The Practice of Generosity
by Ven. Thubten Chodron
When she founded Sravasti Abbey in 2003, Ven. Thubten Chodron had a clear idea of the foundational principles that would support the new monastery she envisioned. Generosity was at the top of her list. Just as the Buddha prescribed generosity as an important practice for lay practitioners, it’s also a practice for monastics, an antidote to attachment and all the disturbing emotions like greed, miserliness, and so on that follow from it. Venerable Chodron’s 2003 article teaches an expansive practice of living by generosity.
“Good is giving, friend!
Even when there’s little, giving is good.
When done with faith too, giving is good;
The gift of what has been acquired honestly is also good.
And further, giving with discernment too is good.”
Dana is a Sanskrit and Pali word that means “generosity” or “giving.” It refers specifically to taking delight in giving—that is, getting in touch with the natural generosity and wish to share that lives inside of us. The mind of generosity is a joyful mind; it does not suffer from regret or a feeling of poverty. Rather, the act of giving itself is pleasurable and seeing others using our offering is an extra bonus.
Monastics have chosen not to work for a living because we want to be able to serve others without thinking of the teachings and service we give in terms of monetary repayment. We are stepping into the unknown and trust that others will support us because they see value in our lifestyle of simplicity, ethical discipline, and service. We trust that people will want to support our Dharma study and practice so that we can, in turn, share the Dharma with them through teaching, leading meditations, and spiritual counseling.
In accordance with the Buddhist tradition, Dharma teachings should be given free of charge, thus making them available to anyone who wishes. This is how we practice at the Abbey. At the end of Dharma teachings, we make it known that we will happily receive dana. People can choose if and what they wish to give
People should make their donations freely and joyfully. Dana is not given out of obligation or in order to avoid looking cheap. It is an expression of our love and compassion for all beings and of our eagerness to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice. It shows that we want the teachers and practitioners who benefit us to have the four requisites of life — food, shelter, clothing, and medicines. We give because we want these people to have what they need — which nowadays includes computers and email! — so that they can continue to share the Dharma with us and all others.
An Essential Part of Practice
As the Buddha taught, generosity is an essential part of our practice. The first of the six far-reaching attitudes of the bodhisattvas, generosity frees us from attachment and miserliness. It also directly benefits others. Thus, in the Buddhist tradition, practitioners happily support Buddhist abbeys, temples, centers, teachers, monastics, practitioners, and activities that benefit the society.
Why Should I Give?
Some people may wonder, “I am a lay practitioner. Why should I support monastics when they can work to support themselves?” As a monastic who has been teaching the Dharma internationally for over forty years, I must say that I never could have done that without others’ dana. If I had had a job, I couldn’t have taken time off to travel to other cities and countries to teach.
I couldn’t have put as much time into Dharma practice, so the teachings I gave would not have been very comprehensive. I couldn’t have prepared as much before teaching, so the teachings would have been vague, disorganized, or even incorrect. I would not have had the time to write Dharma books and articles or reply to the multitudes of email from students requesting advice.
The fact that I’ve been able to serve others all this time is due to the kindness of the people who have given dana over the years. Those who supported me when I was a new nun and not yet qualified to teach enabled me to study with great Tibetan masters and to meditate. Those who offer dana now enable me to stay alive so I can continue studying, practicing, teaching, and writing books. When we understand dependent arising, or “inter-being,” we see that we all depend on each other for help, and we all receive so much from each other.
Having access to Buddhist monasteries, centers, teachers, and teachings depends on our having created the causes. As students, it is important for us personally to create these causes, not to expect others to work or supply the material resources. We must create the karma in order to experience the results we wish.
Whenever we offer our time, energy and financial help in ways that enable others to receive teachings and practice, we create the cause to receive teachings and to practice ourselves. This cause brings results quickly—creating and supporting monasteries and Dharma centers for us to visit now—and in the future, by creating the karmic causes to meet the Dharma again.
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