Generosity (Dana) Is Not A Choice
Imagine that you no longer have any defilements, that you no longer have any negative mind-states, that you no longer have any self-centered thoughts or wrong views, that all your negative emotions–from irritation to depression–are gone. What would be left? I suggest you would be left with lovingkindness and compassion–and their attendant wholesome mind-states. Now further consider that you would spend your days just peacefully helping others, calmly doing things to benefit others. There you have it: that is the perfection of dana, the telos of the first paramita.
Generosity, giving, charity, dana in Pali, isn’t a choice. Dana is our default setting. The reason we are not living lives of perfected dana, of selfless giving is simply because our defilements are blocking that pathway.
There are two approaches to dana which are useful to contemplate as we practice the paramitas. The first is to divide giving into material giving, spiritual giving, and the giving of no-fear. Less well known is the division of dana into the giving of material things, which is the narrowest sense of this practice, the giving of perfection, which results from perfecting the paramitas of morality and patience, and the gift of the dharma, which arises when effort, concentration, and wisdom are perfected.
How important is dana? It is the first and, as Master Ji Ru says, most important of the six paramitas. As Vasubandhu explains, the perfection of giving includes all the others paramitas. And the Diamond Sutra not only advocates dana as the essential behavior for a Bodhisattva, but it begins its explanation of how we can master our thinking and actions to become bodhisattvas by explaining (in chapter four) the spirit in which we should give:
…when a Bodhisattva practices generosity, he does not rely on any object–that is to say he does not rely on any form, sound, smell, taste, tactile object, or dharma–to practice generosity. That is the spirit in which a Bodhisattva should practice generosity, not relying on signs.
The Diamond Sutra is saying that dana is the inherent, everyday practice for a capital “B” Bodhisattva, for an enlightened being, and that dana is the point of departure for the Bodhisattva’s thoughts and actions.
The implication of dana, then, is that small “B” bodhisattvas, those of us who are committed to walking the Buddhist Path, should emulate the selfless giving behavior of the big “B” Bodhisattvas, those that have already reached the other shore. In other words, there are behavioral models to follow so that we can understand and progress along the Path, and progress on our spiritual journey to liberation.
When a defilement arises, the dharma teaches us that we should replace it with its antidote. (See the first exercise below.) If we notice that we are feeling irritated or angry, for example, we could choose to immediately reset our minds to patience. As we can only “be” one thing at a time, (we see this on the cushion when we notice the arising of our consciousness in the model of the five skandhas) we cannot be both angry and patient, then patience becomes the new mind-state. The unwholesome is abandoned and replaced by the wholesome.
This is right effort in action. Right effort is abandon and refrain to let go of the defilement and refrain from producing conditions that would allow it to arise again: and then to develop and maintain, develop a wholesome mind-state in its place and maintain the conditions for the new wholesome mind-state to define us.
In one of our classes in Chicago, we discussed using dana somewhat untraditionally as an antidote for anger. The traditional antidote for anger is patience, patience being the Buddhist opposite of anger. But since anger arises in such tight connection with greed, from not getting what we want, dana can also be cultivated as an antidote for anger. Here’s what happened:
One student described a particularly difficult meeting at his office in which he became furious with his boss. When he left the meeting, he slipped out of the office to go for a walk and calm down. As he was walking and “steaming,” he noticed a particularly impoverished looking homeless man sitting on the sidewalk. Remembering our discussion about replacing anger with dana, he walked to a nearby supermarket, and still angry, but slightly less so, he says, he went inside and spent half an hour buying every kind of food he thought would be appropriate for someone who was homeless—mostly foods that were shelf-stable (not requiring refrigeration “once opened”) and well-packaged. As he left the supermarket with two big bags of groceries, he said he noticed that all the anger was gone and a sense of contentment had replaced it. He gave the groceries to the man on the street and returned to the office clear spirited and clear headed.
What we see here is that dana is the antidote for all three of the major poisons: greed, anger, and delusion, the three mind-states that lead us to unwholesome activity and suffering. And that makes dana the antidote for every defilement, which explains it prominence in the Diamond Sutra and on the list of the paramitas.
In the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, the repentance chant goes like this:
All my ancient twisted karma,
Born from beginningless greed, anger, and delusion
Through body, speech and mind
I now fully avow.
For those of us seeking to change the direction of their karmic thrust, seeking to renounce all our ancient twisted karma, practicing dana is the answer. Not the only, but arguably the most critical answer, for dana is the enlightened being within us, the Buddha we all already are.
Further, if a Bodhisattva is defined as one with a mind of unmitigated compassion (albeit informed by wisdom) for all sentient beings, then dana, giving, is the actuation of the Bodhisattva ideal.
Dana is also the path to the realization of the “threefold purity”:gift, giver, recipient; no difference. And that is what makes a little “b” bodhisattva into a big “B” Bodhisattva.
So initially we do choose dana, but as our defilements decrease in strength and number and our threefold purity blossoms, dana arises spontaneously from deep within us. It is our original nature. We give selflessly because our only desire is to act for the benefit of others. We are made of compassion and our compassion actuates as giving, dana.
Learn More About Dana:
Here are five essays on dana selected by Bhikkhu Bodhi http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel367.html
ONE: Replacing a Defilement with an Antidote – When you notice you are becoming frustrated or irritated or angry or mean or hateful, or that you have become one of these, do something generous. The stronger the defilement, the more generous the action. You can be generous materially, as in the anecdote above; or spiritually; or generous in the giving of no-fear.
TWO: Peruse Chapter Four of the Diamond Sutra. (In our classes we use Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation from his The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, only available in print editions). Contemplate its meaning and implications. Search online for commentaries on the Diamond Sutra and reflect on what each has to say in explaining this chapter.
Consider the authorship. (1) Was the author in samsara or nirvana when the sutra was written? and (2) How do each of those two possibilities affect the way we might understand the text.
Add your understandings and realization to comments at the bottom of the blog so others can gain support from your practice.
Comments: Click on the comments box at the bottom of the blog to read or post a comment.