Detail about the Perfection of Generosity

Let’s look at the six far-reaching attitudes themselves. The first of these is generosity.

The Definition of Generosity

Generosity is defined as the willingness to give. It’s an attitude, a state of mind. Shantideva wrote:

(V.9) (After all,) if the perfection of giving were that the poverty of wandering beings was all gone; then how could the Guardians of old have perfected it, since wandering beings have hunger still now?
(V.10) The perfection of giving is said to be through the mind that would give away to everyone all that is mine, together with its results; thus, it’s the mind itself.

Generosity doesn’t mean that we ourselves have to become poor, having given away absolutely everything that we have. We’re not talking about poverty as some virtue, that you might have in other religions. It means the willingness to give without hesitation, without obstacles – if it’s appropriate to give. We have to use discrimination. You don’t give a gun to somebody to go out and shoot: “Oh, I’m being generous. Here’s the gun.” “Here’s money to go buy a gun.” “Here’s money to go buy drugs.”

Even if we’re extremely poor and we have nothing, we can still have the willingness to give. Otherwise, poor people can’t develop generosity. That’s why when we see a beautiful sunset, be generous: “May everybody enjoy this beautiful sunset. May everybody enjoy this beautiful scenery. May everybody enjoy the beautiful weather.” Be generous with things that we don’t own as well as things that do belong to us. And it’s the opposite of miserliness; miserliness is: “I don’t want to share it, anything, with anybody else. I want to keep it for myself. If I give to somebody else, there won’t be enough for me.”

But of course we have to be careful not to become a fanatic here. Because also if we’re working to help others, we need to eat, we need to sleep – we need these types of things. So we’re talking here more about sharing. You can’t give everything, to the point where you starve to death. Obviously when we’re super, super advanced bodhisattvas, that’s something else, but we’re not. As a super advanced bodhisattva we can sacrifice our lives to help others, but not at our own stage. We can aspire for that. But when we’re not ready to do that, then we just usually develop a very negative mind when doing that, so this is not the most beneficial. We’re not ready. Like the example of Buddha in a previous life feeding his body to a hungry tigress. We’re not ready to do that.

But we need to be willing to, on our level, to give, be willing to give, our body to others. Well, that would be – like, for instance, to help them do difficult work, to use our bodies to help others, not be afraid to get our hands dirty, these type of things. Or when it’s dangerous to save somebody, to actually do that. And of course giving our possessions if they’re needed and can be helpful to somebody, and sharing as well what’s called the roots of virtue (dge-ba’i rtsa-ba), which basically means the positive potentials of the positive force that we have built up. In other words, just an example… Well, let me use an example from my own life: If as a result of positive force from previous lifetimes, I have made so many connections around the world and with the great Dharma teachers and great masters in India, and so on – sharing that with other people, not just keeping it to myself. If there’s somebody appropriate, making the introduction, using the potential that I’ve built up to be able to benefit others, not just keeping it for myself. “May all the hard work that I’ve put into my education and my study in India, may other people benefit from that.” That’s what we’re talking about. Open the doors for others.

The Generosity of Giving Material Aid

There are either three or four different types of generosity. We have first of all the generosity of giving material aid. So this means giving possessions, things that we have, whether it’s food, clothing, whatever – money – whatever we have. But again – I mean, we will get to this – giving when it’s appropriate. And we can also give things that we don’t own as well, which sort of are public. It doesn’t mean we go out and steal. We’re talking about giving public things, like cleaning up the environment so that other people can enjoy it. That’s a gift to others. And as I was mentioning, “May everybody be able to enjoy the weather, the beautiful weather,” and so on.

And we shouldn’t think here just in terms of actual physical things; we also (as I said in terms of giving our body) give our work, give our time, give our interest, these type of things, give some energy, some encouragement, all these sort of things. It’s being generous.

There is also giving our family to others. What does that mean? Inviting them for Christmas to our house so they can enjoy the family warmth. This type of thing. It’s very nice. When there’s a stranger or foreigner in our city who could be very lonely during holidays and miss their family, we share our family with them.

The Generosity of Giving Dharma

Then the second one is giving Dharma, generosity of giving Dharma. That isn’t referring only to teaching, or translating or transcribing teachings, or making books available, or making stupas, and all of that. That’s one aspect of it. Making Dharma centers, these type of things, working in them. But also it entails answering people’s questions, giving them information when they need information. All sorts of things like this.

And also what we have from the Sakya tradition, which is called the offerings of samadhi (or concentration), and this is referring to offering or giving others all different aspects of our practice, our Dharma practice. So everything that we’ve read or studied – we offer that to others, we use that to help others. And all the knowledge we’ve gained – we offer that to them, we use that. And the conviction in the Dharma, and all these sort of things. We use our concentration. There’s a whole list of them. These would come into this category of the generosity of giving Dharma, giving our practice.

[For a presentation of the offerings of samadhi, see: “The Seven-Limb Prayer” as a Complete Practice]

The Generosity of Giving Protection from Fear

Then the third type is generosity of giving protection from fear. This can refer to, of course, saving the lives of others, animals that are about to be slaughtered, or things that are locked up in cages – whether birds or humans or whatever – and saving drowning flies from the swimming pool, this type of stuff. And saving animals and so on from the – it doesn’t need to be from death specifically, being slaughtered, but to protect them from the cold or from the severe heat. If there’s a beetle in our house, we don’t just throw it out of the window, five stories down, because “Well, it doesn’t hurt them if they land like that.” If we don’t want it in our house, take it outside; don’t just throw it out the window, or flush it down the toilet, wishing it good luck.

Also we would include here comforting others when they’re very frightened, whether it’s our children, whether it’s… somebody’s being hunted or an animal is being hunted. Try to protect it. A fly is caught in a spider web; if we see that, try to take it out. That’s a difficult one, because then we could say, “Aren’t we being cruel to the spider?” But I doubt that we’re going to stand there 24 hours a day and watch the spider so it doesn’t eat anything. So when we have the opportunity to save these creatures, that’s good. We don’t have to be the policeman over the spider. If the cat is torturing the mouse that it found, take the mouse away, save it.

This gets into a very difficult issue, which is that of euthanasia, particularly with animals. The cat or the dog is really suffering and do we put it to sleep or not? Or give it to somebody else: usually we don’t put it to sleep ourselves. That’s not an easy issue by any means. From one point of view, if the animal – or a human being, for that matter – if we interrupt the natural process of death and experiencing the suffering and so on, we interrupt the ripening of certain negative karma in suffering. And if we’ve interrupted that – well, that being in some future life is still going to have to experience that type of suffering. So from one point of view, that is not so wise. But from another point of view, if we can somehow minimize the pain that they have, give somebody with cancer painkillers and stuff like that, then that seems more appropriate. But it’s a very, very difficult issue.

Because also His Holiness, in response to things like this… Because you get these issues of somebody who is kept alive on machines; they’re basically dead. Or, I think, unbelievable – spend a million dollars to save a premature baby. His Holiness says that, again, if there are unlimited resources, that’s one thing; but if there are limited resources, then you don’t spend a million dollars on keeping somebody alive who’s basically brain-dead and you don’t have enough money to treat people who could recover. So a lot depends on circumstances. The same issues with abortion and so on.

Because we have to avoid the absurd extreme here. If we take to an extreme that: “Well, the animal has to experience its suffering in order to burn off the negative karma that’s ripening here” – we take that to its absurd conclusion, to an extreme – that would mean we would never give medicine to anybody. “Well, they have to live out the suffering consequences of their negative karma of being sick.” And so, obviously that’s not the meaning here, not the meaning at all, because we also give medicine and we also try to help others to get better, and if they have the karma to get over the sickness, then by giving the medicine and so on, they will overcome it. So of course we do that.

But in the case of somebody who’s brain-dead and there’s absolutely nothing that… there’s no possibility that they’re going to get better, that’s a different situation. Now, in terms of abortion: If, for whatever reason, somebody actually does have an abortion, then what can be very helpful is something that a Japanese Zen priest in America does. I’m not quite sure where she got this from, whether it was traditionally done in Japan or not, but what she does, which was extremely helpful, is that she encourages the parents (or just the woman if the father isn’t around) to give a name to the fetus who was aborted, and this was a living being – acknowledge that – with a name, and have a ritual and a funeral honoring this person that for whatever reason they didn’t develop, and regret, and many, many prayers for a wonderful rebirth in a situation that will be very conducive. And so, in this way, developing a very positive attitude toward the fetus that was aborted. And this seems to be extremely helpful, particularly for the women who are involved – the men as well, but particularly the women – since that can, having an abortion, later on can lead to a lot of mental problems and guilt.

The Generosity of Giving Our Equanimity to Others

In tantra, the generosity of giving protection from fear has a further interpretation, which is referring to giving our equanimity to others. In others words: others have nothing to fear from us, because we’re not going to cling to them with attachment, or reject them with anger and hostility, or ignore them with naivety, but we’ll be open to everybody. So they have nothing to fear from us, that we’ll cling to them, reject them, or ignore them. Very wonderful. Great gift.

The Generosity of Giving Love

And tantra also speaks of a fourth kind of generosity, which is the giving of love. And the giving of love is not going around hugging everybody, but it’s referring to giving everybody our wish for them to be happy – the definition of love – the wish to be happy and have the causes for happiness.

How to Give Properly

With the practice of each of these far-reaching attitudes, we try to incorporate the practice of all of them. So in practicing generosity:

  • The ethical discipline of generosity is to rid ourselves of all wrong or improper ulterior motives.
  • With patience, we don’t mind any difficulties that are involved; we can tolerate the difficulties.
  • And taking joy in giving, not doing it out of duty or out of obligation. That’s the practice of joyful perseverance with giving, with generosity.
  • Mental stability is having concentration on the dedication of positive force that’s built up from giving.
  • And with the discriminating awareness we realize that the giver (that’s ourselves), the recipient (the person who receives what we give), and the object that’s given in the act of giving – all of these lack any true inherent existence from their own side; they all depend on each other. There can’t be a giver without somebody that receives.

There are many situations in which the practice of actually giving something is not done correctly or properly. So we need to avoid these. The first would be to give with the hope that others are going to being impressed with us, or think that we’re so pious and religious, that we’re so wonderful. When we give, it’s improper to expect anything in return, not even a thank you, let alone great success in actually improving the other party’s situation, the other person’s situation. Whether or not it improves is really due to their own karma. We can help, but we shouldn’t expect success, let alone a thank you.

I remember once in Dharamsala, in India, during the rainy season, there was a mouse that was drowning in a drain of water, and I took it out and put it on the ground to dry. And while it was lying there, drying out, a big hawk came down and took it away. So everything depends on the karma of the individual, even if we try to help them. We can give somebody all the opportunities and help to try to succeed, but they can be terrible failures anyway. I’ve had that experience. And it’s important never to gloat over the other person and remind them later about all we’ve done for them, or all that we’ve given them, or expecting them to do anything in return.

And also it’s improper motivation to give out of obligation, feeling that since somebody else has made a donation, we have to do likewise, or even outdo the person and give more or do more. Giving out of guilt or competition or these sorts to things.

So our sole thought needs to be just to benefit the recipient, both temporarily and ultimately. And we try to do our best; whether it succeeds or not, at least we try.

And it’s important not to just think on an abstract level – “Yes, I want to help all sentient beings,” but we don’t help wash the dishes. Also it’s important not to belittle the people that we give to, give something to, feeling that we’re doing them a great favor. 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. So they’re doing us the great favor of accepting.

It’s also very important when other people do something for us. A lot of people are very proud and don’t want to accept any help or don’t want to accept an invitation, or anything like that – if somebody offers to pay for something for us. We’re depriving them of building up some positive force. That’s in the bodhisattva vows, by the way, to accept invitations, to accept when people offer to help us, unless of course it’s damaging for them.

I remember Serkong Rinpoche once, when I was traveling with him – it was in Italy – and somebody came to his room and asked him some questions and so on, and when they left, they just left an envelope with an offering on the table by the door. And he said to me afterwards, “This is the proper way to give. Not these people who come in and make this big, big show of handing it personally to the lama so that the lama knows who gave it and really will appreciate and think better of this person.” Better to do it quietly, anonymously, not make a big show, and to do it happily, in a pleasant and respectful manner.

Also don’t make the other person wait. “I’ll give you, but you wait for later on. I’ll help you, but tomorrow,” and then you make them wait and wait and wait. It’s the same thing. He used to say that he really found it very inconsiderate when… He was one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachers, and many people used to come to see him; they would wait outside the room. And he said this is ridiculous, because what they would do is they would wait until they got directly in front of him and then they would do this elaborate prostration in front of him. He said, “All it’s doing is wasting my time. The proper way is… I don’t have to see them prostrate; it’s not for my benefit that they’re offering prostration. They should all prostrate before they come into the room, so they just come and do directly whatever they want to do.” I mean, it’s usually Tibetans just giving katas (ceremonial scarves) or something like that. But don’t make a show. You’re not trying to impress the other person by giving them something, even a show of respect, like prostration. That’s important when lamas come to visit. The prostrations is for our benefit; it’s not for the teacher’s benefit.

Also, whatever we decide to give, it’s important to give it ourselves, personally. Atisha had an attendant, and the attendant wanted to make all the offerings for the teacher – fill the water bowls and do all of that – and the teacher said, “This is very important, for me to do it myself. Are you going to eat for me as well?” So we need to do it… if you’re going to give, if it’s possible, give ourselves, personally. And don’t change our minds or feel regret. Once we’ve made the decision to give something, it’s important not to change our minds or feel regret or take something back. Or insist that, when we’ve given something already, that they use it the way that we want them to use it, especially when you give someone money and then you insist that they use it this way or that way. Or you give them something, then we get… if you give them a picture or something, and then they don’t have it on the wall when we get there, and we feel very hurt. Once we’ve given it away, it’s theirs; it’s not ours.

I remember once in Dharamsala there was this monastery and the quality of food was very bad and the monks weren’t doing very well. And so, among us Westerners, we got together some money and gave it to them to buy better food so that they would eat better. And of course once we gave them the money, they just used it for buying more bricks and building a bigger, better temple. This really annoyed a lot of the Westerners and they started to make a big scene about it: “You’ve got to buy better food,” and stuff like that. Well, the solution was: if we want them to eat better, buy the food and give it to them. Give them the food, then they have to eat it. You don’t just give them the money. And so you have to be a little bit clever. And then also buy them what they like to eat. And for Tibetans that means meat, even though some of the Westerners might think that’s not very nice. But to buy them soybeans or tofu or something like that, which they’re never going to eat and they don’t like, that’s not proper, that’s not appropriate.

It’s like… I used to always bring something when I used to see Serkong Rinpoche, and I saw him almost every day, but I always used to bring a little something. And after a while he scolded me and he said, “Why are you bringing me all these katas and incense? I don’t need this junk.” He called it junk. “It’s terrible. Everybody brings all this junk. What am I going to do with a thousand katas, these scarves?” And he said, “If you’re going to bring me something, bring me something that I like and that I can use.” And so I knew that he liked bananas, so bring him a banana. Bring something that he likes, if we want to make an offering.

Also it’s important to bring good quality things, and not something that: “Well, I don’t like this so, here, you take it.” Although sometimes you have to be skillful with people who don’t want to accept anything, and we say, “Somebody gave me this and I’m never going to use it. Please, I don’t want to throw it out. If you would like it….” So you have to use skillful means in terms of giving things to someone. But believe me, these lamas have enough incense; they don’t need two hundred boxes of incense.

There’s also certain things that are inappropriate to give. Like if somebody is following a certain diet, dietary laws, you don’t give them the food that they don’t consider proper to eat. You don’t give a hamburger to a vegetarian; and if somebody is on a diet, you don’t bring them a cake.

And if someone wishes to debate with us motivated by anger or attachment or pride, or just idle curiosity, it’s inappropriate to debate or give them the Buddhist text and so on. We only teach and discuss Dharma and so on with people who are receptive. If they’re not receptive and just want to argue with us and try to put us down, it’s inappropriate to teach them or discuss with them. It’s a waste of time, and all it does is contribute to their negative state of mind, their hostility. You teach those who are open-minded, who want to learn.

And also, if we teach, it’s important to 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. So it’s important not to give too advanced teachings, although sometimes it is helpful to give a little bit more advanced teachings than the people are at, in the sense to inspire them to work harder – make a little bit accessible to try to see it. And also if people are a little bit arrogant. Sometimes His Holiness will teach in a very complicated way, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for university professors and so on, to demonstrate how sophisticated the Buddhist teachings, because they think, “Oh, this is primitive,” or something like that.

Also I remember once I went with Serkong Rinpoche to a Western center, and the people wanted Rinpoche to teach the chapter on voidness from Shantideva’s text in two days. And this is absolutely preposterous; it’s something that really takes a year or so to go through it thoroughly. Rinpoche taught for a portion of the time, in the beginning, on such an advanced level that nobody could understand it, what he was saying, just to point out how arrogant they were to think that this was something so simple that in two days we’ll do the whole thing. They didn’t ask for an introduction or an overview of it. “Teach us the chapter.”

So sometimes it’s necessary, in order to teach the people some sort of lesson, to teach in a more advanced way. But in general, unless we want to inspire them or so on, it’s important to teach at the level in which other people can understand. But in a large crowd, especially… I mean, you see when His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches, he teaches a little bit to each level of people who are there. And what’s most important… Most of the time, he teaches on a very advanced level. Well, he’s teaching on a very advanced level because he’s actually teaching the great lamas and geshes and khenpos who are there. Because he’s the only one who is more advanced than everybody, who can teach them, and then they can teach and explain to their students. So you don’t teach to the lowest common denominator, because others can teach them. In that type of situation, you teach to the highest level, so that it goes down through the ranks, as it were.

This story of Serkong Rinpoche – he explained on such an advanced and complicated level, just the first couple of words of the chapter (it wasn’t like the whole thing), just to show, each word, how complicated it was.

Also, obviously, it is inappropriate to give people poison and weapons, and these sorts of things, that they might use to hurt themselves or to hurt others. Also it’s important to give only those things to others who require them. If somebody doesn’t need it and just wants it out of greed and attachment, like our children wanting chocolate all day long, it’s not appropriate to give it to them. And they don’t watch TV all day long. So, like this, we need to have this discriminating awareness – what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate, when isn’t it appropriate to give, when is it appropriate, who is it appropriate to give it to, and so on. Not practice what… Trungpa Rinpoche coined this wonderful word idiot compassion – you don’t think “Waah! I’ve got to help everybody do everything” when sometimes it’s rather inappropriate or stupid.