Monday, December 22, 2014

'Tis the Season to Think About Generosity

I'm planning, eventually, to talk about the chapter of the Tao Te Ching that the Study Group is looking at each week, but at the moment, we are only a few weeks from the end of the book, and it makes sense to begin here when we are back at the beginning.

So, I'll begin at another kind of beginning, the first paramita, or perfection in Buddhism, which is dana or generosity. Virtually the first thing I was told when I went to my first daylong meditation at Sky Creek is that there is a dana bowl for the Center, and another one for the teacher, and that's the usual custom. The idea is that the dharma is priceless and no teacher can charge for it, so it is up to the conscience of the student to decide what he/she can pay for it. This kind of giving goes back to the earliest days of Buddhism.

Generosity is one of those universal virtues, praised by all the major religions, and part of the celebration of Christmas in this culture. The local schools here have been having canned food drives, bell-ringers stand with their red buckets in front of every major store, and a huge box collecting toys for poor children stands in the middle of my bank.

I have a hard time considering virtues in relation to myself, though. Immediately, I find myself thinking about all the ways I fall short, the many times when I have not been generous, kind, or what-have-you. I don't find that dwelling on all the things you ought to do and haven't done is really that productive. Probably, the truth is that, as in all other qualities, I am more generous than some people and less than others. One thing I have noticed about generous people is that they appear to do it without even stopping to think about it, as if there is a basic security there that they can give without causing themselves any hurt. So, I think the key to developing the virtue of generosity is cultivating a sense of abundance, realizing that we have enough and that giving away some of it will not deprive us of anything we really need.

One thing that stops a lot of us from giving is a defensive guard – we suspect we are being scammed by those cardboard “Will Work for Food” signs. Even reputable organizations can seem rapacious in their constant pleas for money. I once gave to Doctors Without Borders in the wake of a disaster, only to find myself on the receiving end of an avalanche of requests in the mail from all kinds of charities. Phone calls are even worse: I gave to breast cancer research, only to be hounded by people who said (wrongly) I hadn't paid them what I had pledged, and were pursuing me as relentlessly as a bill collector. Chico State calls me a few times a year, starting with the claim that they are just updating their records, and leading me through a series of interactions that end with me agreeing to pledge money, and feeling foolish at the way I've been manipulated. This kind of exchange takes the humanity out of charity. Instead of giving from a sense of compassion, I feel put upon and used.

Generosity is, of course, more than giving money to a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. It is, more than anything, a state of mind, a willingness to give something that all of us need, whether it is food, care, affection, information, time, or a place to sleep. It comes from a sense that we have enough, or that even if we are short now, that situation will change. Having the kind of job I do has been rather useful in teaching me the temporary nature of material circumstances. One month out of the year, I'm poor enough to qualify for government assistance. A few months later, I'm caught up and have enough extra to go on a weekend out-of-town. Today, I have enough and you don't and it won't hurt me to give; tomorrow our circumstances could be reversed, so it would be better for both of us to take care of each other. It comes out of our common humanity, and understanding of our human needs.

In the end, the whole point of Buddhism is the ending of suffering, then generosity is the first perfection because it ameliorates suffering at its most basic level, both in the needs met in the receiver and the attitude required from the giver.

"Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, 'May whatever animals live here feed on this,' that would be a source of merit." --from the Sutta on Giving

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