Dana Sutta (From the Pali Canon) – Preached at Jetavana, regarding an offering founded by Velukantaki Nandamata to monks, with Sariputta and Moggallana at their head.
“Her offering”, says the Buddha, “is complete in six ways – three on the part of the giver and three on that of the recipients. The giver is glad at heart before making the gift, is satisfied while giving, and rejoices after the gift. The recipients are either free from lust, hatred and delusion, or are on the way to such freedom.”1
There is suffering.
The first step on the path of dana is realizing that there is suffering. In the tigress tale we are told that it had not rained for some weeks so that even the earth was suffering from the drought. Then there is the “coughing roars”. This may seem like an obvious step and yet there is a lot of not seeing suffering in these times.
Listening goes deeper than hearing. Listening is the practice of taking time to discern clearly what is being heard. Hearing often triggers an habitual reaction similar to the disciple’s in the story who insists that they return to safety when he realizes that the coughing roar is from a tiger. The bodhisattva says:
“Wait a moment. Listen again. Those are not simply the roars of a hungry tiger. They are the roars of a starving one. Let’s go on a bit further and see if there’s anything we might do to help.”
Once there is an understanding of what is real, beyond what the habitual conditioned reaction tells us, there is an opportunity to respond to an opportunity for dana from open mindedness rather than reactivity.
What is wished for?
“Looking down, they saw what was clearly a starving tiger; a tigress, actually, for two small cubs were trying to nurse from her. But every time they approached, the tigress roared miserably and drove them away. She was emaciated, just skin and bones, with all her ribs plainly showing.“
Once there is a determination that there is suffering there is the practice of seeing what is wished for. There is a subtle difference between wish and need. Unless one is omniscient, a truly accurate determination of what is needed by someone else may not be possible because it will be colored by one’s own past experience and imprints and may or may not reflect the actual need of the being that is suffering. What is needed changes from event to event even if what is happening appears to be the same. Rather than assuming what is needed, asking what is wished for by listening, seeing, and sometimes trial and error, interferes with the habitual reactivity of selfishness. Similar to when an infant is crying, the nurturing caregiver listens and looks closely, and then tries several methods to soothe until the one that is wished for in that moment is found.
What offering will bring the greatest benefit?
“When she looked at her cubs, her eyes narrowed and seem to glaze over. It was clear that her desperation she had begun to view them, her own children, as prey, as meat.“Quick,” said the bodhisattva to his student. “Run and see if you can find some food for this. starving animal. She may be driven to eat her own cubs if she doesn’t have food soon. The karma arising from that will be terrible.“
The dana sutta from the beginning of this post may apply here. One can know benefit in an action by the delight that is experienced by the giver and the receiver. Pure delight is a result of the experience of being interconnected with the totality which allows “The giver to be glad at heart before making the gift, satisfied while giving, and rejoicing after the gift.”
How does this delight, gladness, satisfaction and rejoicing come about in the practice of dana?
Through the regular practice of meditation and insight into the nature, causes and conditions of our habitual tendencies, there is an understanding that these things are empty of a separate, inherent identity. All of these are dependent on something that came before and have no separate identity as such. From this awareness there arises a deeper understanding that the nature of the body and the identity of self is based on these tendencies. As a result there is the opportunity to see that:
“Mind is vast, totally empty, and cannot be found. This body, so much matter, is the. crystallization of my own past thoughts and deeds extending back into the endless past.“
This understanding reveals a great ease of being, peace of mind and unconditioned joy. And as a result one may experience gladness of heart before making the gift. This is expressed by the bodhisattva when he says: “My deepest wish has ever been to save sentient beings. To fail to act when there is opportunity would only be a cause for regret.” So not only is he glad at heart for being able to have the opportunity to end suffering and fulfilling his deepest desire, he can eliminate the obscuration to delightedness of regret that may come without action.
As Linda Atwater shared in a morning sit this week. (my paraphrase) “The repeated practice of dana is like polishing the gem of the true nature that resides on our heart.” In addition to practicing meditation and insight, practicing dana yields the delight of experiencing our truest nature.
One also experiences deep satisfaction and ease in the act of giving. Perhaps you have experienced the satisfaction of diving off a steep cliff or diving board after several attempts thwarted by fear. Or the deep satisfaction of knowing the simple rightness of your action, where there is a complete void all expectation for recompense or acknowledgment. Experiencing this type of satisfaction when practicing dana indicates completeness or purity of the practice.
He removed his robe and hung it on a branch of the tree. Then, like a man preparing to. simply dive into a lake, he put his hands together and leapt from the cliff.
An essential part of this satisfaction is the act of setting aside one’s identity; who one thinks they are and who other’s think they are, setting aside one’s own needs, expectations, and desires. In the bodhisattva’s case, his robes identify him. Being naked ,stripped of all adornments of identity, the self is set aside.
His dana then is a cause for rejoicing. We are not told about his personal experience after the act, but there is the rejoicing of disciples and gods, by building a jeweled stupa and laying of garlands, precious incense sandalwood powder and perfumes. We are told that this bodhisattva emerged later as Shakyamuni buddha. A cause for great rejoicing!
But what about benefit for the receiver?
In the Dana Sutta Buddha says:
“The recipients are either free from lust, hatred and delusion, or are on the way to such freedom.”
Clearly the tigress was not free from lust for the meat of her cubs. One might even say, as the bodhisattva understood, that she was experiencing delusion in not knowing the great harm that she would cause for herself as a result of devouring them. One is often confronted with opportunities to practice giving when it may be apparent that the receiver is filled with hatred for self or society, lusting for retribution or in delusion about what the causes and conditions of their suffering are.
The qualifier “or are on their way to such freedom.” points to how the completeness of dana for the receiver might be understood.
In the case of this story, the bodhisattva does not allow the tigress to take on the karma of killing him. He kills his own body to prevent that. The body is just meat then and the tigress is free from the karma of killing; freeing her to perhaps see a way to freedom from suffering for herself and her cubs.
For times when there is an opportunity to offer dana to a being who seems greedy, hateful or delusional, one can remember that all of the totality of beingness is on its way to freedom from greed, hatred and delusion. In human beings the heart of even the most greedy, violent, self absorbed is the newborn child always striving to be in goodness. Then as we grow:
“…we cover our own innate purity and goodness as we encounter a challenging world. As children many of us were criticized, ignored, misunderstood, or abused, leading us to doubt that gold within us. As we grow up, we increasingly internalize the judgments and values of our society, further losing touch with our innocence, our creativity, and our tender hearts. We cover over the gold as we seek the approval of others, looking to them to measure our worth—to determine whether we are good enough, smart enough, successful enough.” Adding layer after layer to protect ourselves, we become identified with our coverings, believing ourselves to be separate, threatened, and deficient. Yet even when we cannot see the gold, the light and love of our true nature cannot be dimmed, tarnished, or erased. It calls to us daily through our longing for connection, our urge to understand reality, our delight in beauty, our natural desire to help others. Our deepest intuition is that there is something beyond our habitual story of a separate and isolated self: something vast, mysterious, and sacred…. Tara Brach2
Understanding this one comes to know, without doubt and with great delight, that no being can be left out of the practice of dana.
What about the loss of benefit for the disciples and anyone who may have had an opportunity to learn from this monk?
Dana is faith in the way things work.
This tale of the starving tigress and the selfless bodhisattva on the path to emergence as buddha has been told innumerable times. His act of dana echoes endlessly in the minds and hearts of not only those who have heard and learned from it but of those who have encountered or have relationships with those hearers. This drop of dana continues giving for as long as there are beings to hear it.
Every act of dana is a center point for an infinite sphere of goodness that radiates beyond the moment of the act or the one who acts.
Dana is selflessness.
With these words I pay homage to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, sentient beings, and the totality. May these words not confuse, bring doubt, or harm, but bring ease and warmth and an end to suffering for all beings.
1Dana Sutta, Wisdom Library: https://www.wisdomlib.org/definition/dana-sutta#:~:text=In%20Buddhism,-Theravada%20(major%20branch&text=Dana%20Sutta%20%2D%20Preached%20at%20Jetavana,on%20that%20of%20the%20recipients.
2 Tara Brach, Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2021), 2–3, 5. via Richard Rohr Daily Meditation: The Hidden Gold. https://email.cac.org/t/d-e-vjyatl-iuyhlujjx-s/
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