When the Buddha gave what he called “progressive instructions” leading to liberation, he always began with foundational teachings that would be helpful for people, regardless of whether or not they embraced the deeper Dharma he taught. These basic teachings begin with the practice of giving (dāna) and keeping the ethical precepts (sīla), which are both beneficial for anyone and fundamental practices on the path of liberation.
The Buddha called dāna an “adornment for the mind,” and emphasized the benefits that come to one who is generous, both in this lifetime and beyond. Giving is the foundation of the whole of the Dharma, because it teaches us to let go. When we support others with generosity, we deepen our connection to community, our hearts are uplifted, and we strengthen the qualities of renunciation and contentment that lead to freedom.
Because Insight Meditation began as a retreat-oriented community, many of us think about dāna primarily in the context of giving donations to the teachers and to the retreat center at the close of a retreat. While this is a vital and powerful expression of generosity and the joy of giving, the practice of dāna is a deeper and more central aspect of Buddhist practice.
The discourses of the Buddha abound with praise for dāna as a fundamental practice and quality of the awakened heart. One beautiful story describes the Buddha knowing that far away a devoted laywoman, Veḷukaṇṭakī, was making a large donation to a community of monastics led by his senior students, Sāriputta and Mogallāna. He praises her generosity and gives a teaching on the six qualities of a powerful donation:
What three factors apply to the donor? It’s when a donor is in a good mood before giving, while giving they feel confident, and after giving they’re uplifted. These three factors apply to the donor.
What three factors apply to the recipients? It’s when the recipients are free of greed, hate, and delusion, or practicing to be free of them. These three factors apply to the recipients. (AN 6.37)
This teaching emphasizes that giving dāna shouldn’t feel like an obligation or as something to feel worry or doubt about. Giving can be joyful and satisfying, and so our practice can be to look for those positive feelings as we practice giving. Giving strengthens relationships and communities, and opens us to the insight into interdependence. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes that “giving serves to break down the egocentric frame of mind on the basis of which we habitually interact with others.” It is fundamentally relational.
The other side of this teaching is also important. The appropriate recipients, the Buddha tells us, are people who are free from the great poisons or who are working to be free from them. The joy of giving comes when we know those we are supporting are practicing sincerely and wholeheartedly toward liberation.
This month’s Dharma teachings focus on the practice of dāna as the foundation of the path. We begin with a brief explanation of the traditional practice of offering food to monastics by Ajahn Passano of Abhayagiri monastery, who chants the gratitude verses known as anumodana. Talks by Spirit Rock teachers Dawn Mauricio, Kevin Griffin, Sylvia Boorstein, and Susie Harrington, and an article by Phillip Moffitt discuss different aspects of dāna, emphasizing how generosity is both the beginning of practice and an expression of full liberation.
May our practice of generosity be for the benefit of all.
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