November 18, 2019

Generosity as Spiritual Practice: A Q&A with Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein

Generosity is the foundation of the Buddhist path—the beginning of spiritual awakening. As such, the practice of giving, or dana, arises from an inner quality of letting go, encouraging non-attachment, developing lovingkindness and compassion, and deepening an awareness of our interconnectedness. A central element of Buddhist teachings and practice, generosity has guided all aspects of IMS’s vision and operations from its earliest days on.

Recently, John Spalding, IMS’s Director of Development and Communications, sat down with IMS co-founders Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein to discuss generosity: its function in Buddhist practice, the reasons we resist generosity, the benefits of giving, and how generosity has figured into the history of IMS.

What is the role of generosity in a life devoted to Buddhist practice?

Joseph In some ways generosity is the beginning point of the Buddhist teachings. It’s often said that the Buddha would give graduated teachings as he traveled around speaking to different groups, and his teachings would always start with the practice of generosity. From there, his teachings would move into the practice of ethical behavior, or sīla, and then into meditation. So this speaks to the importance of generosity as the foundation of the whole spiritual path. It’s quite remarkable. And it’s important to understand that generosity is a practice; it’s not just a single event. It’s a quality in our hearts and minds that we can actually develop and cultivate.

There are so many good qualities associated with generosity that it really is a joyful place to start the practice. When we’re being generous, we experience a feeling of metta, or lovingkindness. It feels good to have positive feelings about those towards whom we’re being generous. And sometimes generosity includes a feeling of compassion, as when we’re moved by compassion to be generous towards someone. And sometimes generosity figures into our development of renunciation, because generosity is also a form of letting go.

Why do the Buddhist teachings start with generosity, and not, say, meditation?

Sharon In the classical presentation, there’s a strong emphasis on setting the stage for our meditation practice. If you’re trying to meditate and you’re, say, haunted by guilt over something you’ve said or done, it’s going to be that much harder for you to meditate. But if you establish a quality of generosity first, then the practice of meditation will be that much easier. In this way, generosity really is a gift. When you extend generosity to someone else, it’s like you’re giving them a gift of fearlessness, as they realize that you are not a source of harm to them.

As you develop more insight through the meditative process, you also naturally become more generous. And you want to become more generous. It becomes a deeply held aspiration, and there is a clear vision about this in the teachings. There’s a famous line from the Buddha: “If you knew as I do the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass by without offering something to someone”—even if it’s just giving a grain of rice to an ant. It may not be much, but it’s something. There’s also a generosity of the spirit, offering lovingkindness to someone, thanking them, smiling at them. The Buddhist path is a very conscious, deliberate effort toward cultivating that.

Joseph In Asian Buddhist cultures, the quality of generosity is inculcated in young people really from the very beginning. Children are taught to give a daily offering of food to the monks, and it’s beautiful to see how it becomes embodied in their lives early on. Generosity makes us happy. If we make it a conscious practice, then when a thought of doing something generous for someone else arises in our minds, we act on it. I’ve taken this on as a personal practice for many years, and I love it because it does bring a lot of joy. It’s great to have some level of joy or happiness as the foundation of our meditative inquiry.

I remember one time I had this really beautiful carved wooden Buddha. It was one of my favorite Buddhist objects. And there was somebody going through a difficult time and I had the thought just to offer it, and because I had taken it on as a practice, I acted on the thought. It made me so happy to do it and it made the other person really happy to receive it. It is such a valuable practice to pay attention to one’s own generous impulses and not let them just pass by, because they’re precious opportunities.

What is the nature of our resistance to generosity?

Sharon Part of the resistance is a level of fear that we are conditioned to—that if we can manage to hold on to enough stuff, we’re not going to face impermanence or death. It’s like old totems against change. And so the thought of letting go, of renouncing, of offering, is scary—what am I going to be left with? But what we’re left with is the joy of having exercised that opportunity.

Maybe you have a discipline where you say, for the next three months, every time a strong impulse to give something arises in my mind, I’m going to do it, even if the next 50 thoughts are fearful. We have the impulse to give and then we get afraid, and that’s okay, because we can learn what happens in our bodies and minds as we as we undergo that kind of fear and get through it. You get to see the nature of that impulse to give, you get to see the nature of the pulling back, you get to see what happens when you actually give, and you also get to see what happens afterwards. Do you ever actually regret it? Do you wake up in the night and think, if I only had that thing back? Probably not. Mostly there’s a willingness and a sense of freedom in having given.

Joseph We talk about generosity being the foundation for ongoing practice, because there’s a wisdom component contained within generosity itself. In every moment of giving we’re letting go of clinging, we’re letting go of something. The word renunciation often scares people—we may not be inspired by that word. But if we turn it around and see that renunciation is really an act of generosity, letting go of something and offering it, we see the deep wisdom component in this practice. It’s not only the foundation, it also in some way expresses the culmination of the path.

Part of the teaching about generosity is to be conscious or aware of what it feels like both when we have the impulse, and then in the very act of giving itself. Usually there’s a great sense of connection and intimacy in the act of giving. And then, as Sharon was just referring to, what does it feel like afterwards when we reflect on the fact that we’ve been generous? Not in an ego way, but as an appreciation of the wholesome mind state. We begin to experience the Buddha’s words about the Dharma: good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end. For example, the commencement speaker at Morehouse College earlier this year [Robert F. Smith] who paid the student loan debt of the whole graduating class. What a magnificent gesture of generosity, and what joy he must have had! And of course, the joy of all the students who were relieved of that burden. That’s the power, when we look for opportunities to act on our own generous impulses.

What is the relationship between generosity and karma?

Joseph On a simple level, we can see the cause-and-effect relationship in two ways. First, in seeing how each thought, each action, makes us feel, what qualities of mind, what inner environment are we developing? Are we polluting our inner environment or cultivating wholesome states? And we can see how that plays out in our lives: how do people relate to us when we’re being generous? An interesting experiment is to think of the very generous people we know, and to notice how we feel about them. I think that for most of us, we’re appreciative and delighting in them and in that quality in their hearts. So one karmic result is that people think well of us. And then it often does become the seed of future abundance, sometimes playing out immediately and sometimes, perhaps, over lifetimes. Of course, the Buddha did caution about thinking too much about the intricacies of karma and its results.

Sharon In Burma, for example, where Joseph and I and many of our contemporaries did periods of practice, you don’t actually pay for room and board in those centers, because everything you need is offered to you. It’s such a powerful example of the ability to give not being based on an external measure of how much you have, because these were often very poor people. In Burmese culture, when it’s your birthday, you don’t celebrate by getting gifts—you give gifts. Giving is a powerful karmic tie to the beings you’re making the offering to.

Joseph People have developed the quality of generosity within themselves to varying degrees. For some people, it may come very naturally—perhaps they’ve cultivated it over a lifetime, so it’s easy. Other people have a different conditioning, so it feels difficult. For people who are developing this capacity in themselves but struggle with it, the Buddha offered the practice of taking a stone in one hand and then giving it to the other hand—the most basic practice of letting go. It seems like a funny exercise to do, but I like how it points to the fact that we are in different places with regard to this very beautiful quality, but we can start our practice from wherever we are. We might start with very little gestures, and then as we get more confident and appreciate the beauty of it and the joy it brings us, maybe we give a little more. There’s a whole development and cultivation that’s possible.

It’s said too much of anything isn’t good. Is there such a thing as too much generosity?

Sharon I don’t know that there is too much generosity if the motive is the right motive. One might not be giving from a sense of generosity, one might be giving from a sense of martyrdom—that we don’t deserve to have anything ourselves, for example. It’s the development of greater mindfulness that allows us to see our patterns, and where we’re coming from in our impulse to give. There is always, in action, a question of discernment—don’t give away your car if your family is dependent on it, even if you get this wild impulse to give away your car. We always need balance and discernment.

Joseph In talking of motivation, I was on retreat once and reading something in the texts, when I had the thought, Oh, this would be a good story for Sharon, who was writing a book at the time. And then it was so interesting to watch my mind. The first impulse was that generous thought – Sharon would like this story – and then the second thought came, No, I want to keep this story for myselfAfter all, for Dharma teachers a good story is gold. And then I thought, No, that’s just being selfish, I should give her this story, but maybe I’ll tell her what I went through so she has a certain kind of appreciation(and maybe even indebtedness) for my great renunciation. It just went on and on like this in my mind, and at a certain point, I started questioning myself: Where in the mix of all of this is that feeling of generosity? And I realized it was there in the very first moment, and even though there might have been a whole series of subsequent motivations, some of which were not so skillful, it was always possible to go back to that very first impulse. It highlighted the fact that it’s not unusual to have mixed motivations. We may have lots of different thoughts going on in the mind and that’s okay, it doesn’t mean that generous impulse is sullied. It’s just the conditioning and the habit patterns of our mind, and we can always go back to that moment of purity. After the retreat, I shared the story with Sharon, and, it turned out that she didn’t even want it for her book. But it was a great teaching lesson for me in being mindful of the process I went through.

How might someone use generosity to overcome a problem area in their life?

Joseph One of the interesting explorations that I made early on, as I was learning about this and beginning to practice, is when I was having difficulty with someone, some kind of interpersonal tension, I would think, Let me give this person a gift. It’s not the intuitive thing to do if one is annoyed or irritated, but when I did it as an experiment, it was amazing how just that act of generosity in the midst of some kind of conflict actually changed the dynamic, both in myself and also in the other person, because if we’re receiving something that’s freely offered, it’s hard to maintain a constricted heart in that moment of receiving. And then the whole dynamic loosened up a little bit, and it became much easier to work through whatever the difficulty happened to be.

How has generosity figured into the history of IMS?

Joseph When we started IMS, we were basically a bunch of kids just back from our time in Asia, with almost no material resources, but really on fire with our enthusiasm for sharing the Dharma and the practice. At first, we were just going from place to place teaching, in a very grassroots way. And after a year and a half or so, we had the idea to start a center where people could come to us instead of us continually traveling. It came together almost magically, beginning with purchasing IMS for what seems now like a pittance—$150,000 for all the buildings and 90 acres of land. Back then, it seemed almost impossible, it was so much more than we could even imagine having, and yet somehow people made offerings to cover the down payment, to cover the mortgage payments. And over the years, as interest has grown in the practice and IMS has grown, there’s been huge generosity—from the creation of the Forest Refuge and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies to unglamorous things, like hooking up our sewer system to the town, which was a very expensive undertaking. The outpouring of generosity in the service of sharing the Dharma has been amazing.

Can you explain how dana works at IMS, particularly teacher dana?

Sharon There’s also a lot of service here, including the teachers who teach on a dana basis. The word dana means generosity or giving. When we practiced in Asia, the teachings were always offered freely, but the Asian system was also a monastic system where the householders were responsible for everything the teacher needed. When we came here, at first we thought, maybe everything should be free, just like it was in Burma … but we had to provide health insurance for everybody. So we tried to create a system that would honor the roots of what we had been given in Asia, but was realistic in the West. When teachers teach at IMS, they don’t receive an honorarium, but people have the opportunity to offer donations at the end of the retreat to the group of teachers. The system is totally dependent on people’s generosity.

Joseph Generosity has played an absolutely essential role in the beginning and the continuation and development of IMS. I’d just like to express tremendous appreciation and gratitude for all the generosity that has been offered, because it has made what we’re doing possible, and fueled the energy for the sharing of the Dharma with so many.

Learn more about generosity in action at IMS. 

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