The Issue at Hand


Chapter 9: The Practice of Generosity

Some provide from the little they have,
Others who are affluent don’t like to give.
An offering given from what little one has
Is worth a thousand times its value. 

– Samyutta Nikaya 1.32


There are two ways of understanding generosity. One is as a spontaneous and natural expression of an open mind and open heart. When we are connected wholeheartedly with others and the world, it is not a matter of deciding to give; giving simply flows out of us. This type of generosity is, for example, the generosity of a mother with her children. The second way of under- standing generosity is as a practice itself, which we can undertake even though it may not automatically be flowing out of us.

As a practice, generosity is not done simply because we think it is a virtuous thing to do. The practice has two important functions. First, it helps connect us with others and with ourselves. Giving creates a relationship between the giver and receiver, so acts of generosity help us to learn more about the nature of our relationships. It also develops those relationships. Practicing generosity together with a meditation practice helps ensure that our spiritual practice doesn’t occur aloof from others.

Second, through the practice of generosity we begin to understand where we are closed, where we are holding back, where we feel our fear. We learn what keeps us from being generous. We take on the practice to see where we resist it.

As an intentional practice, there are innumerable exercises in generosity that can be helpful. For example, give yourself a week to give a twenty-dollar bill to someone you don’t know. Watch what happens during that week. What does it bring up for you, how do you react, what do you learn about yourself in that situation? Jack Kornfield teaches a practice of acting on every impulse to give, no matter what, during a twenty-four hour period. If that seems too difficult, you could limit it to the practice of giving small things. Another practice is to give a dollar to every home- less person you encounter during a certain period of time.

Generosity is not limited to the giving of material things. We can be generous with our kindness and our receptivity. These forms of generosity are clearly not related to wealth. Generosity can mean the simple giving of a smile or extending ourselves to really listen to a friend. Paradoxically, even being willing to receive the generosity of others can be a form of generosity.

We can also give the gift of fearlessness, a quality that develops as we mature in our practice. As we become increasingly rooted in ethics, wisdom and fearlessness, other beings will have less and less reason to fear us. In a world filled with fear, such fearlessness is a much needed gift. One description of an enlightened person is someone who helps dispel other people’s fear.

Buddhist teachings emphasize that the manner in which we give is as important as what we give-we should give with respect, with happiness and joy. When we are practicing generosity, and it does not bring happiness and joy, we should pay close attention to our motivations for giving, and perhaps even re- evaluate whether to give at all.

The freedom of the Buddha is the freedom from all forms of clinging, and the most obvious antidote to clinging is letting go. Because giving certainly involves letting go, it develops our capacity to relinquish clinging. However, the practice of giving entails much more than letting go. It also develops qualities of heart such as generosity, kindness, compassion and warmth. Thus, giving leads us to the heart of Buddhist practice, while helping our practice to be well rounded and heartfelt.


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