Skip to main content

On Generosity

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/06/2005
Location: Green Gulch Farm
In Topics:

Zoketsu discusses dana paramitta, the perfection of giving, the first and foremost of the six paramittas, or practices of a bodhisttva. To the children, he explains how you can practice generosity in order to get good at it, starting with yourself. For the adults, he considers dana paramitta from various angles, in its broadest sense. For the children:

I would like to talk with you a little bit today about dana paramitta or the practice of generosity. Maybe you did not know that generosity is something that you can practice. Just as you practice reading or playing music or anything you want to do so you can get good at it, so also you can practice generosity so you can get good at it. How would you practice generosity? Well, you could start by giving yourself something. You could go out and find a stone or a blade of grass and give it to yourself—from one hand to another. Or a toy, something you might already have: anyway, even if it is already yours, you can still give it to yourself. And after you have given it, you could say to yourself—thank you very much. Because the practice of generosity is the practice of giving and also receiving. This is because when you give something you receive happiness in return, because it is always a happy thing to give to someone. When your practice of giving gets good you can feel a strong feeling of happiness inside because of giving. So you can practice giving a blade of grass or a stone or a twig to yourself and saying thank you very much, and you could look inside yourself and find the happiness that comes from giving something and receiving something that is given with love. And then when you get good at giving to yourself you can give to others.

There are many stories in Buddhism about how powerful and strong is the happiness that comes from giving. Once the Buddha said that if we knew how powerful and strong is the benefit of giving we would never even wash out our dishes without looking at the water we were throwing away and saying, I give this water to all the small animals and other tiny organisms that will benefit from it. May their tiny lives flourish! We do this when we eat in the zendo. When we throw out the dishwater we say a prayer for a plant and offer the water to the plant. And if we knew the power of giving food we would never eat anything without sharing our food because to give food to another is so powerfully good and brings so much happiness. We do this also when we eat in the zendo; before we eat we offer a small bit of food to the spirits and powers of the place. Then the servers come round and collect that food and spread it out on the ground outside somewhere. Even if it were our last meal—the last piece of food we would ever eat—we would be happy to share it because sharing brings so much powerful happiness and goodness into our life.

Once the Buddha and Ananda were walking along by the beach and they came upon some boys and girls playing in the sand. One of the little boys was so impressed with the Buddha that he felt he wanted to give him something but he had nothing to give him. So he gave him a grain of sand from the beach! The Buddha held out his begging bowl and the little boy put a grain of sand into it. The Buddha was begging for food, because this is how the Buddha ate. He never went shopping or even to work to earn money to go shopping. He just put out his begging bowl and depended on people’s good practice of giving so that he would be fed every day. And in return for the food the Buddha would give back to the people the gift of listening to them, or being with them, and he would also give them teachings to help them in their lives. So we could do this too—we could give food, and like the Buddha we could also give the gift of our listening to one another and the gift of being with one another or the gift of teachings. Anyway, the little boy gave the Buddha a grain of sand and the Buddha received it in his bowl. Of course you can’t eat a grain of sand. But the little boy gave the grain of sand with such a good strong feeling inside himself of really wanting to give a gift to the Buddha that the Buddha said that this single grain of sand was one of the best gifts he had ever received. Not because of the sand but because of the condition of the boy’s heart when he gave the grain of sand. The Buddha said that in a future lifetime this little boy, because of the power of this act of giving, would grow up to be a king. And the little boy did grow up to become King Ashoka, one of the greatest of all Indian kings, famous for his justice and kindness to all his subjects.

I know it is sometimes hard to give because it seems as if we don’t have enough for ourselves and we are worried that if we give something we will not have enough. Or we are afraid that someone else might have more than us if we give that person some of what is ours. But giving is a very miraculous practice. When you give something there is always more. Maybe you heard the story of Jesus who was at a wedding where there seemed to be only a little bit of food but when he began to give the food to people there always seemed to be more and more of it. The more food he gave out the more food there was. Giving really works like this. There is always enough to give and the more you give there more there is to give. You should try this out sometime and see if what I am saying is true. So first you can practice giving to yourself. Then when you get good at that practice, practice giving to someone else. And in this way you will become strong and happy and it is even possible that when you grow up, in this lifetime or some other lifetime, you could become a famous and important king or queen who helps others a lot.

For the adults:

Dana paramitta, the perfection of giving, is the first and foremost of the six paramittas. The six are giving, ethical conduct, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. These six practices—and they are practices, not virtuous qualities but practices—are the whole of the bodhisttva path, the way bodhisattvas share and develop their lives.

Giving—sharing our life, knowing there is no way to live without sharing.

Ethical conduct—living with harmlessness and kindness and love, knowing that since we live in this world together there is no way we can harm another.

Patience—forbearing what happens to us and to others even when we don’t like it, because we know that there is no way to live this life without some trouble, and the way we receive the trouble we get—whether patiently, making use of it for our practice; or with anger and violence, twisting our lives up—makes all the difference.

Energy—knowing that life always requires a response from us, and that we must apply effort and diligence to find and apply that response.

Meditation—to be able to calm and focus the mind.

And wisdom—to recognize and experience our oneness with all other beings, and the oneness of all viewpoints and designations.

These are the six practices of bodhisattvas and among them giving is the first and foremost, the most beautiful and the most important. It is the entry point to the path.

Dana paramitta is in its broadest sense abundance, overflow, the generous ongoingness of being and time. So to practice giving is simply to release ourselves to this abundant flow—not to stop ourselves up in personal limitation, in fear and in habit. In this fullest sense the practice of giving is the practice of living fully and generously, without stint or worry. The Diamond sutra says, talking about the practice of giving: “A bodhisattva who gives a gift should not be supported by a thing, nor should she be supported anywhere. When she gives gifts she should not be supported by sight objects, nor by sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, nor mind objects. For, Subhuti, the bodisattva, the great being, should give gifts in such a way that she is not supported by the notion of a sign.”

This mysterious saying describes the practice of giving at its deepest. Perfect giving is giving beyond giving—giving with no intention of giving, with no idea that there is something to give or someone who gives and receives. Perfect giving is as natural and easy as a soft breeze. A “sign” or a “support” here means a notion, an idea, a concept, anything that we might grasp at, take credit for, identify with—anything that stops life’s flow. The Diamond sutra is saying that real giving is empty of any notions of giving—it is just abundance, generosity of spirit, the natural movement of being.

Traditionally there are three things that one gives: material goods, teachings, and what’s called the gift of fearlessness. This last gift is something very beautiful that is symbolized in Asia in the practice of setting caged birds free. To give the gift of fearlessness is to give to someone—and to ourselves—a respect so profound that it awakens our spirit and gives us a deep confidence, not in our talents or abilities, but in our deep human nature. When we have that confidence we do not have to fear anything—not even loss or death. When we can feel this confidence ourselves, and see that all creatures, simply by virtue of their being living beings—magnificent, incomprehensible, sacred—also have this, then we will approach them that way—and once in a while they will notice it—and be liberated by it—just as a bird will fly away when the door of its cage is opened by some kind person.

Thich Nhat Hanh has his own list of things that we can give to one another:

He says we can offer joy, happiness, and love; we can be joyful, happy, and loving, and offer this to others; we can be joyful for others. It can be a revelation to see that our happiness, if it is real, is not something selfish—it can be something that we give to others and that we need to give to others. I think a lot of people feel guilty about being happy. What’s the difference between a selfish and an unselfish happiness? I think you can feel the difference if you pay attention.

We can give our true presence, really listening and being there with someone. Letting go of our own viewpoint and our habit of self protection long enough to take in another person. This is a skill to be cultivated. We can learn it by giving our true presence to ourselves on our meditation cushions. Not judging or shaping our thought or feeling but just allowing it. In this sense meditation practice—though it seems to be something we do for ourselves or by ourselves—is actually strong training for the practice of giving. It may even be that our meditation practice IS the practice of giving.

We can give our stability, able to sustain another person’s pain and hurt, to receive it, to feel it completely, but to be stable with it, absorb it without being thrown off or depleted.

We can give our freedom from affliction; we can share our freedom from affliction and pain with another person, rather than protecting ourselves from them, as if being with them would taint us.

We can give our freshness—we can renew and refresh ourselves every day with our practice and offer that to others.

We can practice peace and offer our peaceful heart to another.

Space: we can give people we encounter space to be what they need to be, without crowding them with our ideas and needs.

Understanding: we can see with sympathy and understanding who and what a person is.

That’s Thich Nhat Hanh’s list of the gifts we can give.

The feeling of gratitude is also the practice of giving, Buddha’s giving that we can recognize and appreciate. Every day, if we pay attention, we see that we are given everything—our body, our mind, our heart, the sky, the earth, this world and everything in it is given to us, we did not produce them or cause them to appear. Since everything has been given to us, and since we are one with all of that, giving and receiving are one movement, one thing. When we express ourselves truly, through our presence or through acts of creativity this is also a pure act of giving—it is something we release ourselves to in our living, we don’t see it as a production of our ego, of our self, or as an accomplishment, but rather a giving back, our joyful participation in life’s abundant overflow. I think this describes real art practice. Isn’t it interesting that Suzuki Roshi uses the word God, I think without irony or patronizing. People sometimes criticize me or are confused by my mixing up God into our practice but here you see I come by it honestly and have a good Zen precedent for it!

All spiritual traditions honor the practice of giving as something important and beneficial. And really there is no limit to giving and no limit to our capacity of expand our understanding of what giving is or could be. So, as the Thanksgiving holiday looms ahead, please meditate on the practice of abundance and giving, and find your own way to practice giving. Thank you very much.

References for the practice of giving: “Dogen’s Four Methods of Guidance,” in Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop, p. 44. Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, pp. 66-67 (a commentary on Dogen’s words).

® 2006, Norman Fischer