Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Giving: the Buddha's Culture of Generosity

Ven. Thanissaro (aka Geoffrey DeGraff, WatMetta.org), No Strings Attached: The Buddha's Culture of Generosity edited by Ashley Wells, Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly
Dana ("giving") monastic support in Theravada Buddhist Thailand (Bugphai)
“How can I ever repay teachers for teaching [Buddhism]?”
Good meditation teachers often hear this question from students, and the best answer is one that teacher Ajahn Fuang gave every time: 
“By being intent on practicing.” 

Each time he gave this answer, it was very noble and gracious. It wasn't just a formality. He never tried to find opportunities to pressure students for donations. Even when the monastery was poor, he never acted poor, never tried to take advantage of their gratitude and trust. This was a refreshing change from some run-of-the-mill village and city monks who were quick to drop hints [which is against the Monastic Code of Discipline] about their need for donations from even stray or casual visitors.

What is the purpose of a Disciplinary Code?
Discipline is for the sake of restraint,
restraint for the sake of freedom from remorse,
freedom from remorse for the sake of joy,
joy for the sake of rapture,
rapture for the sake of tranquillity,
tranquillity for the sake of pleasant abiding,
pleasant abiding for the sake of concentration,
concentration for the sake of knowledge-and-vision
of things as they truly are,
knowledge-and-vision of things as they truly are
for the sake of disenchantment,
disenchantment for the sake of release,
release for the sake of knowledge-and-vision of release,
knowledge-and-vision of release
for the sake of total liberation without remainder.
Parivara.XII.2 (BMC p.1)
Thai rice farmer (Bugphai)
Ajahn Fuang's behavior is common throughout the Thai Forest Tradition. It's based on a passage in the Pali canon where the Buddha before final nirvana states that the highest form of reverence paid to him is not material or bowing, but the reverence of practicing the Dharma in accordance with the Dharma.

In other words, the best way to repay a teacher is to take the Dharma to heart and to practice it in a way that fulfills the compassionate purpose in teaching it. It is good to be part of a tradition where the inner wealth of this noble idea is actually lived -- where, as Ajahn Fuang often put it, teachers and monastics aren't reduced to "hirelings," and the act of teaching the Dharma is purely a gift.

On returning to America, one encounters the "dana talk" -- the talk on giving and generosity that often comes at the end of a retreat. The context of the talk -- and often the content -- makes it clear that it's not a disinterested exercise. It's aimed at generating "gifts" (donations, remuneration, payment) for the teacher or the organization sponsoring the retreat.

It places the burden of responsibility on the retreatants (meditation retreat participants) to ensure that future retreats can occur. The language of the talk is often smooth and encouraging, but when contrasted with Ajahn Fuang's answer, the sheer fact of the talk seems crass, ill-mannered, and demeaning.

If the organizers and teachers really trusted the retreatants' good-heartedness, they wouldn't be giving the talk at all. To make matters worse, the typical dana talk -- along with its companion, the meditation-center fundraising letter -- often cites the example of how monastics are supported in Asia as justification for how dana is treated here in the West.

Boy reclining on the Buddha (Bosforo65)
But they're taking as their example the worst of the monastic, not the best. The reasoning behind the talk is understandable. Lay teachers in the West aspire to the ideal of teaching for free, but they still need to eat. And unlike the monastics of Asia, they don't have a long-standing tradition of dana to fall back on. So the dana talk was devised as a means for establishing a culture of dana in a Western context.

But as so often is the case when new customs are devised for Western Buddhism, the question is whether the dana talk skillfully translates Buddhist principles into the Western context or seriously distorts them. The best way to answer this question is to take a close look at those principles in their original context.
It's well known that dana lies at the beginning of Buddhist practice. Dana, quite literally, has kept the Dharma alive. If it weren't for the tradition in ancient India of giving to mendicants, Prince Siddhartha would never have had the opportunity to explore and find the path to enlightenment.

The monastic community (Sangha) wouldn't have had the time and opportunity to follow the direct way to enlightenment. Dana is the first teaching in the gradual instruction of sutras, the list of topics the Buddha used to lead listeners step-by-step to direct insight into the Four Noble Truths, and often from there to a glimpse of nirvana and the first stage of awakening called stream entry or the opening of the "eye of the Dharma."

When stating the basic principles of karma, the Buddha would begin with the statement, “There is what is given.”
What's less well known is that in making this statement, the Buddha was not dealing in obvious (conventional) truths or generic platitudes, for the topic of giving was actually controversial in his time. For centuries, the Brahmins of India [and northwest remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization] had been extolling the virtue of giving -- as long as the gifts were given to them.

Not only that, gifts to Brahmins were obligatory. People of other castes, if they didn't concede to the Brahmins' demands for gifts, were neglecting their most essential social duty or dharma (obligation). By ignoring their duties in the present life, such people and their relatives were told they would suffer hardship both now and after death.
As might be expected, this attitude produced a backlash. Several of the [heretical] wandering ascetic schools (shramana movement) of the Buddha's time countered the Brahmins' claims by asserting that there was no virtue in giving at all. Their arguments fell into two camps. One camp claimed that giving carried no virtue because there was no afterlife. A person was nothing more than physical elements that, at death, returned to their respective spheres. That was it. Giving thus provided no long-term results.

The other camp stated that there was no such thing as giving, for everything in the universe has been determined by fate [a misinterpretation of the truth of karma, such as the Jewish theory of kismet]. If a donor gives something to another person, it's not really a gift, for the donor has no choice or free will in the matter. Fate was simply working itself out.
So when the Buddha, in his introduction to the teaching on karma, began by saying that there is what is given, he was repudiating both camps.

Giving does give results both now and on into the future, and it is the result of the donor's free choice. 

However, in contrast to the Brahmins, the Buddha took the principle of freedom one step further. When asked where a gift should be given, he stated simply, “Wherever the mind feels inspired.”

In other words -- aside from repaying one's debt to one's parents -- there is no obligation to give. This means that the choice to give is an act of true freedom, and thus the perfect place to start the path to total liberation (nirvana).
This is why the Buddha adopted dana as the context for practicing and teaching the Dharma. But -- to maintain the twin principles of freedom and fruitfulness in giving -- he created a culture of dana that embodied particularly Buddhist ideals.

To begin with, he defined dana not simply as material gifts and support (such as providing the five monastic requisites). The practice of the precepts, he said, was also a type of dana -- the gift of universal safety, protecting all beings from the harm of one's unskillful actions -- as was the act of teaching the Dharma.

This meant that lavish giving was not just the prerogative of the rich. Secondly, he formulated a code of conduct to produce an attitude toward giving that would benefit both the donors and the recipients, keeping the practice of giving both fruitful and free. More

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