude for Everything”.)

Here is a poem that captures what we’re talking about:


Tumbling down the cliff,
I couldn’t help but notice
the cherry blossoms.
—  KuKu Kichigai,
18th century Japanese poet
In a sense, we are all tumbling down the cliff. We are all living temporal lives with a knowledge of the ending — not the when or the how necessarily, but we all share the same fate. This is a simple truth that we tend to avoid most of the time. And yet we are naturally attracted to temporal things in our experience. Our eyes are drawn to the new, to the thing that is moving, to the things that are fleeting, like cherry blossoms.

Noticing the fleeting nature of life causes us to pay attention and be grateful. We may also go into states of fear, disappointment, longing. We may ask why can’t it stay like this? Without pondering too deeply, we find we wish for extensions on pleasurable moments. But a delicious meal if we eat too much becomes painful. A great party if we stay too long becomes tiresome. It is the fleeting nature of what delights our senses that makes them so delightful and makes us so grateful. So openly accepting the temporal nature of life helps us to receive it with grace and gratitude.

When we are struggling in our lives and gratitude is hard to come by, another door to find gratitude is to do an act of generosity. I am sure you have had the experience of doing something for someone and feeling lifted up by it, more alive and grateful.

So gratitude leads to generosity, and generosity leads to gratitude in an infinite loop. Wherever we are in any moment we can find one or the other. And the way to both is through being fully present in this moment and compassionate with ourselves and others.

Winter Solstice: Gift of the Season

Whatever holidays we celebrate during this season, there is one underlying constant that we all share in the northern hemisphere, and that is the fact that this is the season of darkness. Tonight is the winter solstice, when the northern hemisphere of the earth is tilted the furthest away from the sun, giving us the longest night and shortest day of the year.

If we look around us we can see that the rest of nature has quieted down, slowed down, or at least taken its activity underground into its roots or burrows. Since we are a part of nature, I’ve always wondered why we take this time to become even more frenetic and busy than usual. I’ve talked about this in past Winter Solstice postings. But what I realize now is that to the degree that we are gathering together with family and old friends we are also focusing on nourishing our roots, on burrowing in to what feeds us. I’m often asked to share the Winter Solstice poem I wrote back in 1992 (which you can find in the past WS postings) but a few days ago I wrote this poem and read it as well at a lovely solstice party I attended, because I think there’s a place for this aspect of ourselves too.

Winter Solstice Too

Dear darkness, what am I to do with you?
Burrow under the eiderdown, close my eyes and dream?
Mmm, how sweet, how soft, how succulent, and yet

I toss off the covers, wishing (on a bright star) to share
this vast indigo expanse, to gather in festivity, to hear
oft-told tales from long-loved lips, to mingle merrily.

Some nights, yes, I settle: a bear in my winter cave.
But other evenings like a dormant rose, I tend my roots
so they may deepen and hold me true for flowering.

Here, candles cast a mellow glow, melting the dark beyond.
We, the long intertwined vines of family born and family made
twinkle the night with laughter as we sip and sup and sing.

– Stephanie Noble 2010

So this is the gift of the season: a pause to appreciate and to nurture our roots, our connections that support us so well all year long.

We can find the balance between our yearning to burrow in and our yearning to gather together when we allow the darkness to fill us, as we allow the silence to fill us, with a sense of presence, compassion and spacious awareness. Sensing in to our body’s wisdom, noticing the thoughts and emotions that arise in the safe space we have created. These thoughts may be sad. We may feel depressed by conditions — the seemingly endless rain, for example — and we may feel uncomfortable with such thoughts. But simply noticing them, allowing them to exist, not needing to push them away — that’s the art of our meditative practice, our life practice. There is no need to put on a happy face, scold ourselves for what we are feeling. These inner battles with what arises simply create suffering. But what we might notice is that by simply noticing and allowing, neither fighting nor indulging these thoughts and emotions, somehow they lighten their tense hold on us.

If we are bored or stuck in an emotional quagmire, there is another action that can also help to pull us out: generosity. I once heard tell of a jolly old elf, a chubby white-bearded fellow in a red suit and black boots whose generous spirit reminds us that when we are moved by the impulse to generosity we tap into the infinite metta energy that can spread loving kindness around the world all in one night, all in one moment. Ho, ho, ho! The secret of joy in a reindeer pulled sleigh!

May you be well, even in the darkness. May you be happy, even in the cold. May you find peace, even when your heart is troubled. May you find ease, even when life seems hard.

Happy Solstice!

Pilgrimage: Sarnath

We have been on an imaginary pilgrimage to the places where the Buddha was born and became enlightened. Our pilgrimage continues this week to Sarnath, also known as Sarnātha, the deer park where the newly enlightened Siddhartha gave his first talk.

Sarnath is located in northeastern India in the Utter Pradesh province. The Buddha went there from Bodh Gaya, where he became enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and then spent a period of weeks on his own savoring the experience of being fully present, freed of all fear and desire, and formulating his insights into something he could share with others, that they too might become enlightened.

His attainment of enlightenment sparked a deep sense of generosity. And really, how could it not? If you come to realize the unity of being beyond any sense of barrier, how would you hoard this precious insight? Who would you hoard it from, if you understand yourself to be intrinsically entwined with all life?

Tapping into this sense of connection we are not just recipients of awakening, but conduits for it. Generosity is the first and foremost expression of enlightenment, by its very nature. And it was a primary focus of the Buddha’s teachings throughout the years. Taking opportunities to develop generosity in ourselves creates the channel for the flow of enlightenment.

Thinking back to Siddhartha’s initial exposure to the realities of life from which he’d been so carefully shielded, we remember that it was always his goal to understand suffering in order to find an end of it, not just for himself but for all beings. That generosity of spirit set his intention so that he could spend those years mastering the concentration practices. And that generosity also helped him to see that, at least for him, the path of the ascetic was not going to bring about the understanding he sought.

Siddhartha Gautama was not the only person ever to be a Buddha. Buddha means awakened and there have been many buddhas. But this particular buddha turned out to have the interest and capacity to see, understand and clearly explain the complex workings of the human psyche. Anyone, upon awakening, might be inclined to share the news, but Siddhartha had a gift for formulating his experience and insights into words that resonated and in turn enlightened others.

He went to Sarnath because this is where he knew he would find his ascetic companions of the previous six years. Despite any disagreement, he sensed that they were the most likely to understand his insights and attain enlightenment themselves. The fact that he chose them, not just any gathered group of people, points to the importance of the concentration practices. The ascetics had been practicing for many years, longer than Siddhartha. If anyone would be ready to understand, they would.

But when they saw him coming, they are said to have mocked him. He no longer had the emaciated quality that was the mark of the dedicated ascetic. He had clearly been eating and he was fully, albeit modestly, clothed. He had not returned to his princely raiment but still, they taunted him for having set aside his ascetic vows.

Reportedly, the Buddha replied, “Austerities only confuse the mind. In the exhaustion and mental stupor to which they lead, one can no longer understand the ordinary things of life, still less the truth that lies beyond the senses. I have given up extremes of either luxury or asceticism. I have discovered the Middle Way”.

The Middle Way
We have seen how Siddhartha lived the first three decades of his life indulged in every possible way. When he left that life behind, he chose the opposite extreme, a life of self-denial of even the most basic of human needs, doing only enough to keep the body barely alive.

These two ways of being, these two extremes, have something in common. They both set up false beliefs and boundaries.

When we surround ourselves with constant luxury, we run the risk of believing that we need luxury to live. We believe that material possessions will protect us from harm, so we make sure we are sufficiently buffered from all that we fear. But wealth does not protect us from illness, old age or death. It does not protect us from loss or heartache. And it puts us in a position of feeling we have more to fear, because we feel we have so much to lose. It also makes us feel fragile and vulnerable, as if the world outside our palace walls might infect us with some contagious virus. The more power we vest in wealth as protection, the weaker we become, and the more we lose sight of our true nature.

So is enjoying luxury wrong? Not at all. The world is full of wondrous pleasures and being able to enjoy them is part of the gift of life. But we need to notice the degree to which we depend on them. Is my having a good sleep dependent on the thread count of my Egyptian cotton sheets? Is my feeling good about myself dependent on wearing designer labels? Is my enjoyment of a meal dependent on it being up to gourmet standards and served in a beautiful setting, preferably by someone else?

Siddhartha’s youthful answer had to be yes, because the luxurious offerings of his time were all he knew. When he left the palace, he felt he needed to go to the other extreme in order to purify himself.

But what happens at the other extreme? We run the same risk of believing that we need to scorn all the sensual pleasures of earthly life in order to be pure or good or enlightened. We believe that material possessions will harm us, so we fear contamination, making all pleasure evil, and all who take pleasure in the delights of the world evil or at least deluded. But self-denial does not protect us from illness, old age or death. It does not protect us from heartache or loss of something much sweeter than any earthly pleasure. And it puts us in the position of feeling we have more to fear, because we are so at odds with the world around us, a world that clamors to be touched and tasted. The more we believe that self-denial is the path to enlightenment, the more judgmental we become, both of others and of ourselves for the desires that rise up within us.

So, having experienced both extremes quite fully, Siddhartha, in his newly enlightened state beyond fear and craving, recognized the truth of these extremes, and found the Middle Way. He discovered that he could eat a meal, enjoying each bite fully in the moment, without caring if it was simple or luxurious. He could enjoy giving his body the nourishment it needed and he could stop eating before his belly felt painful. He could accept what was offered with gratitude, and enjoy being able to give in return. He found a simple way of being in the world.

When we observe other species who seem to have no problem finding a balanced way to be in the world, you have to wonder why this is so often such a difficult hurdle for us? Many books have been written on the subject, especially around eating, and I won’t go into it here today. But it’s certainly something to think about. Next time we recognize that we are over-indulging or over-denying ourselves something, let us set the intention to explore the associative thoughts and emotions that arise with our behavior and beliefs. Let’s question our assumptions and see what happens.

The Buddha’s first discourse was titled the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which can be translated as the discourse on the Dharma Wheel. Dharma or Dhamma means truth, the way or the teachings. In it he taught about the Middle Way, and how to find it through understanding the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path. (Both of these have been discussed extensively in this class, and we will be reviewing them in our ‘Summer Reruns,’ per class request.)

His previous companions in asceticism became his first students. One in particular is said to have become enlightened upon hearing this first discourse. Thus the wheel of the dharma was set into motion.

Together they formed the first sangha, that community of practitioners of the Middle Way who support and inspire each other to practice. They spent the rainy season in Sarnath, growing in number, and were disbursed to share the dharma with all who had an interest in learning it.

Engaged Buddhism
This desire to share the teachings is social activism of a sort. Sometimes Buddhism can look like a very self-indulgent escapist kind of path. Social activists get very annoyed with Buddhists who sit and meditate instead of marching and protesting. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, and there is the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and a whole path of what is called ‘engaged Buddhism’ that speaks to Buddhist social activism. If you are interested in it, read Donald Rothberg’s book The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World.

But I think it’s worthwhile to notice that making our own peace is a vital first step to seeing clearly how to best help end suffering in the world. How often in organizations that have all the best intentions do things get bogged down in personality conflicts, striving for power, passive-aggressiveness and hurt feelings? How much of the agenda of activist organizations is reactive, a group of people united by anger against some agreed upon ‘other’, rather than insightful and responsive to the needs of the people they want to help.

However, as with most things, there is a kernel of truth in the accusations social activists make about Buddhist practitioners. You see the truth of it when those who have found peace within themselves, who have come to live more fully in the present and have found the Middle Way, continue to keep the focus solely on themselves and their own contained world, instead of acknowledging their connection with the world and using their wisdom and skills to help end suffering for others, as they have done for themselves. So that is something for us to always keep in mind and to question. How are we expressing our generosity? How are we engaging in the world with our understanding of the dharma? How are we supporting the extended sangha of all beings through our actions?

We ask these questions and perhaps the answer is “It’s too soon, I’m not ready.” But we need to explore further. Even if we are not ready to go forth in the world in support of a larger sangha, we can in our daily activities extend metta in our thoughts to all we encounter. And this is the valuable beginning of engaging in the world. This act of sending metta is the channel of generosity through which enlightenment will flow.

Dana: The Mystery of How Much to Give

I am on retreat this week at Spirit Rock, so there is no class, therefore no dharma talk to post here. But attending a retreat reminds me that I haven’t shared here about the tradition of giving dana (donation) to the teachers. Actually at Spirit Rock, all the retreat staff – the cooks and housekeeping staff – also work on a dana basis. Donations by the retreatants are vital.

As class manager for the Friday morning class at Spirit Rock, I am called upon every week to explain what dana is. Here is what I tell people:

In this tradition (Vipassana, Insight, Thai Forest Buddhist tradition) the teachings are considered priceless, so Spirit Rock doesn’t pay the teachers! Instead we are asked to support the teachers with our donations. We do this out of a sense of gratitude for the teachings, in order to develop in ourselves the spirit of generosity, and so that the teachers may continue to teach.

People often ask me, “How do you figure out how much to give?” I say:

When you arrive at the beginning of class, you might figure out how much dana to give based on your budget, how much a similar class might cost elsewhere, how much you notice others are putting in the dana basket, etc. But if you wait and pay at the end of class, you will add in the important factors of: the difference between how you felt when you arrived and how you feel now, how much feels like a true expression of your gratitude, and what amount feels generous to give, not creating a hardship, but not holding back either.

When we go on retreat we take several vows, one of which is to take only what is freely given. The teachings are given freely, but with the trust that the retreatants will value what they have received and will be as generous as the teachers have been with their wisdom, skill and experience.

I know that doesn’t really answer the question, but that’s fine. The answer will come fresh to you with each class or retreat. Remember that the word dana in the Pali language means generosity.

I teach my class on a dana basis and I truly appreciate the support. It is financing this retreat I am off to right now! Some day perhaps it will make it possible to spend more time focusing on this area of my life rather than commercial aspects. Thank you!