Monday, May 16, 2011

Change Your Karma, Change Your Life

Giving, We Can't Afford Not To

In Buddhism, we talk about seeds, the memory fragments of how we acted in the past that lead us to act in similar ways in the future. Collectively, they form our karma, our predispositions to action that determine not only who we are but also how we will respond to the world in the future.

If we are acting in ways that are unwholesome, the dharma tells us to let go of the unwholesome behaviors and thoughts and replace them with their antidotes. So if we want to establish ourselves firmly on a path of spiritual growth, stably becoming more and more peaceful, we need to turn ourselves away from our self-centered actions, thoughts, and speech and start doing, saying, and thinking in exactly the opposite way.

What’s our greatest obstacle? In the dharma's understanding, it is the first of the three poisons, the constant and omnipresent desire for more more more which leaves us always off balance, always a little uneasy, even when we finally get what we want. And the antidote, the opposing pathway? That’s the first of the six paramitas: dana–generosity, giving, charity.

There are, in the traditional understanding of dana from the Pali Canon, three types of dana: material giving, spiritual giving, and the giving of no-fear. While on the surface, the practice suggestion below appears to be concerned only with material giving and its effects on us, in fact, it also strengthens the spiritual aspect of dana, the dharma within us, and also generate feelings of no-fear, in us and others.

In a dharma talk several years ago, Master Ji Ru said that dana was our most important practice. This exercise will show you why, in the most profound way. It will show you what happens when you to make dana central to your life. Doing it will karmically secure you on the path. It will not only plants new seeds to make your life more peaceful and happy, but it will leave you standing comfortably in the garden of compassion and loving kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity (the four heavenly abodes).

If we want to make the most wholesome of all behaviors, dana, our most habitual response to the world, we must constantly be thinking about it and practicing it. This is planting wholesome seeds, or in neuroscientific terms, making and keeping the implicit explicit. Keeping the implicit explicit, assuring dana stays in the forefront of our minds, fertilizes the dana garden and makes it flourish by clustering our neurons and hardwiring the behavior.

The practice: Make dana flourish: Commit to making a donation to a different charity each week for a year. The donation can be as little as a dollar or two, or\ more, depending on your budget. Decide how much you can afford and set an amount to give each week. Then, whichever the charity you choose, give that amount.

It isn’t the amount of the donation that matters, but the giving and the process leading to the giving that is important. This is about process more than outcome. Giving the same amount to each charity teaches us to be equanimous in the face of dukkha, to remain calm and clear when confronted with the suffering of others.

Having to find a different charity each week that we feel comfortable supporting keeps us constantly self-parenting, talking to ourselves about how to be charitable and the need and value of charity. It makes this implicit aspect of our Buddhanature explicit. It makes us more aware of need around us, a crucial element in keeping us motivated when we are faced with the distraction of our old self-centered habits, like feeling we need to hold onto what we have, like living from scarceness rather than abundance.

What I have seen in my practice of this exercise is that, as the months pass, it has gotten easier and easier to give. It hasn’t taken more thought and effort to find new charities; in fact, it takes less. Why? Because, I suspect, I have begun, at least on some levels, to live in the dana garden–giving has become my default position. The worries and concerns about not having enough and needing to get more (old karmic seeds that are now shrinking) have been replaced by a realization that I already have all that I need. And the four heavenly abodes, as I mentioned above, have quietly become, in a deeper and more meaningful way, my new residence.

Please join me in this practice.