The Practice of Giving: Why, How and What

At this time of year, many people give and receive holiday gifts. It's a wonderful opportunity to express one's love and care. It allows us to realize and remind ourselves that we live with so much love and support from others. This is what I think "Holiday Spirit" is about: love, care, appreciation, and joy. But at the same time we can easily become enslaved to consumerism and focus only on the material value of gifts. It can be a time of creating more greed and anxiety unless we are conscious of it. Hence, I'd like to share the Buddhist practice of giving with a hope that we can use this joyful time to expand our generous hearts.

In Buddhism, we can find the teaching of giving from 'The Six Paramitas' known as 'The Six Perfections': perfection of giving, morality, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. These are the six virtues that an enlightened one lives with. They are often referred to as the Bodhisattva's (an awakened one) deeds. Though, for most of Buddhist practitioners, the six perfections are the qualities to be cultivated on the path to awakening. It's a common understanding that through the practice of the six perfections, we can cross over the sea of suffering to the shore of happiness and peace.

The Perfection of giving (Dana Paramita) is the first virtue to be developed. Dana in Sanskrit and Pail is translated as generosity or charity. It is to give what is helpful and good to those who are in need without expectation of reward or recognition. Like the practice of loving kindness and compassion, generous giving has to reflect our heartfelt wish for others to be happy and be free from suffering.

Why do we give things to others? We give because it's a tradition; it's expected; we are told to be generous; it gives us a good reputation; or we believe in a good karma. There may be different reasons or intentions to generous giving. From the Buddhist perspective, generous giving is an essential path to awakening; through the practice of giving we expand our hearts and get more insight into the interconnectedness of all. When we see things from the lens of interconnectedness we are able to let go of egocentric mindset, which will bring us eternal peace and liberation.

As a way to awaken our hearts, our practice of giving has to be unconditional and selfless. This is a guideline to "how" to give. It means that we give with no selfish desire for recognition, gratitude, or reputation. If we give something under a certain condition expecting something in return, we would call it a 'trade' or a 'bribe' but not a 'giving'. The core aspect of Buddhist giving is giving without self-concept as a giver in the act of giving. It's easy for us to think that "I" am giving this to "you" with a sense of superiority. However we need to be clear that giving is not to separate oneself from others, but rather to realize oneness of all. The more we give out of the goodness of hearts, the more we realize that we are not just giving or helping others but helping ourselves as well. There is no need for appreciation or a reward as a result of this giving. It's like when we tie shoelaces, our hands are unaware that "I" am doing this for the "feet"; when we wash our face, our hands do not expect a reward from our face. It's very important to remember that giving is to let go of selfish ego and not to feed the ego.

When Sotaesan, the founding master of Won Buddhism, was asked by his disciple how is it different to give with sings (ideas that "I" am giving) and without signs, he explained that,

Making offering is like fertilizing fruit trees: making offerings that retain signs would be like spreading fertilizer on top of the soil, and making offerings that are signless would be like digging the fertilizer into the soil. Fertilizer spread on top of the soil would find its energy easily scattered, but fertilizer dug into the soil will find its energy to be long lasting and effective. The difference in merit between making offerings that retain signs and making offerings that are signless is just like this. (The Scriptures of Won Buddhism, P.276)

There are three kinds of gifts in the Buddhist giving practice.

  • The gift of material things (Amisadana): giving material goods and resources including food, clothes, shelters, medicine, and etc.
  • The gift of fearlessness (Abhayadana): giving loving protection, comfort, and safety to those who are in distress and fear with words, actions and prayers.
  • The gift of the dharma (Dharmadana): giving dharma (truth). It's considered to be the highest form of giving because it can end one's suffering. It doesn't mean speaking or preaching about buddha dharma to just anyone. It means giving and sharing dharma to those who are willing and ready to listen.

We may have multiple intentions in giving, such as, expecting recognition and appreciation, or we think we don't have much to give to others. This doesn't mean that we have to wait until we become completely selfless and we have enough to give. When would that be? The practice of generous giving is now or never.