The Perfection of Generosity: Danaparamita

As children, we’re often told to share our toys and candy, but even as adults, generosity is not something that always comes naturally or easily. We often feel that if we give away our precious belongings, there’ll be nothing left for us to enjoy. The Buddha taught, however, that generosity is an incredible practice that not only directly benefits others, but brings us great joy and satisfaction. This article looks at generosity as the first of the six far-reaching attitudes or perfections.

Introduction

The six far-reaching attitudes, often known as the “six perfections” or “six paramitas,” are states of mind that enable us to work on ourselves and help others in the best ways possible. These attitudes directly counteract major obstacles that prevent success, like laziness and anger, and so they’re helpful for everyone. We call them “far-reaching” because in the Buddhist context, when we develop them fully, they enable us to reach the far shore of the ocean of our limitations and problems. If we’re motivated by renunciation – the determination to be free of all suffering – they’ll lead us to liberation. Motivated by bodhichitta – the wish to become a Buddha in order to be of best benefit to all others – they lead us to full enlightenment.

The six far-reaching attitudes are:

  • Generosity
  • Ethical self-discipline
  • Patience
  • Perseverance
  • Mental stability (concentration)
  • Discriminating awareness (wisdom).

We train in all six, both in meditation and in our daily activities. Just like working out to build our muscles, the more we engage in these states of mind in whatever we do, they stronger they become. Eventually, they’ll become so integrated into our lives that they are naturally a part of how we relate to ourselves and others all the time.

Generosity

Generosity is an attitude where we are willing to give away whatever is needed by others. It doesn’t really mean that we have to give absolutely everything away and become dirt-poor ourselves, as if poverty in itself was a virtue, as is found in some religions. Here, generosity means that we are willing to give without hesitation and without obstacles, and when it’s appropriate to give, which requires us to use discrimination. We don’t give a gun to somebody who wants to go out and kill, thinking, “Oh, I’m being so generous! Here’s money for your gun!” Another example of inappropriate generosity might be giving money to someone so they can buy drugs.

Practicing generosity doesn’t mean that we have to be rich; even if we’re extremely poor and have nothing to offer, we can still have the willingness to give. Otherwise, how would poor people ever be able to develop generosity? So, whenever we see a beautiful sunset, we can be generous in wishing that everybody else could enjoy it. We can do the same thing with beautiful landscapes, good weather, delicious food, and so on. This all counts as generosity! We can be generous not only with the things we own ourselves, but with things that don’t belong to anyone. In meditation, we can imagine giving all sorts of wonderful things to others, but if we do actually have something that can be of help to someone else and they need it, then we don’t just imagine giving it to them. We actually give it!

Generosity is the opposite of miserliness, which is an unwillingness to share anything with or give anything to anyone else. This miserliness is usually accompanied by a feeling that if we give to other people, then there’ll be nothing left for ourselves. But, in contrast:

If I keep everything to myself, what will there be left to give away to others? – Tibetan Saying

We should be careful not to become fanatics. While working to help others, we need to eat and sleep ourselves. We need to take care of ourselves as well, so with generosity we’re talking more about sharing what we have. Super advanced bodhisattvas can sacrifice their lives to help others, but at our stage we can’t realistically do this. So we can’t and shouldn’t, yet, give away everything to the point where we starve to death. But we should still be willing to give our body to help others, which could be in the form of helping to do difficult or tedious work, or even physical labor. We mustn’t be scared to get our hands dirty!

Generosity also includes sharing what are called our “roots of virtue,” which are the positive potentials of any positive force we’ve built up. I can use an example from my own life: as a result of positive potential built up from constructive actions in previous lifetimes, I’ve been able to meet and study with some of the greatest Buddhist masters in India and to be invited all around the world and make positive connections with many amazing people. This has built up even more positive potential and, as part of my practice, I try to share these “roots of virtue” with others and not just keep what can ripen from them to myself. When appropriate, I make my connections available to others by introducing them to these masters and other learned, helpful people around the world. I try to share what I’ve learned from my university education and the several decades spent studying and meditating in India. This is what sharing our roots of virtue is all about: opening the door for others.

In general, we speak of four types of generosity:

  1. Giving material aid
  2. Giving teachings and advice
  3. Providing protection from fear
  4. Giving love

The Generosity of Giving Material Aid

The generosity of giving material aid refers to our possessions, food, clothing, money, and anything else we might have. It includes a sense of giving when it is appropriate to give and giving in a respectful manner, not like throwing a bone to a dog. We don’t have to be rich and own lots of things to practice giving material aid, because we can also give things that we don’t own. This doesn’t mean that we go out and steal, like a modern Robin Hood! Rather, we’re talking of public things, like cleaning up the environment so that other people can enjoy it. That is a wonderful gift to others. We can also share any happy experience, like “May everybody be able to enjoy the beautiful weather,” and so on.

We shouldn’t just think in terms of actual physical objects. We can give our body, too, in terms of our time, work, interest, energy, encouragement and so forth. All of these are skilful ways of being generous with material things.

Obviously, it’s inappropriate to give people poison, weapons, or anything they might use to hurt themselves or others.

The Generosity of Giving Teachings and Advice

In the Buddhist context, this is about giving the Dharma – the Buddhist teachings – but we can extend it to non-Buddhist areas as well. It’s not just about teaching, translating, transcribing, publishing, or creating and working in education centers, but also entails answering people’s questions, giving them advice and information if and when we can, and so on.

The Sakya tradition also has the offerings of samadhi (concentration), where we give to others different aspects of our Dharma practice. Everything that we’ve learned from studying and reading, we offer to others and use it to help them. We do the same with all of our knowledge, conviction, discipline, insight and concentration we’ve gained, as well as our explanations of the teachings. This would all come under the category of the generosity of giving the Dharma, but of course we can extend it to sharing anything beneficial that we know with others.

The Generosity of Giving Protection from Fear

This type of generosity refers to helping other beings when they’re in a bad state. It includes saving animals who are about to be slaughtered, and letting those locked up in cages and pens roam free. Rescuing drowning flies from a swimming pool, and protecting people and animals from severe heat and cold – all of this is providing protection. If there’s a beetle in our flat, we don’t just throw it out the window, justifying that it won’t hurt it when it lands five storeys down. Giving generosity from fear would be to take it outside, gently. We would never flush it down the toilet, wishing it good luck on its way!

We can include here comforting others when they’re frightened, whether it’s our children or perhaps an animal that is being hunted. For example, if a cat is torturing a mouse, we would try and protect the mouse by taking it away.

In tantra, the generosity of giving protection from fear has a further interpretation, which is to give our equanimity to others. This means that others have absolutely nothing to fear from us, because we’re not going to cling to them with attachment, reject them with anger and hostility, or ignore them with naivety. Here, we are equally open to everybody, which is a really wonderful gift to give to anyone.

The Generosity of Giving Love

Tantra also speaks of a fourth kind of generosity, called the giving of love. This is not where we go around hugging everybody, but where we give everybody our wish for them to be happy. This is the definition of love – the wish for another person to be happy and have the causes of happiness.

How to Give Properly

When we practice each of the far-reaching attitudes, we try to incorporate each of the other five as well. In practicing generosity:

  • In conjunction with ethical discipline, we rid ourselves of all wrong or improper ulterior motives.
  • In conjunction with patience, we don’t mind bearing any of the difficulties involved.
  • In conjunction with perseverance, we take joy in giving, without doing so out of a sense of duty or obligation.
  • In conjunction with mental stability, we have concentration on the dedication of positive force that’s built up from giving.
  • In conjunction with discriminating awareness, we realize that the giver (ourselves), the recipient, and the object that’s given, all lack any self-established existence. They all depend on each other. There is no giver without somebody that receives.

Generosity and Improper Motivation

There is a wide range of situations that indicate we’re giving something incorrectly, and we need to avoid these. We might give with the hope that others will be impressed, or think that we’re really religious and wonderful; or, it’s common that when we give, we expect to receive something in return, even if it’s just a thank you. When we give, however, it’s improper to expect anything in return, not even a thank you, let alone great success in actually improving their situation. That is mainly up to their karma. We can offer some help, but we shouldn’t expect success or gratitude in return.

I remember one time during the rainy season in Dharamsala, India, there was a mouse drowning in a drain of water. I took it out and put it on the ground to dry, and while it was lying there, a big hawk came down and snatched it away. Everything depends on the karma of the individual, even if we try to help them. We can give someone all the opportunities and assistance to succeed, but they can still turn out to be a terrible failure.

Further, if a good result does come about, we should never gloat to the other person, or remind them about all we’ve done and given them. We mustn’t belittle others when we help them, thinking that we’re doing them a great favor. Actually, they’re doing us a favor by accepting and allowing us to build up the positive force that will bring us to enlightenment, and enable us to help others as much as is possible.

It’s also improper motivation to give out of guilt or obligation, feeling perhaps that if someone else has made a donation, we have to do likewise or even outshine them by giving more.

Generosity and Proper Motivation

When practicing generosity, our sole thought needs to be to benefit the recipient, both temporarily and ultimately. We try our best and whether it succeeds or not, at least we try. This isn’t just an abstract idea of “Sure, I want to help all sentient beings,” but then we can’t even be bothered to help wash the dishes!

Of course, generosity can go both ways. If others want to help us and be generous, then we shouldn’t be proud and refuse to accept invitations or gifts. A lot of people do this when someone tries to buy them something, even something small like dinner. In doing so, we’re depriving them of the opportunity to build up positive force. It’s in the bodhisattva vows, actually, that we need to accept invitations and people’s offer of help, unless it would be damaging to them.

I was once travelling with Serkong Rinpoche in Italy when someone came to ask him some questions. When they left, they just placed an envelope with an offering on the table by the door. Serkong Rinpoche made an important point in saying to me, “This is the proper way to give. Not these people who come in and make a big show of handling it personally to the lama, so that the lama knows who gave it and will really appreciate it and think better of them.” It’s always better to give quietly, anonymously, without making a big show. To do it in this kind of pleasing and respectful manner is best.

Don’t make other people wait for what we offer to give, or offer help but only give tomorrow. It’s a bit like with offerings again. Serkong Rinpoche was one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachers and so many people used to come to see him. He noted that he found it inconsiderate and a bit ridiculous that people would wait until they got directly in front of him to do some elaborate prostrations, saying, “All it does it waste my time. I don’t have to see them prostrate. It’s not for my benefit that they offer prostrations. They should do it before they come in so they can directly say to me what they want to say.” It’s very usual for Tibetans to give katas – ceremonial scarves – to lamas, but it shouldn’t be done to impress them. Remember, the prostrations are for our benefit, not the teacher’s.

Giving Personally

Whatever we decide to give, it’s important that we give it ourselves, personally. Atisha had an attendant who wanted to make all the offerings for the teacher, fill the water bowls and so on. Atisha said, “It’s very important for me to do it myself. Are you going to eat for me as well?” Whenever it’s possible, we should do such things personally ourselves.

If we make a decision to give something, we shouldn’t change our minds or then regret it afterwards and take it back. Further, once we’ve given something away, we shouldn’t insist that it be used the way we want them to use it; this applies especially to when we give money, insisting on how it is spent. It’s like when we give someone a picture and then we go to their house and it’s not hanging on the wall – we feel a bit hurt. Actually, once we’ve given something away, it’s no longer ours.

I remember once in Dharamsala, there was this monastery where the quality of the food was really poor and so the monks weren’t doing very well. Among the Westerners, we collected some money and gave it to them to buy better food. In the end, they just used it to buy more bricks to continue building a bigger, better temple! This really annoyed a lot of the Westerners, who made a big scene about them not using it to buy food. The solution was that if we wanted them to eat better, we had to actually buy them the food. Then they would have to eat it! So we had to be a bit clever. Still, we had to buy them what they like to eat, and for Tibetans that means meat, even if some of the Westerners didn’t approve. To buy tofu or something they’ll never eat is not really appropriate.

Even though I saw Serkong Rinpoche almost every day, I used to always bring him a little something. After a while he scolded me and said, “Why are you bringing me all these katas and incense? I don’t need this junk!” He called it junk! “What am I going to do with 1,000 katas?” He said, “If you’re going to bring things, bring me something that I like and can use.” I knew that he liked bananas, so I would bring him a banana. If we want to give to others, then we should be skilful and give what they like. Believe me, those lamas have enough incense!

On the same point, it’s important to bring good quality things, not just stuff we don’t like or have no use for. There are people who never want to accept anything, so we might say, “Somebody gave this to me and I’m never going to use it. Please, take it. I don’t want to throw it out.” There are also things that are inappropriate to give, like a hamburger to a vegetarian. If someone follows a certain dietary regime, we go along with that. We don’t bring a cake to someone on a strict diet!

Giving the Dharma

In terms of giving the Dharma, if someone wants to debate with us out of a motivation of anger, attachment, pride, or just idle curiosity, we shouldn’t debate or give them the Buddhist texts. We only ever teach and discuss Dharma with people who are receptive. If someone is not receptive, then it’s inappropriate to teach them or discuss with them. In fact, it’s a waste of time, and it only contributes to their negative state of mind, and their hostility. We teach those who are open-minded and who want to learn.

If we teach, we teach at the level of the other person. We don’t dump the whole ocean of our learning and knowledge on them just to prove how clever we are. We don’t give too advanced teaching, unless it’s helpful to give a little taste. Sometimes, a more advanced teaching can inspire people to work harder to try and understand it, and it’s also helpful if someone is a little bit arrogant. Sometimes His Holiness the Dalai Lama will teach in a very complicated way for university professors and so on, to demonstrate just how sophisticated the Buddhist teachings are. This helps to dispel any notion that Buddhism is primitive or backward.

I remember once Serkong Rinpoche visited a Western Dharma center, and they wanted him to teach the chapter on voidness (emptiness) from Shantideva’s text in only two days. That’s actually preposterous! Just this section of the text takes a year or so to go through thoroughly. Rinpoche began to explain it at an extremely advanced and complicated level the first few words of the chapter, to show, with each word, just how complicated it was. Nobody could understand what he was saying, which also pointed out how arrogant it was to think that it was something that could be taught or assimilated in a mere two-day teaching. Then he slowed down to their level and just explained the general meaning of a small part of the text.

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches to a large crowd, he does a little bit for each level of the people there. Most of the time, he teaches on a very advanced level, directed toward any great lamas, geshes and khenpos present. Because he’s more advanced than everyone else, he can teach them at this level, and then they can go and explain it in a less complex way to their own students. In this type of situation, one doesn’t teach to the lowest common denominator, because others can take care of that level. You teach to the highest level, so that it can cascade down through the ranks, as it were.

Finally, it’s important to give only to those who require it. If someone doesn’t need it but just wants something out of greed and attachment – like children wanting chocolate all day long – then it’s not appropriate to give. We need to use our discriminating awareness to determine what and when and whom it’s appropriate and inappropriate to give to. Trungpa Rinpoche coined the wonderful term “idiot compassion”; we don’t help everyone do everything they want, because it might be quite stupid! Our generosity must accord with our wisdom.

Summary

Practising generosity doesn’t require us to be rich or have lots of possessions. No matter where we are or what we’re doing, we can start to develop a generous mind through mentally sharing everything we enjoy – the fresh air we breath, the gorgeous sunsets we enjoy, the delicious meals we eat. Wishing that others could also enjoy everything that we do is the basis for the next step, where we actually give to others what they need.

If we’re able, then it’s great to give material aid, but we can also be generous with our time and energy. When we give joyfully and with a pure motivation, generosity becomes a powerful force that secures our own and other people’s prosperity and happiness.