How To Practice Generosity, And Why
Generosity Practice – The Mahayana Perfection of Generosity
Buddhism’s paramitas, also known as the perfections, are qualities generally associated with bodhisattvas or enlightened beings. But we don’t have to wait until we are enlightened to cultivate these characteristics for a more fulfilling life. The first of these virtues is generosity. Learn why generosity practice tops the list, and how to be more generous.
The sanskrit word paramita is often translated as ‘perfection.’ As in, these are the qualities or characteristics that enlightened beings have perfected. The root parama can also be translated as primary, most excellent, beyond, or transcendent. These are the virtues or actions that are highest.
The six paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism are as follows: (1) generosity (dana), (2) morality, (3) patience, (4) joyful effort, (5) meditation, and (6) wisdom. The Theravadan tradition lists ten: (1) giving, (2) morality, (3) renunciation, (4) insight, (5) joyful effort, (6) patience, (7) truthfulness, (8) resolution, (9) loving-kindness, and (10) equanimity.
The Sanskrit word dana refers to generosity, giving, gifts, alms or donations. It can also mean non-attachment or the ability to let go.
Generosity is not merely a result, but an action we can practice right here and right now. Giving is a skillful means of developing wisdom, contentment and freedom from the suffering described in the four noble truths.
How Generosity Leads to Happiness
The act of giving freely, void of any expectation of receiving something in return, is the sacred act of an enlightened being. In our own lives, we can do our very best to emulate this, but for most of us, giving is attached to getting.
We may expect to get a material object or service in return, or perhaps praise or fame. Those who recognize karma, may give to gather merit or to ensure a positive future rebirth. We might give with the intent to realize nirvana or to become enlightened. As humans, we do our best to give not with selfish intentions, but with ‘enlightened self-interest.’ By doing so, our generosity practice helps us to soften our hold on objects, including the self, creating space for true wisdom to arise.
The act of giving works on us in several ways. Research associates giving with better physical and mental health, including delayed mortality. Those who give experience more activity in the temporal parietal junction (TPJ), an area of the brain responsible for empathy, kindness and compassion. Most of all, those who give freely are happier and more content.
By giving, we realize we have enough. If we wait to feel wealthy before giving away our money, for example, we’ll never feel ready to give. It’s the act of giving itself that connects us to the feeling of abundance.
When we give, we practice releasing our attachment. As we let go of our clinging to the material goods or expertise that define us, our identity softens too. We begin to let go of the concept of me and mine, the source of our suffering.
Once we realize we are not separate, nor the owners of objects, we can start giving with the purest of intentions. The highest form of giving is that which is done with wisdom. We give with the understanding that what we are giving is not ours, nor does the recipient need it. Generosity becomes an expression of energy of the heart, shared between two beings who already have everything they need.
3 Ways To Show Generosity To Others
The more we take part in the practice of generosity, the more we develop a generous heart. By giving, we don’t become depleted, but increasingly capable of giving more.
To practice, we might start small. But each time we give in a manner that stretches us a bit, our hearts and the source of our generosity grows. Begin with one or more of the following acts of generosity.
1. Giving Material Things
Giving money or material objects is just one form of giving, but one that can be quite profound in a culture that places great value on objects. The practice might begin with gratitude, recognizing our good fortune, the objects that make our lives comfortable, and wishing that all beings everywhere could enjoy the same.
2. Giving One’s Self
Giving our own bodies in service to others can be as simple as offering our presence, listening mindfully, or sharing compliments and words of gratitude. We can be generous with our time, skills or expertise. These things may be done in a formal volunteer setting, or informally throughout the course of our day.
3. Sharing the Dharma
Sharing meditation and the practices that have been of benefit to us is the most valuable thing we can give. If we don’t feel qualified to share the dharma by formally teaching others, we can help support those who do. We might donate to a meditation center or a beloved teacher, share a podcast, a blog or an online course with a loved one, or invite someone to meditate with us.
We can also practice meditation with generosity in mind. The more we work toward embodied presence, the more everyone we’re in relationship with will benefit. Thus, each time we sit down to practice, we can develop generosity by dedicating the merit from our meditation to the benefit of others.