Generosity was the first thing the Buddha taught to those he met as he traveled India after he became enlightened. For those seeking liberation from suffering or dissatisfaction, generosity teaches appreciation for what you have and develops the ability to let it go, to share it. Generosity, says Buddhist teacher Noah Levine, is "the natural response of the enlightened heart."
Our unenlightened hearts cling to the things that we believe keep us safe and comfortable. We're reluctant to share because we fear we may not have enough for ourselves at some time in the unforeseeable future.
Buddhism seeks to turn that around, to create an awareness of abundance rather than scarcity. "When we are present and connected, what else is there to do but give?" Jack Kornfield asks.
The Buddhist tradition is literally built on the practice of generosity, or dana, in Pali, the language closest to that of the Buddha. Without the Indian tradition of giving to mendicants, the Buddha would not have had the time to explore his path and come to awakening. Monks in the early Buddhist traditions even today rely on donations from the community, which are given freely.
According to Buddhist scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the topic of giving was controversial in the Buddha's day -- for centuries, the Brahmins had required that gifts be given to them. To fail to do so would be to violate the social contract and would mean bad luck in this life and the next, the Brahmins taught.
In contrast, the Buddha taught free will in giving. 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 liberation, Thanissaro Bhikkhu says.
Additionally, the Buddha said, generosity does not involve only material items. It also includes intangibles, like attention, and living ethically, which is the gift of creating safety for ourselves and others. Generosity, Jack Kornfield says, is "a joyful way of being."
He continues: "Sometimes our generosity is the giving of a smile, silence, listening, warm touch. Sometimes it involves action, time, money, our commitment to justice, our vision for a better world. Every form of giving is a blessing."
Generosity acknowledges interdependence. We give not because we have but because we can. "In the end, there is no notion of separation, neither giver nor receiver," Kornfield says. "We are all the Buddha feeding ourselves" when we give to others -- because there are no others, just beings.