Dana (giving)

“Heaven and Earth give themselves. Air, water, plants, animals, and humans give themselves to each other. It is in this giving-themselves-to-each-other that we actually live. Whether you appreciate it or not, it is true.”

– Kōdō Sawaki Roshi (1880–1965)

“Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, ‘May whatever animals live here feed on this,’ that would be a source of merit.”

Vaccha Sutta (On Giving)

Giving (dana) has been part of Buddhist society from its very beginnings.  Just before his awakening, the Buddha himself received a gift of rice porridge from the lay woman Sujata, who took pity on his body which was emaciated from long ascetic practice, and the early sangha was entirely dependent on food offerings from their alms round in order to eat. 

In the Dhana Sutta, the Buddha speaks of seven treasures, of which one is the treasure of dana (generosity):

“And what is the treasure of generosity? There is the case of a disciple of the noble ones, his awareness cleansed of the stain of stinginess, living at home, freely generous, openhanded, delighting in being magnanimous, responsive to requests, delighting in the distribution of alms. This is called the treasure of generosity.”

Similarly, in Mahayana Buddhism, generosity is one of the six perfections of a bodhisattva, and the one that is seen to come first.  If we cannot be generous with others, on what basis do we call ourselves bodhisattvas, which is nothing other than a path of service to all beings? 

In Entering the Mind of Buddha , Reb Anderson says that “Giving is the warm heart of bodhisattva practice.  Generosity attends and responds with kindness to whatever turns up, including all people and events we find challenging. It is graciously receiving all aspects of our life. When it is perfected, the joyful practice of giving includes all bodhisattva practices.”

Life, in fact, cannot exist without giving.  The sun gives light to the earth, which allows plants to grow, and from there all things engage in an interweaving dance of offering.  Human communities and societies are also built on the basis of giving, and the French sociologist Marcelo Mauss wrote an essay entitled The Gift in which he describes how gift giving in traditional societies brings people together in reciprocal obligation.  I would imagine that everyone here can remember times in which they have been given gifts, maybe from surprising sources, which has brought them huge pleasure or come at a time when they really need it, which engendered a great feeling of gratitude towards the giver.  Over the course of a lifetime, the number of gifts we both give and receive must be numerous, creating a shining web of gratitude and interconnection.

From the perspective of the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita), it is seen that in the practice of giving all three parts of the process – giver, receiver and gift – are empty of self and the entire notion of ownership is one that is entirely fabricated.  We come into this world with nothing and leave with nothing.  What we are is completely made of other and will become something else after we leave this visible world.  How then, can we claim ownership of anything?

In the relative world, however, we work to earn money so that we can own clothes, a house, food and implements to cook it with, a car etc. This temporary legal ownership of possessions allows us to practice generosity by giving what is notionally ours to someone else, as objects, our time and energy or, as is common, in the form of money.

Although my own Zendo is in the lineage of Sōtō Zen, we have for some time included Tonglen meditation as part of our practices in the sangha.  In Tonglen we respond to the suffering of others with metta (loving kindness).  In generosity practice we instead respond with gifts.  There is a good reason that charities use the stories of people or animals who are suffering in order to obtain donations and who among us has not responded to a heartfelt campaign in the wake of some kind of tragedy?  Although it may feel like we are being manipulated, giving in response to suffering is a very Buddhist act, whether it is to the sight of animals in distress, a family who has lost their home in a flood or homeless people begging on the street. 

Many people choose to give to specific charities on a regular basis and also keep some money on standby for responding to emergency situations and spontaneous donations.  Others are part of, or run, charitable organisations themselves such as food banks or soup kitchens.  If we are not able to contribute money to charitable causes there are many ways to practice dana, and I firmly believe that this should be a component of Zen practice for everyone in terms of offering the fruits of our practice to the world.  As the quote from the Vaccha Sutta at the top of this post points out, even the water from our dishes can constitute an offering to thirsty animals or plants and if you practice Oryoki you can think of the food we set aside for hungry ghosts during the meal.  Dana can be as simple of offering a smile to another human or picking up litter on a street.  Small acts, done often, can make a big difference.

For me, the importance of Dana is in the realisation that practice is not just something for us but needs to include all beings, and this is the reason it is the first of the six perfections.  It switches our focus from self to other and allows us to look at notions of possession and what giving means in a world of conditioned existence in which all things are marked by impermanence and a lack of self.  In a more relative sense, for those of us who are fortunate to be materially comfortable it is an important reminder that there are many in the world, even in affluent countries, who are not, and that knowledge alone should be sufficient to evoke generosity in all of us who consider ourselves as a student of the Buddha. 


Some Buddhist Charities

Buddhist Global Relief https://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/

Buddhist Peace Fellowship www.bpf.org

Jhamtse international https://jhamtseinternational.org/

Karuna Trust https://www.karuna.org/

Liberation Prison Project https://liberationprisonproject.org/

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