The Practice of Generosity
I cannot find a definition that fully expresses the beauty and value of the word. The old Pali or Sanskrit word “Dana” seems a better fit. It was used in early Buddhism to describe generosity, primarily as a way to compensate teachers. The Buddha wanted people of all economic levels to have access to the dharma, so it was decided that no teacher could ever charge for offering the Buddhist teachings. Instead, Dana could be offered, meaning that folks could offer compensation as they were able and as they chose. To this day, teachers live off of faith, they teach and yet have no idea if the recipient’s generosity will be enough to pay their bills. It is an amazing and beautiful way for both sides to give and to receive, for both sides to experience the beauty and richness of the practice.
I greatly value the practice generosity and have found over the years the incredible wealth of the practice. For me, generosity is not simply offering food or drink, material things, or time, this is more sharing. True generosity is when it pushes me a bit, when I stretch my comfort zone. When I find it a little difficult to give, perhaps as I am attached to something, or it takes more effort or time than I really want, or wondering how much money I can give, or… At these times, I try to push myself to give. I never regret it. I never allow myself to question if I should have done it, etc. I give and try to focus on the feelings of that giving. I truly believe that practicing generosity is as much for myself as it is for another, and perhaps it I, the giver, who benefits the most.
When I give something that really makes me practice letting go, then I feel I am truly practicing the act of generosity. It has been an evolving practice. I use the word practice because that’s what it takes. Originally, I would give, pushing myself a bit, and then not think about it and just let it go. I would not focus on myself or allow thoughts of what a good person I am and certainly not focus on what I might receive in return. Over time, I have learned another approach. Now, each time, I try to focus on the feeling in my heart. How does my heart smile and shine when I have given to another? When I have given something that was precious to me, offered money when needed when I too have very little, gone out of my way or comfort to drive someone somewhere when I prefer to stay alone in my precious space, whatever it is, when I focus on the real feeling within my heart I now try to bask in it. Explore the deep joyous nurturing resonance in my heart and I try to stay with it for at least one minute. I want to reinforce the incredible love and light, the true feeling of generosity while it is fresh, to reinforce the natural act of giving and its rewards.
When I first came to Ladakh, it was quite common to hear the saying “Nyrang tad ley”, or “As you like/As you wish”. I remember hitching to another village two hours away and a taxi coming along. I asked how much it would cost to get there and he responded “Nyrang tad ley”. He trusted in my generosity to take care of his needs. It was such a shift. Instead of trying to bargain for a good price, I now found myself wanting to give him more than expected because I was so impressed with his letting go and his faith in me. The simple saying “as you wish,” allowed me to then open my heart and give to him generously. We both parted with smiles and full hearts. This expression, offered so freely, is an act of generosity. I have my own desires and wishes, my own preferences, but when I can say, “Nyrang tad ley – As you wish”, I am offering this to another, to allow them the choice/preference.
In the west, I always battled with this whole concept. We are so conditioned to think about ourselves, to “protect” ourselves, to give to ourselves first. I would give and give and then I would draw back and think “What about me?” It was if there was always an internal conflict and it did not provide sustaining happiness. When we get hung up in thoughts, (that thinking problem again), we often wonder if we are being taken advantage of, or what are we getting in return, or how we always give, give, give, and get nothing in return, or that we are taken for granted, or, or, or… When we stop thinking and just let go and feel the beauty of the practice, it is one of the most powerful gifts we can give ourselves. The Dalai Lama was once asked how and when should we be generous. So many in India and when do we give? What if it is a scam where street kids are put out to beg in the streets and their pimp is keeping all the money? His response was quite simple and beautiful. Our work is to give from the heart and not question what happens after the giving. That is not our problem. I find it a great guide. The more I truly practice generosity, the stronger I feel, the more trust I have in myself, others, and the universe, the more I am able to let go of my attachments. I think it is perhaps the greatest act of love I can express for both myself and another.
I live a quiet simple life now, a 360 sq. ft. passive solar house with all I need, and still much more than I need. When I go off to travel, I go with a small 30 liter back pack, no more than 7 kilo. After months of traveling with just this I return to my home and often feel like I have too many things. Then I started a lovely tradition where I give something from my home to everyone who happens to visit. Maybe I have more wool hats than I need, or socks, or many tomatoes, or a precious basket I am not using from Belize, or more than enough dried winter vegies, or I pick some dry fresh vegies to share, or cut my one zucchini in half to share…. Letting go, letting go. So different from the previous practices of thinking I needed to stock up on things and have extras for when one wears out and can’t be replaced. It is so liberating to be able to let go of my attachments, to practice deep generosity and bask in the love I am giving myself.
I have learned that I will always receive whatever I need. I have never been too hungry or too cold. I have always had clothes and food. I have always encountered love wherever I go, people wanting and willing to give to me.
In Ladakh, reciprocity is huge. We never go to anyone’s house without taking something to offer, some biscuits or juice, something. When someone’s apricot tree is full, they share all around. Then when someone else’s is ready, they too share. So we are all able to eat lots of fresh and dried apricots all year because we continually share. Sometimes I am given fresh yoghurt; sometimes it is someone carrying water up to my house for me. When neighbors are harvesting their fields, I too join in to help, regardless of what else I had scheduled for myself that day. This is community. This is the rich and rewarding practice of generosity. It fills my heart and makes me whole.
So to all my brothers and sisters, I invite you to give to yourself, by practicing true generosity with others… and watch that relentless thinking mind that will continually push you to question. Let it go. Let it all go… With beaming love and gratitude from the Himalayas!
|Padma and Zawa playing in flowers by Kelly Klein|