Saturday, May 19, 2012

Basic Buddhist Concepts: Generosity (Dana)

While reading Stay Alive My Son, the brilliant and chilling memoir of Pol Pot times by Pin Yathay (and absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in Cambodia), I came across this casual reference to the Cambodian understanding of Dana, the Buddhist concept of generosity. In  this passage he is discussing the forced exodus from Phnom Penh in the days immediately following the Khmer Rouge takeover, as people became gradually hungrier and more desperate:

"Even though Buddhists would normally give generously, we refused them all, except an old lady with her grandchild, to whom I gave a handful of rice. It could have been my own mother out there, and my heart went out to her. But as she went on down the line of people and vehicles, my mother said from the back seat, 'Don't do that again, Thay. Think of your own family first.'" 

Apart from brilliantly evoking the mood of those horrendous days, this passage also helps us see the natural association Buddhists make between the practice of their religion and the practice of generosity, known in Pali as Dana. It means not just giving, but finding joy in giving, in seeing generosity as an expression of one's own humanity. It is indeed a beautiful idea.

This word Dana has become well-known in Western Buddhist circles because many Buddhist associations host what they call "Dana Days" in which the community collects together to assist the temple materially and financially.

The British Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita says that Dana is the fundamental Buddhist virue - without giving no other cultivation is possible. Giving, and delighting in that giving, is the first evidence of a higher thought, of a more moral intention. It is the action of a Bodhisattva. Those who are unwise and immoral are easily identified by their selfishness. Interestingly, being called "stingy" is a gross insult across Buddhist Asia - obviously connected to the Buddhist moral imperative towards Dana.

The Recollection of Generosity is one of the Paths to Purification suggested in the Visuddhimagga, one of the most influential commentary texts in Theravada Buddhism. In that text the scholar-monk Buddhagosa suggests that the Buddhist cultivate extreme generosity by vowing: "From now on, when there is anyone present to receive, I shall not eat even a single mouthful without having given a gift."

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