Generosity

A friend of mine recently sent me an article by Ken Wilber called “Right Bucks”. It is his defense of asking people to pay for Dharma teachings. He says this:

“…dollars and Dharma are not only not incompatible, monetary exchange is an altogether appropriate, functional manifestation of the Divine in everyday life, just like appropriate food and appropriate sexuality.”

To the extent that I understand what he has written, I would like to address some of the points he makes in this article, mainly 1) he puts Dharma teaching into a historical and social context, 2) he discusses non-duality, particularly as it relates to money, 3) he discusses the notion of “sin” and money, specifically the notion of thinking of money as being “sinful”, and 4) he discusses dana (generosity) and money.

  1. As to the first point, we hear and read so much these days about secular Buddhism, and how to Westernize Buddhism to make it more palatable to a Western audience. Stephen Bachelor has become a champion of this type of thinking, but he is certainly not alone. But culture is a very transient thing. I came of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a culture that my children would not recognize. Try reading the PTS (Pali Text Society) editions of the Pali Canon some time. They were writing during the Victorian age in Victorian English. It, too, is barely recognizable. What we think of as “culture” is a snapshot in time. (We now seem to talk about culture as being associated with a particular decade.) There is also place. What is Western? Germany? Mexico? French Canada? The underlying assumption of Westernizing Buddhism is to assume that there is some monolithic thing that can be called “Western culture.”

(My mother used to date a professor at the University of Maryland. He taught a course in the American family. In the first class he would show up with a stack of magazines. The class would break up into groups and each group was given some magazines. They were told to find a picture that they thought best exemplified “the American family”.

Once each group had chosen a picture, the entire class voted on which picture they thought best represented “the American family”. They would find and agree on the picture. Finally, he would ask them how many people in the group had a family like the one in the picture. In all his years of teaching, he never once had a student raise his/her hand. I think the same thing would happen if we did this exercise to determine what “Western culture” is.)

  1. As for the issue of non-duality, the Buddha’s teachings are clear that we live a dual existence. There is the world of the conditioned – saṃsāra – and the world of the unconditioned – nirvāṇa. In Wilber’s article he pins the idea of duality on Theravadan Buddhists, but this is a bit of a smoke screen. The Buddha taught duality, and the Theravadans were simply following his teachings. (Note: You may believe that the universe is non-dual. The error is in saying that this is what the Buddha taught.)
  2. As I wrote in my last blog entry, when the Buddha attained Enlightenment, he saw into the transcendent universal truth of reality. This reality is not religious or secular, Eastern or Western. It doesn’t depend on your time, place, culture, social values, economic system, or any other transient condition. It is either true or it isn’t. (To use the Buddha’s word, it is “unconditioned”.) It isn’t even confined to our planet. The law of gravity isn’t repealed if you go to Alpha Centauri.
  3. There is no notion of sin in Buddhism. Wilber portrays “sin” as existing in both the East and West, but I have never run into it in an Eastern context. Regardless, sin is not a Buddhist notion. There is only cause and effect, actions and the consequences of those actions. As the Buddha says to his son Rahula, examine the consequences of your actions. If they are of benefit to yourself and other now and in the future, then continue to do those things. If they are not, then don’t.

This idea of sin is really problematical in Western Buddhism. It makes conveying the Buddhist sense of virtue very difficult. We always seem to get hung up on the idea that if we do something wrong, we are going to Hell.

This is quite foreign to the Buddha’s teachings. Virtuous actions bring happiness and harmony. They are a gift that we give to the world:

There are, bhikkhus, these five gifts, great gifts, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, which are not being adulterated and will not be adulterated, not repudiated by wise ascetics and brahmins. What five?

Here, a noble disciple, having abandoned the destruction of life, abstains from the destruction of life. By abstaining from the destruction of life, the noble disciple gives to an immeasurable number of beings freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. He himself in turn enjoys immeasurable freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. This is the first gift, a great gift, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, which is not being adulterated and will not be adulterated, not repudiated by wise ascetics and brahmins. – [AN 8.39]

Further, karma is not deterministic. In A Lump of Salt (AN 3:100) the Buddha uses the analogy of salt to demonstrate this point. Two people commit the same transgression, but one person is virtuous, while the other is not. For the virtuous person, the transgression is like throwing a lump of salt into the Ganges. It does not change the taste of the water. But for the other person it is like putting the lump of salt into a glass of water. You would not want to drink it.

  1. Wilber says that we equate money as being inherently sinful. Once again, you will not find this in the Buddha’s teachings. One of the most important people in Buddhist history is Anathapindika. He was a wealthy businessperson, a great benefactor, and had attained the fruit of stream entry. He is portrayed as a wise, skillful and compassionate person, and the very embodiment of generosity. One of the implications in the descriptions of Anathapindika is that he was wealthy because he was very skillful in business. There is no negative connotation to his wealth. In fact, wealth is often described as being the fruit of generosity. Money is never described directly or implicitly to be a bad thing.
  1. Finally, there is the connection he makes between dana and money. Dana, as far as I can remember from the Pali Canon, is never connected directly to money. The greatest form of dana is teaching the Dharma. The next greatest form of dana is “practicing the Dharma in accordance with the Dharma”. The practice of meditation is a very important form of dana, much more so than giving money. This is why traditionally at the end of a period of meditation the merit associated with the meditation is dedicated to all beings. (It can also be dedicated to one or more individual people, or a group of people.) The practice of virtue is dana. These are the highest form of dana. Of course money is buried in there somewhere, but not in the way it has come to mean in the West. Your practice of meditation, virtue and wisdom carries a much greater weight than writing a check.

So those are some comments about Wilber’s article.

Framing the discussion around money is to miss some basic, essential points about what the Buddha taught. The Buddha’s teachings are a training. They are a way to make us more skillful, happier, and ultimately lead us to liberation, freedom from stress. They are not a description of reality, and they are not a philosophy. They are not a source of debate topics. They are about what is going on in the mind, and how to make that mind happier and more skilfull.

The practice of dana is not about what you do but what is going on in the mind. You have – I am sure – done something out of kindness that made you smile. It made you feel good. That is dana. The generosity that the Buddha encourages us to cultivate is one that is spontaneous and one that pleases us. It makes us smile.

You have probably had this experience as well. You do something out of kindness. Maybe it is something simple like giving someone a ride home from work. You are pleased that you are in a position to do something nice for someone.

Then they insist on paying you for it. That nice, happy feeling goes away.

Traditionally in Buddhist countries monks and nuns never give thanks for gifts because of the way it cheapens the gift. It isn’t that they are not grateful. I have heard them describe how humbling it is to get alms food or have a monastery built on the generosity of others. Imagine going on alms rounds in Thailand and some family with barely enough to feed themselves gives you a small something to eat. You show your gratitude by practicing diligently, honoring the precepts, and being a noble person.

There is a related word to dana in Pali, and those of you who have read the Travel Guide to the Buddha’s Path will recognize it. The word is caga. It means “the mind bent on giving”. Caga is a mind that has been trained to seamlessly find opportunities to give, and dana is the act of selfless, unprovoked giving that makes you smile.

I don’t know about you, but when I go to a retreat and someone gives the famous dana talk, what arises in me is not a smile, but a feeling that is somewhere between obligation, guilt, and annoyance that I have been deprived of the opportunity to give of my own accord.

My sister likes to be a benefactor on Reddit, where you can send things to teachers for their classrooms. And I am pretty sure that if she started getting emails from Reddit reminding her that it was time to give again, it just wouldn’t be the same.

I am deeply grateful to my teachers – starting with the Buddha – for what they have given me. And it is clear to me that how they want to be repaid is for me to practice diligently, and to Awaken. So when I feel a debt of gratitude towards them, I don’t think about writing a check. Of course I do that, too, sometimes. But what I really think about is how can I practice more diligently? It is what the Buddha himself asked us to do just before he died. Practicing Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma is both the letter and the spirit of generosity.

For more on this topic, see Thanissaro Bhikku’s article “No Strings Attached“.

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