In looking forward to the retreat this weekend:
Phillip Moffit’s Dharma essay on Dana resonates deeply with our planned work. (To read in its entirety go to: dharmawisdom.org/the-gift-of-generosity-2 )
The Gift of Generosity
by Phillip Moffit
The buddhist practice of dana or generosity liberates you from feelings of separateness and alienation.
It was the second day of a vipassana meditation retreat I was co-teaching in Santa Fe, and we had a problem. Or at least, I had a problem. I was not satisfied with the Tibetan bowl we were using as a bell to signal the end of each sitting. The retreat managers had provided us with a small bowl, and I found that the sound was not right for the meditation hall. The managers had been very responsive and located two other bowls, but something seemed wrong with the sound of each of these as well. Ordinarily I’m not that particular; after all it was just a bell. Moreover, the yogis were witnessing the search for the perfect bell. A dharma teacher who’s attached to the sound of a bowl is hardly the ideal role model for students who are being asked to sit in silence hour after hour, day after day. Still, I had this feeling that wouldn’t go away; it wasn’t the right bowl. I’ve learned to trust my intuition, even in matters that seem trivial, but in this instance I didn’t know what to do.
I was sitting in the meditation hall by myself when a yogi came in and asked if I was in need of a different bell. I answered that indeed I was, and he said that on an impulse he had put one in his car before he left home. He then brought in a large Tibetan bowl that when struck sustained a clear, full bass tone that harmonized with all the higher notes the bell made. It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard from a bowl its size.
On the day I was leaving, the yogi came up to me, bowed, handed me a note, and said, “Read this when you settle down somewhere.” I assumed he meant when I was on the airplane, so I put the note in my pocket and thought no more about it until I was in the air. The note said, “I now know why I was compelled to bring this bowl-it was meant to be yours. Please take it with you when you leave. Thank you for sharing the dharma with us.” I was glad I had not read the note earlier. This way I was able to avoid taking the yogi’s bowl without refusing his gift. He clearly loved the bell; one day I had found him sitting in the hall during the lunch break, striking the bell and just listening to it. The last thing I wanted was to deprive him of such pleasure. Yet, he was offering the bell as dana, which is the practice of generosity. I felt as though I had received the warmth of his good intention, he had received the merit of the giving, and still he had his bowl. So it seemed like a fortuitous outcome.
I told the story of the bowl to two of my teachers, who were staying at my house, when I returned from Santa Fe. They were somewhat disapproving of my relief at the way things had turned out. It was an act of true dana, they said, and not to receive it with equal generosity would be failing him as a teacher. I could not disagree with their comments, but I was still glad to have avoided the situation.
To my consternation, within a few days of returning from Santa Fe, I received an e-mail from him: “Why did you not take your bell? If you did not read my note before you left, why have I not heard from you since then?” I wrote back explaining what had happened and suggested that the time had passed for giving away the bowl. He replied by asking for shipping instructions.
That is how the bell of the enchanting sounds came to reside with me. I often carry it to retreats around the country where I am teaching, and hundreds of yogis have ended their meditation time on the cushion in response to its deep chime. Thus, one yogi’s dana became a gift to many. This is the power of the practice of dana-it reverberates out into unknown directions, over indefinite periods of time. But to the giver, it is not the fruits of giving that is of concern, only the practice of dana itself – the inner intention to find release from attachment and egoism by giving freely whatever one has that is of value.
What you have to give may be material in nature, or it may be your time, energy, or wisdom. The deeper lesson is that each of us is equally dependent on others for the blessing of our food. We are all interconnected with one another and with the Earth in a web that goes beyond the marketplace of commercial exchange. We flourish or perish together through interwoven acts of dana arising from the benevolence and integrity of people we shall never meet. This tool is the power of dana-even when practiced without consciousness, it arises and spreads. When you mindfully practice dana, you come into contact with its joyful, healing power.
However, there is a paradox contained in dana: You practice it as an act of liberation for yourself, yet it is not self-centered. True dana arises from the intention underlying your act. It is not that you are supposed to have only pure motives but rather that your intention is to cultivate purity of generosity without self-consideration.
There is an old Sufi story about the importance of cultivating generosity which asks the question, why does the beggar man beg? A seemingly crippled beggar sits in the central square all day crying, “Baksheesh! Baksheesh! Who will give me baksheesh?” Some pass by ignoring him, some give little, others give generously. He praises them all and asks that Allah bless them. At the end of the day, the beggar rises from his seat, walks normally over to the prayer fountain, tosses in the coins he has received, then goes home to his comfortable middle class house. So why does the beggar beg?
The last line of the story answers, “He begs for me and thee.” This teaching asks you to reflect on how practicing generosity fits into your spiritual life. What form your generosity takes is up to you, as it can only come from your values and what you have to offer. It is your authentic intention that matters, even if that is simply a sincere wish that in time you will become more spontaneously generous. It is important to understand that mixed motives are to be expected when you practice dana and that you are supposed to act from these mixed motives rather than wait for perfection of goodness. You practice in order to recognize and move toward the purity that already exists within you. If you only had pure motives, there would be no need to practice. This may seem obvious, but many yogis become confused and start to judge themselves by how much purity they have acquired. All that is called for is to practice daily in small but persistent ways-the practice will deepen by itself.
In daily life dana also means receiving each arising moment with a generous attitude and meeting it with patience that is based in spiritual practice. When interacting with friends or strangers, you give them your full attention as you listen to their words, and you interpret their actions with sympathy, even when they are clumsy. This is not to be misunderstood as being naïve or allowing wrong action to go uncorrected. Rather, it means holding for each person life’s greatest possibility in the moment, even if in that moment the possibilities are severely limited; the same as putting food in a monk’s alms bowl. Likewise, you too are standing there with your alms bowl, arms extended.
Dana in any form is dana; it nourishes the very essence of the other’s being as well as our own.
In the spirit of the unending, unconditional kindness and generosity of Nature, which is so prevalent in Spring, I’d like to invite you to join us in a virtual retreat.
Spring Equinox Virtual Retreat:
The retreat is free and everyone is welcome!
Saturday March 20, 5 PM – 8PM PST – Sunday March 21, 8AM – 4PM PST.
Through gentle “rewilding” of our connection to nature, spontaneous writing, meditation, and Council, we will explore our innate capacity for loving kindness (metta) and discern obstacles to its fulfillment. While cultivating loving kindness, we will activate the bodhisattva way of embracing a life of generosity (dana) and develop unique ways of practicing these capacities in our daily lives.
You may register at:
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to retreating with you!
Warmth and ease all around!