Dana, the Pali word usually translated as “generosity,” has become quite common in Buddhist circles, but it’s true spirit is not well understood. I think this is because its meaning has been diluted by many Western Buddhist organizations and teachers who talk about dana in the same way other organizations solicit donations for fundraising. As I understand the Buddha’s teachings on dana, he did not encourage his followers to ask for it. In its best form, dana is the spontaneous, heartfelt, eruption of generous action, small or large. It is wholly centered in the moment and it is, as John Bullitt describes it, “weightless.”
Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes, “When asked where a gift should be given, [the Buddha] stated simply, ‘Wherever the mind feels inspired.’”* Generosity in the true spirit of dana is whole hearted and open handed. It is a natural and unforced relinquishing, symbolic of the relinquishing we must accomplish to transcend suffering. In that light, the giving has a certain purity of motive with no expectation of receiving anything in return.
Interestingly, the Buddha had something to say about recipients of generosity, too: They should be virtuous. By giving to a person or organization that is trying to abide by the precepts, we extend our gifts where they will do the most good and provide the most benefit for all beings. Our gift spreads outward like the ripples in a pond. The implication here is that skillful giving assumes that limited resources will be offered to those who are most likely to pass them on. And in a sense, the recipient is obligated to make skillful and virtuous use of the gift.
As we enter the holiday season, we will have many opportunities to give. It is part of mindfulness practice to see with what spirit we meet these opportunities. It is wisdom to give skillfully and wisely.
*From “No Strings Attached: The Buddha’s Culture of Generosity,” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/nostringsattached.html .