At this time of year our thoughts turn towards giving and so I thought I would write today on the art of giving. What I am talking about here is generosity. This played a big part in Gautama Buddha’s teachings, as it was mentioned on numerous occasions. In the Itivuttaka, a collection of 112 short discourses, he told us about the fruit of giving:
‘If beings knew, as I know, the fruit of sharing gifts, they would not enjoy their use without sharing them, nor would the taint of stinginess obsess the heart and stay there. Even if it were their last bite, their last morsel of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it, if there were anyone to receive it.’
So what are the fruits of being generous? I believe, for the giver, they help foster a clear conscience; help you build a good future; make you compassionate and a respected person within society. It also gives you a great feeling inside. A feeling of warmth, pleasure and satisfaction. Many people think we shouldn’t receive anything in return for giving, but this is not being totally honest. If we give a gift to a child and they smile warmly at you, you are going to feel happy inside. If you take a sick person to hospital, they are going to be grateful and you will feel that you have done a good deed. So it is of course true we receive something from giving.
However, having said that, we shouldn’t give just to receive these things. They should just be looked upon as a by-product and not the purpose for giving. In the Anguttara Nikaya it states five types of rewards of giving:
‘These are the five rewards of generosity: One is dear and appealing to people in society, one is admired by good people, one’s good name is spread about, one does not stray from the rightful duties of the householder and at the time of death, one reappears in a good destination.’
One of the key things generosity does is stop us becoming miserly. It gives us temporary relief from the pain of selfishness and stops us getting totally wrapped up in ourselves. When we are miserly we worry day and night about our wealth and belongs. We go to great lengths to protect them. We can’t sleep at night worrying if someone will break in and steal them. We grow to mistrust others and our mind is disturbed by all of the pressure of protecting our wealth. It seems the miser is so scared of losing his wealth he hordes it. In the Samyutta Nikaya, Gautama Buddha said:
‘What the miser fears, that keeps him from giving, is the very danger that comes when he doesn’t give.’
How true is that? So a miser lives in fear of his wealth, but for what benefit? When we die we are not able to take anything with us, so isn’t it nicer to give them away whist we are alive? I am not talking about giving everything away and living a life as a pauper. But there is only so much wealth and belongings we need or can use in this life.
If we do give, we have to be careful that our generosity stems from compassion and not from pride. Our intention and motivation is extremely important here. If you are giving just to get thanks or praise it isn’t going to benefit you in the ways I mentioned above. Your conscience is not going to be clear; you will not become more compassionate, reduce your suffering and you certainly will not get respect from others. Giving something and expecting praise is not a very attractive trait.
Giving doesn’t just mean material things. It could be a friendly smile or kind, encouraging words.
How does generosity help clear our conscience and reduce our suffering? Well, Gautama Buddha’s teachings are mainly concerned with our state of mind and generosity is about having non-attachment to or craving for things. He stated in the four truths that our suffering stems from our craving and attachment to things, so without this craving and attachment our minds become clearer, happier and a little freer, which in turn means less suffering. In the Dana Sutra it states three mental factors of giving:
‘The donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is inspired; and after giving, is gratified.’
There are three different types of giving that Gautama Buddha mentioned. The first covers giving something away we no longer want. This doesn’t ask too much of us, as we have already finished with the thing we are giving away. I am thinking of old clothes and books. It is a kind of recycling.
The second is giving away something that we would like to receive ourselves, such as new clothes, the latest mobile, book or CD. There is a lot of thoughtfulness and caring in this type of giving.
The third, and final, type is giving away something that is very dear to us, such as a painting we cherish or some personal jewellery. This type of giving shows that we are not attached and understand impermanence. Though it is the most difficult for us to engage in.
Giving doesn’t just mean material things. It could be a friendly smile or kind, encouraging words. But whatever you are giving you have to ensure it doesn’t conflict with the precepts or any other code of ethics.
Whatever type of giving you do this Christmas, do it with an open heart. Do not expect praise and thanks. Let the smile on the person’s face be all the thanks you need.
On a personal note, I would like all of you to spare a thought for people who will be sad and alone at this time of year. If you know someone like that, go and see them or give them a call. Sometimes all people need is a bit of human interaction.
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This timely reminder is beautiful and makes me feel happy that generosity os so valued at this time and thrpughout the year. I don’t have a lot of material wealth anymore and I am very happy to have shared my belongings with those I love snd to give dome ofy time to my English student so she can learn about her adopted land. Thank you Yeshe for the email.
Thank you for your reply. I think to live without a lot of material wealth is a good thing. It stops attachment and helps your mind be calm.
I am often conflicted about giving panhandlers money. While visiting London several years back, I saw signs in the tube stations specifically asking people not to give panhandlers any money because it would be used for heroin. The spiritual side of me says who am I to pre-suppose what these people will do with the money? My practical side, however, knows there’s something very wrong with an otherwise able body person of working age laying on the tub station floor. Any advice?
This is a very difficult situation to find oneself in. I always feel it is better to give to charities that are trained to look after people on the street. I feel just giving money to the panhandler could lead to more problems for them, so either give to a charity or buy them food they can eat. I hope this helps. Yeshe