Practice Guides June 1, 2017

Dāna: The Heart of Letting Go

Sean Oakes

At the end of a retreat at Spirit Rock, participants hear a “dāna talk” from a teacher. Dāna (pronounced “daa-nuh”) is a Pāli word that means giving, especially to charity and in support of the Buddhist monastic saṅgha. It’s often translated as generosity because of the centrality of that beautiful emotion and intention in the practice of giving. When we hear a dāna talk, it’s often centered around inspiring donations to support the teachers and the center, but in the Buddha’s teachings, dāna is much more than just a way to talk about giving donations. The teaching on dāna points to the entirety of the Path, from the first steps away from the small sense of self all the way to the deep liberation that comes from truly letting go.

Dāna in the Buddha’s Teachings

When the Buddha taught new people, he often started with topics that were common to many spiritual traditions of his time: giving, ethical conduct, and the actions that lead to rebirth in heaven realms. Giving always comes first, as it does in the list of the 10 “perfections” (pāramī) cultivated by the Buddha over countless lifetimes in preparation for awakening. In ancient India, giving to ascetic wanderers, spiritual seekers, and religious organizations was a deeply respected practice, and the Buddha continued in this tradition, praising giving as the foundation of spiritual life and wisdom.

Giving material resources to those who are ethical and in need is considered to generate great merit (puñña), and is a foundation for the deep letting go cultivated on the path. In an early discourse, the Buddha taught that one should not even eat one meal without giving, so great are the benefits (Iti 26). A central reason to give is personal: to protect the heart from the painful quality of stinginess. When a devoted follower named General Sīha asked the Buddha about the benefits of giving, the Buddha listed four having to do with social reputation that can be seen in this life, plus rebirth in a heaven realm, which cannot be seen directly and must be taken on faith (AN 5.34).

It can be helpful to distinguish between the Pāli words for giving (dāna) and generosity (cāga). Generosity is an emotion and an intention, while giving is the action that follows, bringing our intention to fulfillment. Generosity turns our orientation away from what we can get and keep for ourselves toward what we can offer to others. The emotion of generosity contains aspects of all the brahmavihāras—lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity—as we feel how easily we can help others in need, and how much satisfaction it can give us. Bringing generosity into form as giving asks us to not just wish well for others but act to support their well-being.

Dāna is the first of the ten perfections (pāramī), followed by ethics (sīla), and renunciation (nekkhamma). All three of these foundational wholesome qualities are based in letting go. Giving prepares the heart for deeper letting go by offering material resources to others. Ethics is expressed through keeping the precepts, in which we give up harmful actions in order to cleanse the heart of greed and hatred and make a safer space for others. And renunciation is the practice of letting go of that which we do not need in order to live simply and give as much as possible to others. Generosity and ethics are two of the eight qualities of a faithful householder (AN 8.54).

“The Story of the Hare” (Ja 316), is one of the most beloved Jātaka tales, folk stories shared by several Asian cultures. Traditionally associated with dāna, it tells the story of the Buddha in a former life as a devout rabbit who joyfully offers his body as alms food to a passing mendicant (who is the god Sakka in disguise, testing him and his animal friends). Sakka saves the hare, and honors his profound generosity by painting his likeness onto the face of the moon.

Dāna in Practice

In modern practice, dāna is often centered around giving donations to Buddhist monastics and other spiritual charities (like Spirit Rock and our teachers). The heart quality of dāna arises in gratitude when the Dharma is offered freely, without a price attached, based on the ancient understanding that the teachings that lead to liberation are priceless. At Spirit Rock’s residential retreats, we practice a version of this ancient gift economy in which the teachers offer their time and wisdom freely, receiving dāna in gratitude for their time and teachings. More than half of Spirit Rock’s yearly operating budget is offered to us as donations, and we are truly grateful to continue the ancient practice of dāna in this way.

Learn about the practice of dāna at Spirit Rock.

Giving is the heart of engaged Buddhism, as we give material resources, time, and energy in service of our communities and the world. The great Thai monk Ajahn Buddhadāsa understood dāna to be the basis of all Buddhist social action and the root of his vision of a peaceful, compassionate economy, interpreting it as the principle of “taking only what you need.” When we give our time and energy for the welfare of underserved communities and those in need, we are practicing dāna.

When giving dāna at the end of a retreat, or giving to Spirit Rock or Buddhist monasteries anytime, it can be helpful to think of dāna as a mindfulness practice. When we give, we can become aware of feelings of generosity and stinginess, anxiety and equanimity, and the full range of stories we carry about money and material resources. To truly make dāna a practice that can cleanse the heart, be present and patient with any discomfort that arises as you give, but also delight in the joy that arises as we set aside worry and scarcity and lean into trust and abundance. Dāna can stir up dukkha and old stories, but can also be one of the most pleasurable and nourishing things we can do on the path, teaching us about true abundance, the joy of supporting wholesome action in the world, and the liberating power of letting go.

Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher, Movement Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.