No String Attached - The Buddha's Culture of Generosity

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No String Attached - The Buddha's Culture of Generosity
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    No   Strings    Attached   THE   BUDDHA’S   CULTURE   OF   GENEROSITY   Thanissaro   Bhikkhu   “How   can   I   ever   repay   you   for   your   teaching?”   Good   meditation   teachers   often   hear   this   question   from   their   students,   and   the    best   answer   I   know   for   it   is   one   that   my   teacher,   Ajaan   Fuang,   gave   every   time:   “By    being   intent   on   practicing.”   Each   time   he   gave   this   answer,   I   was   struck    by   how   noble   and   gracious   it   was.   And   it   wasn’t    just   a   formality.   He   never   tried   to   find   opportunities   to   pressure   his   students   for   donations.   Even   when   our   monastery   was   poor,   he   never   acted   poor,   never   tried   to   take   advantage   of   their   gratitude   and   trust.   This   was   a   refreshing   change   from   some   of   my   previous   experiences   with   run ‐ of ‐ the ‐ mill   village   and   city   monks   who   were   quick   to   drop   hints   about   their   need   for   donations   from   even   stray   or   casual   visitors.   Eventually   I   learned   that   Ajaan   Fuang’s    behavior   is   common   throughout   the   Forest   Tradition.   It’s    based   on   a   passage   in   the   Pali   Canon   where   the   Buddha   on   his   deathbed   states   that   the   highest   homage   to   him   is   not   material   homage,    but   the   homage   of   practicing   the   Dhamma   in   accordance   with   the   Dhamma.   In   other   words,   the    best   way   to   repay   a   teacher   is   to   take   the   Dhamma   to   heart   and   to   practice   it   in   a   way   that   fulfills   his   or   her   compassionate   purpose   in   teaching   it.   I   was   proud   to    be   part   of   a   tradition   where   the   inner   wealth   of   this   noble   idea   was   actually   lived—where,   as   Ajaan   Fuang   often   put   it,   we   weren’t   reduced   to   hirelings,   and   the   act   of   teaching   the   Dhamma   was   purely   a   gift.   So   I   was   saddened   when,   on   my   return   to   America,   I   had   my   first   encounters   with   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   clear   that   it’s   not   a   disinterested   exercise.   It’s   aimed   at   generating   gifts   for   the   teacher   or   the   organization   sponsoring   the   retreat,   and   it   places   the    burden   of   responsibility   on   the   retreatants   to   ensure   that   future   retreats   can   occur.   The   language   of   the   talk   is   often   smooth   and   encouraging,    but   when   contrasted   with   Ajaan   Fuang’s   answer,   I   found   the   sheer   fact   of   the   talk   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      2 its   companion,   the   meditation ‐ center   fundraising   letter—often   cites   the   example   of   how   monks   and   nuns   are   supported   in   Asia   as    justification   for   how   dana   is   treated   here   in   the   West.   But   they’re   taking   as   their   example   the   worst   of   the   monks,   and   not   the    best.   I   understand   the   reasoning    behind   the   talk.   Lay   teachers   here   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   srcinal   context.   It’s   well   known   that   dana   lies   at   the    beginning   of   Buddhist   practice.   Dana,   quite   literally,   has   kept   the   Dhamma   alive.   If   it   weren’t   for   the   Indian   tradition   of   giving   to   mendicants,   the   Buddha   would   never   have   had   the   opportunity   to   explore   and   find   the   path   to   Awakening.   The   monastic   sangha   wouldn’t   have   had   the   time   and   opportunity   to   follow   his   way.   Dana   is   the   first   teaching   in   the   graduated   discourse:   the   list   of   topics   the   Buddha   used   to   lead   listeners   step ‐  by ‐ step   to   an   appreciation   of   the   four   noble   truths,   and   often   from   there   to   their   own   first   taste   of   Awakening.   When   stating   the    basic   principles   of   karma,   he   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   truths   or   generic   platitudes,   for   the   topic   of   giving   was   actually   controversial   in   his   time.   For   centuries,   the    brahmans   of   India   had    been   extolling   the   virtue   of   giving—as   long   as   the   gifts   were   given   to   them.   Not   only   that,   gifts   to    brahmans   were   obligatory.   People   of   other   castes,   if   they   didn’t   concede   to   the    brahmans’   demands   for   gifts,   were   neglecting   their   most   essential   social   duty.   By   ignoring   their   duties   in   the   present   life,   such   people   and   their   relatives   would   suffer   hardship    both   now   and   after   death.   As   might    be   expected,   this   attitude   produced   a    backlash.   Several   of   the   samana,   or   contemplative,   movements   of   the   Buddha’s   time   countered   the    brahmans’   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.   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.      3 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    brahmans,   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   release.   This   is   why   the   Buddha   adopted   dana   as   the   context   for   practicing   and   teaching   the   Dhamma.   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.   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   Dhamma.   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.   We   tend   not   to   associate   codes   of   conduct   with   the   word   “freedom,”    but   that’s    because   we   forget   that   freedom,   too,   needs   protection,   especially   from   the   attitude   that   wants   to    be   free   in   its   choices    but   feels   insecure   when   others   are   free   in   theirs.   The   Buddha’s   codes   of   conduct   are   voluntary—he   never   coerced   anyone   into   practicing   his   teachings—but   once   they   are   adopted,   they   require   the   cooperation   of    both   sides   to   keep   them   effective   and   strong.   These   codes   are    best   understood   in   terms   of   the   six   factors   that   the   Buddha   said   exemplified   the   ideal   gift:   “The   donor,    before   giving,   is   glad;   while   giving,   his/her   mind   is   inspired;   and   after   giving,   is   gratified.   These   are   the   three   factors   of   the   donor….   “The   recipients   are   free   of   passion   or   are   practicing   for   the   subduing   of   passion;   free   of   aversion   or   practicing   for   the   subduing   of   aversion;   and   free   of   delusion   or   practicing   for   the   subduing   of   delusion.   These   are   the   three   factors   of   the   recipients.”   —  Anguttara   Nikaya   6:37   Although   this   passage   seems   to   suggest   that   each   side   is   responsible   only   for   the   factors   on   its   side,   the   Buddha’s   larger   etiquette   for   generosity   shows   that   the   responsibility   for   all   six   factors—and   in   particular,   the   three   factors   of   the      4 donor—is   shared.   And   this   shared   responsibility   flourishes    best   in   an   atmosphere   of   mutual   trust.   For   the   donors,   this   means   that   if   they   want   to   feel   glad,   inspired,   and   gratified   at   their   gift,   they   should   not   see   the   gift   as   payment   for   personal   services   rendered    by   individual   monks   or   nuns.   That   would   turn   the   gift   into   wages,   and   deprive   it   of   its   emotional   power.   Instead,   they’d    be   wise   to   look   for   trustworthy   recipients:   people   who   are   training—or   have   trained—their   minds   to    be   cleaned   and   undefiled.   They   should   also   give   their   gift   in   a   respectful   way   so   that   the   act   of   giving   will   reinforce   the   gladness   that   inspired   it,   and   will   inspire   the   recipient   to   value   their   gift.   The   responsibilities   of   the   recipients,   however,   are   even   more   stringent.   To   ensure   that   the   donor   feels   glad    before   giving,   monks   and   nuns   are   forbidden   from   pressuring   the   donor   in   any   way.   Except   when   ill   or   in   situations   where   the   donor   has   invited   them   to   ask,   they   cannot   ask   for   anything    beyond   the    barest   emergency   necessities.   They   are   not   even   allowed   to   give   hints   about   what   they’d   like   to   receive.   When   asked   where   a   prospective   gift   should    be   given,   they   are   told   to   follow   the   Buddha’s   example   and   say,   “Give   wherever   your   gift   would    be   used,   or   would    be   well ‐ cared   for,   or   would   last   long,   or   wherever   your   mind   feels   inspired.”   This   conveys   a   sense   of   trust   in   the   donor’s   discernment—which   in   itself   is   a   gift   that   gladdens   the   donor’s   mind.   To   ensure   that   a   donor   feels   inspired   while   giving   a   gift,   the   monks   and   nuns   are   enjoined   to   receive   gifts   attentively   and   with   an   attitude   of   respect.   To   ensure   that   the   donor   feels   gratified   afterward,   they   should   live   frugally,   care   for   the   gift,   and   make   sure   it   is   used   in   an   appropriate   way.   In   other   words,   they   should   show   that   the   donor’s   trust   in   them   is   well   placed.   And   of   course   they   must   work   on   subduing   their   greed,   anger,   and   delusion.   In   fact,   this   is   a   primary   motivation   for   trying   to   attain   arahantship:   so   that   the   gifts   given   to   one   will    bear   the   donors   great   fruit.   By   sharing   these   responsibilities   in   an   atmosphere   of   trust,    both   sides   protect   the   freedom   of   the   donor.   They   also   foster   the   conditions   that   will   enable   not   only   the   practice   of   generosity    but   also   the   entire   practice   of   Dhamma   to   flourish   and   grow.   The   principles   of   freedom   and   fruitfulness   also   govern   the   code   the   Buddha   formulated   specifically   for   protecting   the   gift   of   Dhamma.   Here   again,   the   responsibilities   are   shared.   To   ensure   that   the   teacher   is   glad,   inspired,   and   gratified   in   teaching,   the   listeners   are   advised   to   listen   with   respect,   to   try   to   understand   the   teaching,   and—once   they’re   convinced   that   it’s   genuinely   wise—to   sincerely   put   it   into   practice   so   as   to   gain   the   desired   results.   Like   a   monk   or  
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