Generosity | dana
Holding space for giving as context for Buddhist practice
If beings knew, as do I, the effects of giving and of sharing ... the stain of selfishness would never overtake their minds.
Generosity takes pride of place in the teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, but not necessarily in an immediately recognizable manner.
The Pali and Sanskrit words dana, refer to more than the act or even spirit of giving, typically associated with such English words as donation, with which dana shares a common linguistic root. Rather, at the time of the Buddha's teaching life in present-day India, dana was necessarily contextual, occurring within a field of interchange that included respect, gratitude, honor, and spiritual refinement.
Buddha Shakyamuni famously never asked for payment for teaching, nor other gifts. Nor did he advertise or proselytize. But neither did he reject alms of food as beneath him, or the generous offerings of forest hermitages, banquets for the sangha, robes, and the like on behalf of his followers. Indeed, in his teaching, the Buddha often presented instruction on generosity as a prelude to the triad of shila-samadhi-prajna, the three trainings through which he summarized the path.
This cultural imprint of dana in early Buddhism is woven into the fabric of later Buddhist traditions, most of which took hold and flourished in Asian countries with a heritage, if not identical to ancient India in every respect, often similar enough to that alive in the time of the Buddha as to receive the tapestry of generosity practice without substantially impoverishing it.
As modern-day practitioners, translators, and teachers of Buddhadharma, the two of us (Yeshe and Zopa) often reflect on how to best honor the full spectrum of generosity, holding space for a mutual practice of giving in our Dharma work and our own studies alike. In the modern world, this is no easy feat.
Even in spiritual contexts, dana is associated with a sense of barter--teachers present Dharma, and students give money in exchange. Sometimes, there is a clear intention to respect the early tradition by offering teachings on purely a donation basis. Other times, Dharma teachings are made available at astonishingly high prices. Still other times, suggested donations attempt to guide participants in making offerings that will allow Dharma centers and teachers to sustain themselves responsibly.
On the one hand, it is understandable that dana has become so centered on finances, in a world very much revolving around money as the medium for obtaining everyday necessities. On the other, this emphasis obscures the far richer understanding of dana, to include giving of food, service, prayer, intention, practice, and a spirit of gratitude.
To be clear, we have no single answer, nor are we confident that there is but one. Nevertheless, we wish to be clear about our intention.
Prajna Fire always offers a free option for our Dharma work, as well as donation opportunities at an amount set by each participant. When we are invited to Dharma centers, we request that any participants who wish to attend for no or lower cost be allowed to do so. We do not, however, request that centers otherwise change their dana policy, as it is hardly in our place to do so.