22 July 2010

Six Paramitas: Dana or Generosity (2 of 7)

Dana or generosity of spirit is listed first among the six paramitas for a practical reason: it should be practiced first. Authentic practice starts with it.

The intentional act of generosity, of renouncing something you think and feel is your own and of yourself for the good of something you value more than your own personal thing, is fundamental to beginning and maintaining any kind of Buddhist practice. Once again: the moment of generosity is the moment of renouncing samsaric habits of clinging and identification, and instead taking up the conscious practice of care. This spirit of generosity, leading from the heart outward, is a basis for a full spectrum of Mahayana practices.

Those are big claims. Let me unpack them.

It is easy to think through the consequences of generosity in everyday life. One gives of oneself for the good of others; simple enough. But in doing so, one discovers an insight into personal selflessness because it is impossible to insist on the same boring 'personal narrative' or mirage of the self as it is expressed through brand preferences or force of habit or family conditioning while at the same time valuing someone else's needs more.

That bit about value and valuation is very significant because one can also describe the devotional practices so characteristic of Mahayana as a form of generosity of spirit. You value the free availability of the teachings and opportunities to practice more than you value anything else, so you offer your time and energy and material wealth to the sangha and your teacher. This is a reordering of priorities: remember that selfish people insist on getting the right brand of cigarettes above all else, on being served first. I value the teachings more than I value brand X booze. I want to ensure that others have a chance to benefit from hearing these teachings.

Material offerings are expressions of gratitude; gratitude and devotion are healthy, expansive, nonviolent states of mind, much more useful than their opposites of disengagement and selfishness or self-satisfaction. Consequently it is said that the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and teachers of Dharma in our world function as a field of offerings. Part of their job is to help students cultivate these useful mind states and karmic relationships based on good intentions by accepting their offerings, material and otherwise. (This is why any discussion of the paramitas in general and dana in particular must begin with a discussion of karma as it relates to the practice of Dharma.) The point: through dana, one builds a durable connection to the teachings and the sangha, and one actively breaks down the selfish habits that Dharma practice is supposed to undermine. And while you are at it, you are helping to make sure the Dharma can carry on in a sustainable way.

Mahayana practice is characterized by devotional practices: offerings of prostrations, lights, incense, recitations beginning with the word "homage!", building stupas and statues and then circumambulating them, copying texts by hand. To ordinary reasoning this seems ridiculous: do the Buddhas really need or want your puny stick of incense or your yak-butter candle, if the Buddhas really are complete in themselves and without desires? No, the Buddhas do not need or want whatever offerings you make or visualize. They extend the invitation for you to make those offerings, however, in order that you will actually do it and in the process drop the useless habits that dominate your body, speech, and mind and instead take up a more fruitful way, to help you build karmic momentum and create opportunities for the future through dependent origination. Notice that there are offerings of body (prostrations, stupa veneration, sutra copying), speech (recitations), and mind (visualizations, contemplations); this is hardly an accident.

Dana is a context in which devotional practice stops seeming so exotic and impenetrable, and starts having real meaning and practical application for convert Buddhists. It does not exhaust the full spectrum of devotional practice, of course, but it is an excellent way in.

Please make a vow to practice dana in concrete ways every day, and hold yourself accountable for your successes and failures at it. If you mess up, redouble your vow and your efforts and carry on. Remember, this is also a mindfulness practice, arguably a complete path in itself.


  1. I like to use Dana in a strange way sometimes. It seems as though I use it in place of revenge. If you are less than kind to me I might sneak into the parking lot when no one is aware and clean the snow off your car. If we are having some tension I may ask for something hard to find and do your dishes while you are away.

    ~ People seem to learn well when they smile. We often remember the odd things so why not be generous in a way that someone will remember forever?


  2. I'm really glad you brought that one up, Doko. The kind of practice you're describing is excellent on principle in my opinion.

    As you know, when you do it you have to be careful not to make a show of it (or make it seem like you're making a show of it), and that can be tricky. One of the bodhisattva's job requirements is to know what to do in a particular situation, and how to do it skillfully.

    Keep up the good work mate.