Giving joyfully, we read in the Buddhist texts, brings many benefits, both for oneself and for others. At this time of the year, many cultures celebrate festivals of abundance and plenty rooted in celebrations of generosity. Traditionally, all religious cultures have praised generosity and celebrated those who practice unselfishly.
Sadly these days, the emphasis often seems to have shifted toward celebrating conspicuous consumption and accumulation rather than giving joyfully. As more societies embrace commercialism and materialism, it can be helpful to pause and remember that giving joyfully encompasses so many facets of life. Yet there is also hope– beginning earlier this decade, a new holiday emerged #Giving Tuesday. And this shows that our natural propensity toward giving joyfully can flourish if we all join in!
And all of us can participate in this practice of giving joyfully regardless of our financial situation.
Giving joyfully can mean giving a smile, a hug, or a few kind words. We can be generous with our time, or with our skills. Instead of rushing to be first in line, we can offer our place to another individual with a smile. Or we can allow someone to pull out in traffic ahead of us. We can read a story to a child, or make a phone call to a relative or friend to check in.
We can offer encouragement to a colleague at work, or compliment a server on their attitude. These practices may not seem important, but by giving of ourselves in these small ways, we can establish new patterns of interaction with those around us. Take some time today to identify little opportunities to give in your day-to-day interactions.
None of these actions need to be expensive, but they can make a big difference in how people feel. And we can give like this easily throughout our day, so that we create a new habit. How much pleasanter will our environments be if we make a point of giving a little something to our families, friends, work colleagues, and mere acquaintances? Giving kindness is a cost-free, high benefit practice!
Giving Material Goods
If we are fortunate enough to be able to share things with others, we can rejoice in that opportunity. But when we give, we should not be looking for credit, or praise or to show off. We can give to friends, to family, to strangers, and to those who are in need. And the more often we do this, the easier and more natural the practice becomes. Giving joyfully means that we give openly and without regret–so it is best to start small and then work up to becoming more generous.
Flowers and food are almost always appreciated and appropriate. Surprise a colleague with a cup of coffee or bottle of water. Bring some interesting snack to your next brainstorming session. Surprise your partner with a few fresh flowers or a new plant.
Or if we are unsure of where to give, we can support organizations and donate to causes that help others. We can give according to our own means, and look for opportunities to practice generosity in our communities, both close and more far-flung. And if we don’t have financial means, we can practice giving joyfully by offering our physical labor or volunteer time.
Giving Joyfully: The Buddhist Context
Joyful giving is praised highly in many Buddhist texts. First, in the fundamental vehicle of the the listeners, there are a great many sutras where dana, or “giving” is the main focus. And we read that the Buddha often opened Dharma talks by first encouraging the practice of generosity. Giving tames our minds; generosity makes us calmer, kinder, and more inclined to open our minds. Moreover, giving repeatedly helps us to loosen our attachment and craving. When we give we are putting others first–reducing our selfishness. Giving thus becomes a basis for wholesome mental states.
Giving in the Mahayana: Ethical Behavior
Then in the Mahayana tradition, giving is the first among the pāramitās or “perfections”. Scholars and accomplished masters praise the benefits of generosity repeatedly. Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche, in his 1895 work, A Treatise on Ethics for Kings: An Ornament for Rulers, advised the prince of Derge in Kham that “all goodness–both mundane and supermundane–derives from giving.” And he goes on to say that “charitable people destroy pride, destroy avarice, destroy jealousy, and destroy ignorance.” Having removed those afflictions, then one can go on to cultivate meditative concentration and wisdom.
In another ethical work, Treatise on the Modes of Being:“The Jewel that Gathers Forth Divinities and Glory,” Mipham Rinpoche wrote these verses on giving:
Even though you are attached to your possessions,
Helplessly, you will have to leave them all behind when you pass
from this life.
Instead, if you can give rise to a spirit of generosity,
You will accomplish all perfect wishes in this and future lives.
Even small giving yields great results.
Even great enjoyments and possessions bring little benefit.
You may be rich in this life because of practicing generosity
in your previous life.
But if you do not practice generosity in this life, you will be poor
in the next life.
Ratnamegha Sutra on Giving
To inspire us in practicing giving, we can consider these quotes from the Ratnamegha (Āryaratnameghanāmamahāyānasūtra), The Noble Great Vehicle Sūtra “The Jewel Cloud”. According to Tibetan histories, this sutra represents one of the earliest works to be translated into Tibetan, and was very influential. Note the emphasis on giving through right speech in the text.
Giving Joyfully as a Means of Attraction
Noble son, bodhisattvas endowed with ten qualities are skilled in the means of attraction. What are those ten? They are to gather sentient beings through giving what is beneficial, giving happiness, giving without end, speaking in beneficial ways, saying what is meaningful, speaking the Dharma, speaking with reason, acting in meaningful ways, creating harmony through material things, and creating harmony by means of their wealth.
Giving What is Beneficial
Noble son, giving what is beneficial is generosity with the Dharma; giving happiness is to give material things; giving without end concerns instructions about the path; speaking in beneficial ways refers to teaching the roots of virtue; saying what is meaningful is the teaching of the truth; speaking the Dharma is to teach Dharma in accord with the thus-gone ones’ teachings; speaking with reason is to ensure that the meaning is not lost; acting in meaningful ways is to bring beings out of unvirtuous situations and into virtuous ones; creating harmony through material things means to share food, drink, soup, beverages, snacks, clothing, and so on, equally with everyone else. Noble son, creating harmony by means of one’s wealth means to share gold, jewels, pearls, beryl, conchs, crystals, corals, precious metals, silver, horses, elephants, chariots, and carriages equally with everyone else. Noble son, bodhisattvas who possess ten such qualities are skilled in the means of attraction.
Translation by the Dharmacakra Translation Committee. Read more of this important text at 84,000 Project’s The Jewel Cloud.
For more about how to make giving a habit, you may want to view Samye Institute’s Generosity: Practicing the Pāramitās in Daily Life: Part Two.