Shambhala Sun | January 2014
’Tis always the season for giving. Six Buddhist teachers — KAREN MAEZEN MILLER, JUDY LIEF, JAN CHOZEN BAYS,
GINA SHARPE, NORMAN FISCHER, and TSULTRIM ALLIONE — on why generosity
is the starting place of all the virtues.
By Karen Maezen Miller
I begged my father to take me to the store. It was the day
before Christmas, and I had nothing to give to my mother except an art project
I had brought home from school. It was a picture made with painted macaroni.
How embarrassing. Even in kindergarten I knew that it wasn’t a real gift. It
wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t the kind of thing anyone wants. Remembering it, I
can still feel the full extent of a five-year-old’s self-criticism and shame.
Dad took me to a convenience store and I emptied my piggy bank for a set of
plastic drink coasters.
One day my mom cleaned under my bed and pulled out the
macaroni picture from its hiding place. She showed it to me with questioning
eyes. Now I know what she felt inside, her heart breaking with a sudden rush of
tenderness for an injured child.
The most profound gifts are the ones that don’t measure up
to any standard. They are not excellent or grand, but unexciting and ordinary.
They may not look like gifts at all, but like failures. No matter how they
look, they carry the precious essence of life’s true nature, which is love.
“Between the giver, the recipient, and the gift there is no
separation.” This Zen teaching tells us that generosity goes beyond
appearances. There is really nothing that divides us—nothing that defines the
substance of a gift. All is empty and perfect as it is. We practice this truth
by giving what we can whenever it is called for and by taking what is given
whenever it is offered. When we give and take wholeheartedly, without judgment,
separation is transcended. Stinginess is overcome and greed vanishes. We come
to see that everything is already a gift that we have already been given. All
that remains is to share it.
“I love it,” my mother said. And it was true.
In May, New World Library will release Karen Maezen
Miller’s new book, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden.
By Judy Lief
The practice of generosity may seem simple—it is learning
how to give—but it is the ground that allows discipline, patience, exertion,
meditation, and wisdom to flourish. It establishes the basic attitude of
magnanimity that is the defining characteristic of the path of the bodhisattva.
The word magnanimous, like the Sanskrit term mahatma,
means “greatness of soul.” With magnanimity you are not pinched in your outlook
or heart, but rather you have a quality of richness and spaciousness. There is
room for everyone.
I once visited a temple that claimed to have one thousand
Buddha statues. Among all of those buddhas, the one that most invoked the feeling
of generosity for me was a statue of a very chubby Buddha embracing piles of
children who were tumbling all over him. Laughing with delight, he maintained a
sense of peace in the midst of their chaos. Instead of shooing the children
away because he had more important things to do, he gathered them in with a big
hug. He radiated love and happiness and acceptance.
That kind of
effortless bounty is what generosity is all about, but to get there a little
effort and reflection may be in order. To cultivate generosity it is necessary
to understand the mental obstacles that cause us to hold back.
One obstacle is self-doubt. We may have an impoverished
sense of our own capacities and doubt that we have all that much to offer.
Another obstacle is stinginess. We may have a lot of resources, but no matter
how wealthy we are, deep down we are afraid of letting go of even a small
Generosity is based on interconnection, on looking outside
oneself, noticing where there is a need and responding to it. So a third
obstacle is self-absorption, being oblivious to what is going on around you.
Generosity has the power to cut through such obstacles and it is available to
The sense of richness that allows generosity to flourish
isn’t dependent on external factors like wealth or social status. (In fact,
studies have shown that the wealthiest Americans’ level of philanthropy is less
than half that of the poorest Americans.) No matter how poor or rich we may be,
we all have something to offer. And when we let go of our clinging and extend
our hand to others, we find that we ourselves are blessed. Our pinched state of
mind, which was so alienating and unpleasant, suddenly relaxes and we are
brought into a larger and more inspired sense of the world and our own capacities.
Instead of feeling that something is being taken away from us, we find that the
more we give, the wealthier we feel.
Judy Lief is the editor of The Profound Treasury of
the Ocean of Dharma, a three-volume series of teachings by Chögyam Trungpa
We Naturally Know What to Give
By Jan Chozen Bays
The Buddha said, “If beings knew, as I know, the results of
giving and sharing…even if it were their last bite…they would not eat without
having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift.”
But we cannot force ourselves to be generous. True
generosity comes from a deeper place than acquiescence to the Buddha’s
admonition. Generosity, like all aspects of our enlightened nature, lies
partially dormant within us. It has been obscured by the inevitable wounds,
duties, and worries of our busy human lives.
As people sit a silent retreat, their minds quiet, their
hearts relax, and their faces regain the innocent glow of childhood. Often,
when this happens, they come to me in tears, saying, “I feel such overwhelming
gratitude just for being alive. So much has been given, is being given
to me, all the time.”
When we meditate and quiet the mind, we get a deeper look at
the true nature of our life and see that it is interconnected. This uncovers in
us a well of gratitude. Can we open the mind’s awareness and investigate what
we’re being given right now?
We notice our breath. What in the breath is given to us? We
are given the air and the body that breathes. We cannot make air. We cannot
build and manage our minutely complex body ourselves. We notice the pressure of
the cushion under our seat. We are given its firm support. We notice the touch
of clothing on our skin. We see the people who planted, weeded, and harvested
the cotton, who wove the cloth, who cut and sewed, packaged and shipped, who
drove the trucks, who opened the fitting-room doors, who took our payment. We
realize that the life energy of many people covers and warms us in the form of
this shirt, this pair of pants.
We are not self-made. We are made of the raw ingredients of
sunlight, soil, and water, shaped into the flesh of plants and animals, shaped
into our life. Our life is one big gift, given by countless beings. When we
truly see this, gratitude naturally arises, as does the question, “How can I
repay the many beings who are continually giving to me?”
Is there a gift we can give to anyone, anywhere, anytime?
The greatest gift is the gift of dharma, the gift of relief from suffering. Who
would not receive this gift gladly? We give this gift first to ourselves,
studying and practicing it, transforming our own suffering into a greater
measure of ease and happiness. As we do this, we pass this gift along to
whomever we encounter. It could be a smile for the grocery-store checkout lady
still reeling from an angry customer’s words, a nutrition bar and a look into
the eyes of the homeless man asking for recognition on the corner at the
stoplight, a hug for our child distressed by bullying, a refusal to bomb our
We naturally know what to give. We don’t have to work to
produce generosity. We just have to practice deeply. True and accurate
generosity is the natural outcome of practice.
Jan Chozen Bays is a pediatrician who specializes in the
evaluation of children for abuse and neglect. She’s the author of Mindful
The Heart of Generosity
By Gina Sharpe
The mental states we encounter when we sit in
meditation—difficult emotions, negative thoughts, and even the pains in our
bodies—are the consequences of life-long habit patterns and viewpoints that
result in dukkha, or suffering.
We know from the second noble truth that the source of
dukkha is greed, attachment, and craving. These cause us to hold on to what
appears to give us relief from our suffering—things, people, viewpoints,
habits. Yet, if these give any relief at all, it is at best temporary.
The heart of generosity—giving, sharing, and caring for
others—breaks this cycle of attachment and the resultant suffering. Through
generosity, we let go of self-centeredness and our mind/hearts open into
loving-kindness, compassion, and tenderness. We experience our
interconnectedness—how we rely on the generosity, caring, and hard work of
others for our well-being. These realizations are direct antidotes to dukkha.
Aligning our actions with them brings us true happiness.
Three aspects of the noble eightfold path help us practice
giving: right understanding, the first aspect; right mindfulness, the seventh;
and right effort, the sixth.
With right understanding, we know that selfishness and
miserliness are negative states of mind. When selfishness asserts itself, we
see it, and right mindfulness supports this seeing. Having become mindful of
selfishness and attachment as unwholesome states of mind, we practice right effort:
we make a balanced effort to abandon clinging and to cultivate the wholesome
state of generosity.
One of the ten daily monastic reflections may be helpful in
cultivating the generous heart: “The days and nights are relentlessly passing.
How well am I spending my time?”
Imagine a world in which we all hold on tightly, where
generosity is not an option or worse, is not even known? What would it be like
to live in such a world, where we work only to get and hold on to whatever we
can for ourselves, without any thought for the welfare of others? Is that a
world in which we’d want to live? Or can we together create a world of kindness
and compassion, in which we respond appropriately with generosity?
After retiring from practicing law, Gina Sharpe cofounded
New York Insight Meditation Center.
Nothing to Give, No One to Receive It
By Norman Fischer
“May we with all beings realize the emptiness of the three
wheels, giver, receiver, and gift.”
Zen practitioners chant these words before eating a meal. They
remind us that the food about to be eaten has not been earned; it’s a gift. But
this gift is not to be understood in the usual way. “The emptiness of the three
wheels” means that this giving isn’t a beneficent act one performs for another,
an act you can take credit for or feel worthy or unworthy of. 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. This is our
practice and our joy. So we practice giving—both receiving and giving
gifts—in this spirit.
Some gifts we see as gifts (the birthday or holiday gift)
and others we usually don’t see as gifts (the gift of sunlight, the gift of
breath). The practice of giving extends to all forms of giving.
Traditionally, there are three things to give: material
gifts, the gift of dharma, and the gift of freedom. But really there are many
more things to give: the gift of listening, the gift of love, the gift of
creation, attention, and effort. To make a poem or a painting is to practice
giving, as is cooking a meal, cleaning a room, putting a single flower in a
vase. In his fascicle “Four Methods of Guidance for Bodhisattvas,” Dogen writes
that to launch a boat, build a bridge, and earn a living are acts of giving. To
be willing to be born—and to die—is to practice giving.
I usually think of four simple ways to practice giving:
giving yourself to yourself (that is, to be generous in your attitude toward
yourself); giving materially to others (giving money or other material gifts to
those in need and to those not in need); giving fully and without reservation
the gift of your presence and respect; and giving yourself completely in your
There are six paramitas or perfections that define
the Mahayana path: giving, ethical conduct, energy, patience, meditation, and
wisdom. It is no wonder that giving is the first of these. The more you study
it, the more it seems that giving is the whole of the Buddha way.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a Zen teacher in the lineage of
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. His most recent volume of poetry is The Strugglers.
By Tsultrim Allione
There is a story of a rich man who said that he could not
practice generosity because he was unable to give anything away. The Buddha’s
advice to him was to begin by simply taking a piece of fruit and passing it
from one hand to the other. The Buddha told him to notice how it felt to let
the fruit go and how it felt to receive it. Using this method, the man began to
experience both the joy of giving and the pleasure of receiving. Eventually he
became a great benefactor.
Like that rich man, we may find that giving does not arise
spontaneously and that we need to train in it. The ego-clinging mind always
feels a sense of scarcity, so you might think, “I barely get along with what I
have. How can I possibly give anything to anyone else?” There are, however,
many ways to practice giving that transcend monetary and material means. You
could give something simple like a poem, words of encouragement, or an act of
kindness. True generosity brings the giver a feeling of openness, along with
the enjoyment in the happiness of others.
Even imagined gifts can be powerful. There is a story about
the great Buddhist king Ashoka that illustrates this. The story goes that a
poor child was playing by the side of the road when he saw the Buddha begging
for alms. The child was moved to make an offering, but—with nothing else to give—he
spontaneously collected some pebbles and, visualizing them as vast amounts of
gold, placed them in the Buddha’s alms bowl. Due to this act, in his next life
the child became the powerful, wealthy King Ashoka and benefited countless
To take the practice of generosity a step further, you can
infuse generosity with the view that there is no inherent separate existence in
the giver, the gift, or the receiver. This view, known as the threefold
emptiness, turns practicing generosity into something beyond simple virtuous
action. It helps us not be attached to the outcome of giving, thus setting us
free from any expectations.
In chöd, a Tibetan meditation practice developed by
the famed eleventh-century yogini Machig Labdrön, generosity is practiced for
the purpose of severing ego-clinging. Chöd practitioners deliberately go to
frightening places, such as a cemetery at night, and visualize making their
body into an offering. Since these places provoke fear and clinging to the
body, the offering is a direct confrontation with the ego. Many kinds of guests
are invited to this imagined banquet, including personified forms of diseases,
fears, and demons. As the guests arrive for the feast, chöd practitioners keep
the view of three-fold emptiness and offer their body, which they visualize as
nectar that satisfies all desires. The intensity of making the body offering in
a frightening place is designed to push the practitioner into a state free from
Although we may not be a chöd practitioner who deliberately
goes to scary places, we still meet plenty of frightening inner demons, such as
depression, anger, and anxiety. When this happens we have the opportunity to
feed, not fight, these demons with the nectar of love and compassion. This goes
against the grain of ego-clinging and allows the inner demons to transform into
Here’s an idea: choose a day to devote to the practice of
generosity. Maybe one Saturday from the time you get up until you go to bed,
see how many opportunities you can find to be generous. Start by passing an
object from one hand to the other mindfully. You might cook someone breakfast,
offer your seat on the subway, make a donation, or spend some time with a child
or someone having a hard time. See how many ways you can give in one day.
Notice your motivation, how it feels to do it, and the reactions of others. At
the end of the day, recall all the ways you were generous. Notice how you feel
and what happened as a result of your generosity. ©
Lama Tsultrim Allione is the author of Feeding Your
Demons and the founder of Tara Mandala, a Buddhist retreat center in
Illustrations for this article are by Tomi Um.