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The practice of Generosity in Buddhism

Dernière mise à jour : 4 avr. 2023

Generosity is inherent in all that "is"

Generosity is a recurring theme of course in any spirituality, any religion, and of course, in connection with the very essence of life.

When I speak of the essence of life, I am referring to the daily wonders that the world offers through its generous interdependencies. The sun offers its warmth to the earth, the water offers its gentleness, and the earth, charged with these wonderful gifts of warmth and life, offers its cozy and nutritious nest to the seed.

The seed, carrying the warmth of the sun, the nourishment of water and earth, comfortably nestled within the elements of fire, earth and water, will thus be able to put into action the energy of movement, the wind - which should not be understood as the wind blowing of course, but by the energetic aspect of the movement itself - and, using the space around it to blossom, as well as within it to multiply each of its cells, this seed will slowly but surely, step by step, transform itself into a young plant, which will become a tree and give fruit.

This generosity of the tree, of the seed before it, offers us the sweetness of the taste for the pleasure aspect, and the nutritive elements essential to our lives. The tree warms us by consuming its body, it refreshes us by providing shade, it protects us by making a barrier to the winds as we can see in Provence through the cypress hedges, it heals us when its essences are used to soften and heal our ailments.

We see that through this simple chain of generosity, we benefit from many gifts.

Buddhism distinguishes three types of generosity

At the human level, and especially in Buddhism, generosity is defined in 3 types of actions:

  • generosity through material giving,

  • generosity through the gift of protection,

  • generosity through the gift of education.

These 3 types of generosity are ranked in order of importance. The material gift being the first level, the excellence being the gift of knowledge. This classification is based on the aspect of subtlety, going from the grossest act (it is indeed easy to give, to share what one has, even if one has little, as we will see later) to the most subtle (the subtlety consisting in transforming oneself through practice and study in order to be able to deliver the teaching to others). In Buddhism, the gross being linked to the physical body, worldly actions, etc... The subtle being in connection with the pure awakened nature.

Sharing a meal, giving a piece of clothing, giving time, does not require any particular skill, whereas awakening requires a long inner work.

A progressive path, step by step, is the sinequanum condition of Buddhism

Before going further into the explanations of each of these generosities, I draw attention to the fact that the Buddhist teaching is a teaching that "should" be received in stages. That is, "step by step", in a "progressive" way.

I say "should" because in reality, unfortunately, many people do not follow this progressive path and we arrive at life approaches that we believe to be "Buddhist", "disciplined", while often we still make many mistakes, which necessarily are the source of more and more creation of negative karmas...

To receive a progressive teaching, step by step, is not always obvious.

If one is a little kid, it will necessarily be done like that and thus the road is well drawn.

If you are a Westerner, it will be more difficult.

If we have the chance to enter from the first steps in the well formatted framework of a progressive teaching like the Lam Rim in the Gelugpa path, then no worries, the step by step approach will be well present.

In the same way, if we enter a Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya, Bön teaching, delivered in a progressive way, then perfect.

Unfortunately, in the West and more and more today, we have the possibility to "pick and choose" from here and there and the risk is then great to receive the understandings in a disordered order which only slows down the progression, the understandings, and therefore necessarily the realizations, which can even push the person, through new and erroneous understandings, to walk in the opposite direction.

If we take up the teachings step by step delivered by Atisha, we notice that the teachings on generosity come in the very last part of the study. It is only after many months and years of practice, i.e. listening, studying, and then applying the listening and studying in specific meditations, that one will have access to these teachings on generosity.

What is the connection between a progressive education and the practice of generosity?

The reason is very simple. The act of generosity in Buddhism must be pure. It must be free of attachments. Free from any personal goal, even deeply unconscious ones.

To reach this point, it will be necessary to go deeply into the different subjects of study which are the precious human life, impermanence, karma, death, suffering, the 4 noble truths, Bodhicitta, emptiness...

Each study is not just the reading of the subject and then its memorization, but its integration. Through the analytical meditation, different meditations will be set up within each subject, which will inevitably take time, because of course, it is not a question of meditating only once on 1 subject... Then will come the meditations to develop Bodhicitta, these meditations, which are very formal in their unfolding, aiming at transcending the person towards a global vision, thus allowing him to work for the benefit of others at each moment.

We can see that it is only after many years of study that one will really integrate the teaching on the practice of generosity.

Of course, we are not going to wait to achieve the path to carry out our practices of generosity!

So we will begin to develop the first and most basic step, which is the giving of material goods.

Then slowly, as our spiritual development progresses, we will be able to move through the other stages and perhaps one day be able to practice the ultimate generosity, the most subtle generosity, that of helping beings to free themselves from suffering and develop infinite happiness.

However, before giving, you must know when not to give!

Here is what challenges us, isn't it?

It is however essential to know how to give.

Knowing how to give means that at the level of the giver, the following conditions must be taken into account

  • not to have any attachment to any type of personal glorification.

  • not to expect any result. I remember one day a person asking a master, "I have given, but the result is not there, etc.". No need to elaborate further. How can you say that the result is not there. Not there when? now? not there yet? not there directly? The karmic threads are infinite, and looking for a result is already an expectation. We must give in inner detachment.

  • not give with the expectation of receiving something in return.

I could list many other points, but this is a blog, not a teaching, so I'll keep it general.

Knowing how to give means that at the level of the receiver, we must respect many points. More than ten wrong ways are presented in the teachings and it is very easy to fall into the trap.

Among the wrong ways we find the fact of making a person wait a long time before giving him something that we could give immediately, or giving sparingly when we have the possibility to give immediately, or giving in exchange for a difficult task.

The way we give is also important. We must be careful not to embarrass the person, we must be respectful of the person who receives.

Often, giving with respect allows one to receive.

I remember one day in Bodhgaya, 2 brothers approached me. The elder one is 7 to 8 years old, the younger one is about 3 to 4 years old. They ask me for a coin while I am paying an entrance fee in a park. I had a brick rose lassi in my bag. I take it out, put the straw inside, and kneel down to give it to the little guy. He takes it with his two hands, puts the straw in his mouth, starts to inhale, and I see him close his eyes, entering an intense phase of delight. I look at his brother who was also kneeling and he literally goes into ecstasy. He smiles, he laughs, he is happy. The little one drinks, drinks, drinks. I put a hand on his belly, another on his back. We are all 3 in the joy of sharing, of the moment. There was a sharing.

Besides, I see these 2 little guys again a few hours later. The little one slips his hand in mine, without asking anything more. His brother is at his side. Then seeing us, a toy seller approaches us, hoping to fool me into buying him one of those plastic objects "made in China". Immediately, even before I tell him no, it is the elder of the 2 brothers who signals me "no, no, we don't want it". I tell him "ok". And there he points towards a small samosa and other fried food seller. Ok, they are hungry. The elder brother asks for "only one" samosa that he was planning to share with his brother. I buy 2 and add some fried cookies. He is delighted and thanks me with a big smile, asking his little brother to thank me too. Today, the months have passed, these two little guys are part of the beings that I put forward in my wishes so that one day the life offers us the possibility to realize our dream of which I speak here.

The Bodhisattva is invited to give as he has, in a regular way, and not to accumulate goods while waiting to have enough to give and thus to risk losing them before the action of giving could be carried out, or to develop his ego by the recognition that he could receive to have been able to give a lot at a certain time...

Saving to give is really put forward as having no merit because by doing so, we block the energy that could have been released by regularly helping those in need while we were in the process of hoarding to better give...

Nagarjuna states:

"Knowing that wealth is ephemeral and without substance,

Practice generosity correctly and accumulate merit,

There is no better friend than the practice of generosity."

The action of giving will then be explained through the type of objects to give according to the type of person, etc.

The Material gift

Concerning material donation, we can give goods, money, food, services.

Whether in Paris or in India, giving food has a lot of meaning to me. It is a moment of real exchange. When I give a coin, I don't have the same feeling as when I give food. It's personal, but giving food to me feels more like a real sharing. Leaving a restaurant with unfinished food is an opportunity to ask for it to be put in a little bag and share it with someone else.

Giving services is simply helping someone through our knowledge. Giving your time and knowledge to help someone.

We can also give blood on a regular basis.

The list is long and we are invited to meditate on these aspects.

The gift of Protection

The second action of giving is to give protection.

This giving comes in 2 aspects:

  • physical actions

  • mental actions

One day, in Paris, I was with my friend, and we were walking to the metro where I was going to go to a Buddhist teaching. We saw a lady about 400 meters away from us who was shouting at a magpie that was attacking a small bird. Without thinking, we both run madly towards the birds. The magpie flew away when we arrived and the poor little sparrow was huddled near some leaves at the foot of the wall, shaking. I then took some big leaves from a nearby tree, huge leaves in fact, at least 20 cm in diameter, I don't know what species it was, to make a shelter. Thus enclosing the small sparrow under this carapace of leaf, allowing him to have a protection, hidden from the magpie, thus offering him the possibility to recover.

The evening when I returned, he was gone so I guess everything went well.

The same day, as I was getting out of the subway and waiting on the sidewalk to cross the street, I see on the other side, many people also waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green.

Among them, a man with a white cane. A car sees him, and stops while it has the green light. The man hears the car braking, and starts to move forward. The people waiting next to him look at him and do not move. The other cars were of course moving. The man suddenly has a feeling of doubt, stops. Moves back 2 steps. But suddenly he starts walking again while the cars are still moving. No one was moving beside him to tell him to wait. I then rushed to the middle of the street, spreading my arms to make all the vehicles stop. At that point, the pedestrian light turned green, and the man was able to cross.

We can help a person by offering a roof to someone who is homeless or in exile in a difficult situation, or in extreme situations, victims of war, cataclysm,...

We can help a person by offering a roof to someone who is homeless or in exile in a difficult situation, or in extreme situations, victims of war, cataclysm,...

We can also help someone who has a lot of fears, stress, anxiety for example. We can say that psychologists play this role of protection.

However, it will be necessary to be again very fine in our comprehension and in our words because the erroneous word can make more harm than good. Let's imagine a person in inner distress because her life has just changed overnight, maybe her life partner has left her, and a friend would turn to her and say "I think you can forget about him, anyway, I feel that you have wings since he left, that you are more fulfilled, etc. etc. I know the example seems absurd, who would have the idea to go and say such dramatic words to a person in pain, but I know someone who really lived this situation, who really heard these words from her best friend, who was supposedly there to console her or help her not to do something stupid in her life when she was drowned in her despair and didn't see any interest in it anymore...

So this is an example of how right we must be in our actions and especially in those of speech.

Once again, discipline of body, speech and mind will be the precious safeguards to show wisdom and thus be able to offer our generosity.

The gift of protection is therefore a practice of generosity that we can all apply. It is not necessary to be wealthy to practice it, however, it is imperative to adopt a pure, commissioned attitude, and to introduce ethics in our lives to practice it in a just altruistic way.

The power of intention

One day, I see a beggar that I had already seen in the morning, and I didn't have much money. I was waiting for some money to come in, I had about 15 euros left for a few days...

Instead of giving him a coin, when I wanted to buy 2 apples, I also chose an apple for him, with a beautiful intention.

Because the intention that we can put on a gift also has its importance because we are all connected... interdependence... hey yes... never forget this essential point... !

in this last example, where I am in a street with many passers-by and this beggar, we can focus on all the passers-by with the intention that they also help this beggar. If our intention is powerful enough, it will generate this inspiration in some of these people around.

We thus understand how important it is to nourish a right thought, and to support it through the power of meditation which will allow us to raise our inner power and to transform the unattainable into realization.

However, be careful, the intention must be right, as I said above, but we will talk about this in a future article because the line between the right intention and the intention motivated by a conscious or unconscious desire can be very subtle...

The gift of Education

The third gift, the most subtle, is that of teaching. It consists in walking the path, in transforming oneself, in growing internally, in acquiring knowledge from reliable and recognized sources, and then, in spreading it around. By delivering wisdom guidance, we contribute to transforming people, by opening their eyes to the fact that their suffering can be alleviated, by changing their outlook on life, by integrating righteousness in the actions of the body, speech and mind, and by immersing oneself in the meditative practice associated with the study.

I will not elaborate further on this aspect of generosity, which is only relevant to those who have been on this path for several years and are therefore already aware of the different stages and requirements of this path.

The practice of generosity can become the perfection of generosity

We would usually give only to a group of people of our choice, whom we love, for the attachment we feel towards their cause. It is normal, we function like that. However, we are much more open than these closed aspects linked to our attachments, to our narrow views of reality.

And it is there that the understanding of the implementation of the study of the Buddhist teaching step by step and of its realizations through the practices, will take all its meaning, because with the wire of our realizations, we will be able to give in all equanimity, in direction of all the beings, towards those which are close to us, towards those which are not, towards those which harm us, towards those which are poor, but also towards those which are rich.

It is by proceeding in this way that the "practice" of generosity will be transformed into "perfection of generosity". It will be achieved not through a worldly inner process, but through the practice of the Bodhisattva, the being who has developed the Bodhicitta, the mind of awakening.

This awakening mind is the source of all awakened actions and as we understand it, it is the ultimate goal of the path.

Paramitas - Method - Wisdom

The perfection of Generosity is one of the six paramitas or six perfections, of which it is the first perfection. They are all classified in a progressive order, each one rising on the previous one, thus going again from the coarsest aspect to the most subtle one. And there is no need to repeat that the order is essential, otherwise the realization of the subtler aspects will not be possible.

The practice of generosity allows one to free oneself from greed in order to slowly move towards the perfection of generosity which is the liberation of attachment in all its forms.

Through these liberated attachments and the understanding of interdependence, we detach ourselves from false views and understand the sources of our suffering. The more we move towards these subtle understandings, the more we open up to others and understand how essential it is to generate a state of mind open to all beings. All actions, all intentions, are now turned towards all beings without any discrimination.

The practitioner, applying the first 5 paramitas, is here in the path of the method. This method, he associates it with the 6th paramita, the Wisdom. The famous pillars of Method and Wisdom which compose Buddhism.

Method and Wisdom are also explained from other angles.

The aim here was to introduce what is meant by Generosity in Buddhism and especially to understand that all along the path, and then on each paramita, there are many meditative techniques to be applied in association with study, reasoning and reflection.


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