“In Buddhism, we say there are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is to help people rely on themselves, to offer them the technology and know-how to stand on their own feet. Helping people with the Dharma so they can transform their fear, anger, and depression belongs to the second kind of gift. The third is the gift of non-fear. We are afraid of many things. We feel insecure, afraid of being alone, afraid of sickness and dying. To help people not be destroyed by their fears, we practice the third kind of gift-giving. If you can help people feel safe, less afraid of life, people, and death, you are practicing the third kind of gift.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh. For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts
Several weekends ago, I attended a day of mindfulness where we examined the path of generosity, Dana Paramita. Giving has ancient roots in the Buddhist tradition. In Asia, monastics and teachers renounce their involvement in the world and can dedicate themselves entirely to meditation due to the generosity of the community and dana, the practice of generosity. Traditionally, Buddhist teachers give their teaching freely and for the benefit of the world which we share. In the milieu of capitalism and transactional giving, we are accustomed to getting and giving according to a balance sheet. We look for good deals and do not want to give—but always want to receive. This is seen as being savvy and a good businessperson, as someone who gains an advantage by paying less than another. To our Western sensibilities, the idea of perfecting our giving may seem foreign and even naïve, but what if we could see that there is no separation between the giver, the gift, and the receiver?
As a practitioner, I’ve heard this for a long time—and can understand it on an intellectual level as transcending the form of the gift and benefiting all involved, but I wanted to explore this idea more. Giving can seem limited to a time, person, season, linked to my own capacity to participate. I wanted to open my lens and see giving as greater than a time-specific donation or exchange.
Zen teacher Norman Fischer (2014) writes “A Zen practitioner about to eat a meal remembers that giving is life—that everything is giving, everything is given. There are no separate givers, receivers, or gifts. All of life is always giving and receiving at the same time.” When I consider that giving is the same as the quality of attention and care, that it doesn’t begin and end, but can shift focus and move from an external to internal focus, I can begin to see the end of the belief in giving as just one moment, just one transaction. Buddhist scholar, Barbara O’Brien (2019) asks us to consider, “that there is no giving without receiving, and no givers without receivers. Therefore, giving and receiving arise together; one is not possible without the other.”
As I looked deeper, I could see that the giver cannot be left out of the gift. The Buddha described the experience of true generosity and joyful giving, “There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified. These are the three factors of the donor.” (AN 6.37, Dana Sutta: Giving, Thanissaro Bhikkhu trans.) This makes the intention of the giver joyful in the beginning, the middle and the end. In preparing to give either, my time, my money, my attention, a meal, or my assistance, I can ask “how is this for me right now?” Perhaps the most important aspect of the gift is checking in with ourselves and our intention. Have we given ourselves enough care to support this act of giving? If my gift is too big and leaves me exhausted, impoverished, and distressed—it did not consider me and is not true generosity. Looking at this process as a fluid expression of care—being able to offer a gift may feel like joy, instead of obligation.
As we head into the season of giving, I encourage you to look at how you are when giving. Does it feel dry and transactional, merely clicking the buy button on the Amazon wish list to fulfill an expectation? What would make the holidays feel more authentically connected to giving with non-attachment, without even expecting thanks? Years ago, I gave my time, money, and considerable effort to help someone who did not thank me. I was extremely hurt and confused because not only was my gift treated with disregard, it was rebuffed and dismissed. I spoke to a Dharma teacher to help understand. He said, “Maybe you did too much.” When we stretch and give beyond what is comfortable, we may lose our balance and become attached to the outcome.
Giving with attachment means we expect something—thanks, acknowledgment, or appreciation—maybe a gift in return. A question to ask ourselves before we give, is “Can I be ok if there is no response to this gift? Can I still give without wanting anything in return?” If the answer is no, perhaps the gift is too big or our heart needs some safety. Perhaps we need to look at our relationship and our intention to give. We may be caught in the duality of believing we are “the savior,” or we give to gain an advantage.
Knowing when we need to give to ourselves is also a component of giving. Caregivers cannot give without giving to themselves—a gift is not generosity of it hurts ourselves and creates discomfort and instability for ourselves and our families. Giving needs to include the three qualities of the gift. The wellbeing and intention of the giver, the gift itself, and the purity of the receiver. The Buddha described the receivers as worthy when they are free from greed, hatred, and delusion—when they can accept the gifts without clinging, pushing away, or receiving gifts as personal extensions of the self. These three components, intention, the gift, and the quality of the receiver, can remind us that we are not entering a discrete season of giving, but that giving is always here whether we acknowledge it or not. It is always transpiring in each breath, in each mouthful of food, in a smile and a word of kindness, in the temper tantrum we did not have on the phone with the health care representative—it all is giving—it all is receiving.
May we all trust our light,
If you have a chance, listen to this inspiring 7-minute podcast on the culture of giving. What Do You Give IF You Don’t Have Anything? http://howdoyoulive.com/podcast/podcast-006-nipun-mehta/