Generosity First

Our most recent Sunday Dhamma Classes have been used to prepare for a Vesak Festival.  It's a celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.  The children have been making beautiful lanterns and cards.  I'll share more about our crafts next week.

Meanwhile, I wanted to share a meditation I read this morning from Thanissaro Bhikkhu on generosity.  This talk was not intended specifically for parents and dharma teachers.  Still, he uses as illustration the way in which buddhist children are trained in the ways of generosity to prepare for meditation as they grow older.

I plan to spend a lot of time reflecting on his teachings here and how I can incorporate his lesson more into my personal practice as well as my Dhamma Class for the children.

The following is from Chapter 1 of Meditations 1 by Thanissaro Bhikku.  It is copied here with permission.  You can download other chapters or the entire book by clicking here.

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem!

Generosity First
(Copyright Thanissaro Bhikkhu 2003)

March, 2003

Several years ago, when Ajaan Suwat was teaching a retreat at IMS, I was his
interpreter. After the second or third day of the retreat he turned to me and said,
“I notice that when these people meditate they’re awfully grim.” You’d look out
across  the  room  and  all  the  people  were  sitting  there  very  seriously,  their faces tense, their eyes closed tight. It was almost as if they had Nirvana or Bust written across their foreheads.
He attributed their grimness to the fact that most people here in the West
come to Buddhist meditation without any preparation in other Buddhist
teachings. They haven’t had any experience in being generous in line with the
Buddha’s teachings on giving. They haven’t had any experience in developing
virtue in line with the Buddhist precepts. They come to the Buddha’s teachings
without having tested them in daily life, so they don’t have the sense of confidence they need to get them through the hard parts of the meditation. They
feel they have to rely on sheer determination instead.  

If you look at the way meditation, virtue, and generosity are taught here, it’s
the exact opposite of the order in which they’re taught in Asia. Here, people sign
up for a retreat to learn some meditation, and only when they show up at the
retreat center do they learn they’re going to have to observe some precepts
during the retreat. And then at the very end of the retreat they learn that before
they’ll be allowed to go home they’re going to have to be generous. It’s all
Over in Thailand, children’s first exposure to Buddhism, after they’ve learned
the gesture of respect, is in giving. You see parents taking their children by the
hand as a monk comes past on his alms round, lifting them up, and helping them
put a spoonful of rice into the monk’s bowl. Over time, as the children start
doing it themselves, the process becomes less and less mechanical, and after a
while they begin to take pleasure in giving. 
At first this pleasure may seem counterintuitive. The idea that you gain
happiness by giving things away doesn’t come automatically to a young child’s
mind. But with practice you find that it’s true. After all, when you give, you put
yourself in a position of wealth. The gift is proof that you have more than
enough. At the same time it gives you a sense of your worth as a person. You’re
able to help other people. The act of giving also creates a sense of spaciousness in the mind, because the world we live in is created by our actions, and the act of giving creates a spacious world: a world where generosity is an operating
principle, a world where people have more than enough, enough to share. And it
creates a good feeling in the mind. 

From there, the children are exposed to virtue: the practice of the precepts.
And again, from a child’s point of view it’s counterintuitive that you’re going to
be happy by not doing certain things you want to do—as when you want to take
something, or when you want to lie to cover up your embarrassment or to
protect yourself from criticism and punishment. But over time you begin to
discover that, yes, there is a sense of happiness, there is a sense of wellbeing that comes from being principled, from not having to cover up for any lies, from
avoiding unskillful actions, from having a sense that unskillful actions are
beneath you.  So by the time you come to meditation through the route of giving and being virtuous, you’ve already had experience in learning that there are
counterintuitive forms of happiness in the world. When you’ve been trained
through exposure to the Buddha’s teachings, you’ve learned the deeper
happiness that comes from giving, the deeper happiness that comes from
restraining yourself from unskillful actions, no matter how much you might
want to do them. By the time you come to the meditation you’ve developed a
certain sense of confidence that so far the Buddha has been right, so you give him the benefit of the doubt on meditation.  

This confidence is what allows you to overcome a lot of the initial difficulties:
the distractions, the pain. At the same time, the spaciousness that comes from
generosity gives you the right mindset for the concentration practice, gives you
the right mindset for insight practice—because when you sit down and focus on
the breath, what kind of mind do you have? The mind you’ve been creating
through your generous and virtuous actions. A spacious mind, not the narrow
mind of a person who doesn’t have enough. It’s the spacious mind of a person
who has more than enough to share, the mind of a person who has no regrets or
denial over past actions. In short, it’s the mind of a person who realizes that true
happiness doesn’t see a sharp dichotomy between your own wellbeing and the
wellbeing of others.  

The whole idea that happiness has to consist either in doing things only for
your own selfish motives or for other people to the sacrifice of yourself—the
dichotomy between the two—is something very Western, but it’s antithetical to
the Buddha’s teachings. According to the Buddha’s teachings, true happiness is
something that, by its nature, gets spread around. By working for your own true
benefit, you’re working for the benefit of others. And by working for the benefit
of others, you’re working for your own. In the act of giving to others you gain
rewards. In the act of holding fast to the precepts, holding fast to your principles, protecting others from your unskillful behavior, you gain as well. You gain in mindfulness; you gain in your own sense of worth as a person, your own self‐esteem. You protect yourself.
So you come to the meditation ready to apply the same principles to training
in tranquility and insight. You realize that the meditation is not a selfish project.
You’re sitting here trying to understand your greed, anger, and delusion, trying
to bring them under control—which means that you’re not the only person who’s
going to benefit from the meditation. Other people will benefit—are benefiting—
as well. As you become more mindful, more alert, more skillful in undercutting
the hindrances in your mind, other people are less subject to those hindrances as
well. Less greed, anger, and delusion come out in your actions, and so the people
around you suffer less. Your meditating is a gift to them. 

The quality of generosity, what they call caga in Pali, is included in many sets
of Dhamma teachings. One is the set of practices leading to a fortunate rebirth.
This doesn’t apply only to the rebirth that comes after death, but also to the states of being, the states of mind you create for yourself moment to moment, that you move into with each moment. You create the world in which you live through your actions. By being generous—not only with material things but also with your time, your energy, your forgiveness, your willingness to be fair and just with other people—you create a good world in which to live. If your habits tend more toward being stingy, they create a very confining world, because there’s never enough. There’s always a lack of this, or a lack of that, or a fear that something is going to slip away or get taken away from you. So it’s a narrow, fearful world you create when you’re not generous, as opposed to the confident and wide‐open world you create through acts of generosity.  

Generosity also counts as one of the forms of Noble Wealth, because what is
wealth aside from a sense of having more than enough? Many people who are
materially poor are, in terms of their attitude, very wealthy. And many people
with a lot of material wealth are extremely poor. The ones who never have
enough: They’re the ones who always need more security, always need more to
stash away. Those are the people who have to build walls around their houses,
who have to live in gated communities for fear that other people will take away
what they’ve got. That’s a very poor kind of life, a confined kind of life. But as
you practice generosity, you realize that you can get by on less, and that there’s a pleasure that comes with giving to people. Right there is a sense of wealth. You
have more than enough. 

At the same time you break down barriers. Monetary transactions create
barriers. Somebody hands you something, you have to hand them money back,
so there’s a barrier right there. Otherwise, if you didn’t pay, the object wouldn’t
come to you over the barrier. But if something is freely given, it breaks down a
barrier. You become part of that person’s extended family. In Thailand the terms
of address that monks use with their lay supporters are the same they use with
relatives. The gift of support creates a sense of relatedness. The monastery where I stayed—and this includes the lay supporters as well as the monks—was like a large extended family. This is true of many of the monasteries in Thailand.
There’s a sense of relatedness, a lack of boundary.  

We hear so much talk on “interconnectedness.” Many times it’s explained in
terms of the teaching on dependent co‐arising, which is really an inappropriate
use of the teaching. Dependent co‐arising teaches the connectedness of ignorance to suffering, the connectedness of craving to suffering. That’s a connectedness within the mind, and it’s a connectedness that we need to cut, because it keeps suffering going on and on and on, over and over again, in many, many cycles.

But there’s another kind of connectedness, an intentional connectedness, that
comes through our actions. These are kamma connections. Now, we in the West
often have problems with the teachings on kamma, which may be why we want
the teachings on connectedness without the kamma. So we go looking elsewhere
in the Buddha’s teachings to find a rationale or a basis for a teaching on
connectedness, but the real basis for a sense of connectedness comes through
kamma. When you interact with another person, a connection is made.  Now, it can be a positive or a negative connection, depending on the intention. With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful connection, a connection where you’re glad that the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth. If it’s unskillful kamma, you’re creating a connection, you’re creating an opening that sooner or later you’re going to regret. 

There’s a saying in the Dhammapada that a hand without a wound can hold
poison and not be harmed. In other words, if you don’t have any bad kamma, the
results of bad kamma won’t come to you. But if you have a wound on your hand,
then if you hold poison it will seep through the wound and kill you. Unskillful
kamma is just that, a wound. It’s an opening for poisonous things to come in. 
The opposite principle also works. If there’s a connection of skillful behavior,
a good connection is formed. This sort of positive connection starts with
generosity, and grows with the gift of virtue. As the Buddha said, when you hold
to your precepts no matter what, with no exceptions, it’s a gift of security to all
beings. You give unlimited security to everyone, and so you have a share in that
unlimited security as well. With the gift of meditation, you protect other people
from the effects of your greed, anger, and delusion. And you get protected as

So this is what generosity does: It makes your mind more spacious and
creates good connections with the people around you. It dissolves the boundaries that otherwise would keep the happiness from spreading around. 
When you come to the meditation with that state of mind, it totally changes
the way you approach meditating. So many people come to meditation with the
question, “What am I going to get out of this time I spend meditating?”
Particularly in the modern world, time is something we’re very poor in. So the
question of getting, getting, getting out of the mediation is always there in the
background. We’re advised to erase this idea of getting, yet you can’t erase it if
you’ve been cultivating it as a habitual part of your mind. But if you come to the
meditation with experience in being generous, the question becomes “What do I
give to the meditation?” You give it your full attention. You give it the effort,
you’re happy to put in the effort, because you’ve learned from experience that
good effort put into the practice of the Dhamma brings good results. And so that
internal poverty of “What am I getting out of this meditation?” gets erased. You
come to the meditation with a sense of wealth: “What can I give to this practice?” 

You find, of course, that you end up getting a lot more if you start with the
attitude of giving. The mind is more up for challenges: “How about if I give it
more time? How about meditating later into the night than I usually do? How
about getting up earlier in the morning? How about giving more constant
attention to what I’m doing? How about sitting longer through pain?” The
meditation then becomes a process of giving, and of course you still get the
results. When you’re not so grudging of your efforts or time, you place fewer and fewer limitations on the process of meditation. That way the results are sure to be less grudging, more unlimited, as well. So it’s important that we develop the Noble Wealth of generosity to bring to our meditation.  

The texts mention that when you get discouraged in your meditation, when
the meditation gets dry, you should look back on past generosity. This gives you
a sense of self‐esteem, a sense of encouragement. Of course, what generosity are you going to look back on if there is none? This is why it’s important that you approach the meditation having practiced generosity very consciously. 
Many times we ask, “How do I take the meditation back into the world?” But
it’s also important that you bring good qualities of the world into your
meditation, good qualities of your day‐to‐day life, and that you develop them
regularly. Thinking back on past acts of generosity gets dry after a while if
there’s only been one act of generosity that happened a long time ago. You need
fresh generosity to give you encouragement. 

So this is why, when the Buddha talked about the forms of merit, he said,
“Don’t be afraid of merit, for merit is another word for happiness.” The first of
the three main forms of merit is dana, giving, which is the expression of
generosity. The gift of being virtuous builds on the simple act of giving, and the
gift of meditation builds on both. 

Of course, a large part of the meditation is letting go: letting go of
distractions, letting go of unskillful thoughts. If you’re used to letting go of
material things, it comes a lot easier to begin experimenting with letting go of
unskillful mental attitudes—things that you’ve held on to for so long that you
think you need them, but when you really look at them you find you don’t. In
fact, you see that they’re an unnecessary burden that causes suffering. When you
see the suffering, and the fact that it’s needless, you can let go. In this way, the
momentum of giving carries all the way through the practice, and you realize
that it’s not depriving you of anything. It’s more like a trade. You give away a
material object and you gain in generous qualities of mind. You give away your
defilements, and you gain freedom.