From the first of two live sessions dedicated to the "transcendental action" of generosity, in November 2023. A recording of the practice can be found in the Mindsprings Video Library.
We began with a lengthy thought experiment where we imagined being given a thousand pounds and then imagined giving it away to someone we liked. We imagined keeping it for ourselves. We imagined giving it to someone we didn't like, who didn't deserve it. And we imagined just throwing it out the window into the wind.
There is the donation, the thing that we're giving, and then there's the recipient. Immediately we're outside of the comfy whirlpool of just thinking about ourselves and reflecting on our mind. We're engaging with another subjectivity, another being in the world.
And so this is where these paramitas immediately start to take us into the world of ethics, the world of morality, the world of socializing; because you're immediately opening the door to pesky other people. So it's not just pesky thoughts in your mind, but you're going to have to deal with the reality of other people: "Oh, I don't want it" they say, or "I don't like it, it's the wrong gift". So you're having to deal with not just your mind - "Oh my God, I've given away a thousand pounds" - but also the reaction of the person that you're giving it to.
So this is where it becomes complicated. This is why paramitas are so fascinating. Because they're not just about personal behaviour. It's about how you are interacting with the world.
So we can think about just normal generosity, what we might unkindly call "Sunday School Generosity", which is nonetheless a great thing in many religions. The simplest sense of charity, of giving away money. It's one of the five pillars of Islam, it's deeply embedded in Christianity, and in Judaism.
So generosity, in the sort of everyday sense of it, of just helping people. Giving money and shelter and blankets, warmth to other beings. The slight problem with that is that it can quite easily shade into not generosity. For example, if you are giving something to someone because you want them to like you or you want them to be grateful, then that's no longer generosity. That is bribery. You're not being generous, you're bribing someone to do what you want.
Or if you are, you want everyone to see how much money you're giving, or you want people to be beholden to you, then that's no longer generosity, that is patronage. That is, you're entering into a transactional relationship.
Or as the writer Barbara Bonner's Tibetan teacher says: "If you're just giving away an old winter coat that you never wear any more. That is not generosity, that is spring cleaning".
And of course, these are fine, because often they're still helping people. But they're not a paramita. And so it's sometimes useful to think about the paramitas as something more elevated. You've got normal generosity, and then you have the fancy Sanskrit word, which is Dana. Dana. Which is, is the root of our word donation.
We can mark out this more transcendental or more elevated form of generosity by using the word dana. So dana starts to investigate and indeed dismantle the whole concept of a giver, a gift, and the recipient. We're starting to think, does it matter if I give it to Rishi Sunak?
Or I give it to a beggar on the street?, or if I just tip it out the window?
Am I attached to the fact that I give it to my, nephew or to that homeless person that I talk to every morning? Is there, a sort of a clinging or a sort of agenda in who I give it to? This is why it's powerful to think about giving things to people who you don't like, or who you don't think need it. Or just tipping it out the window. As a thought experiment, it can explode the kind of subtle underpinnings of bribery or patronage or manipulation that might be buried in our giving.
In essence, what dana is doing, as opposed to just everyday generosity, is liberating. Dana liberates. All of these perfections, these paramitas are taking us to the other shore. They're liberating us from the booby traps of self, other, and indeed the gift.
One of the Mindspringers asks what the point of the meditation was? What will it do?
That is a very good question. And the first thing is to say is: this isn't meditation.
The paramitas are not meditations, the paramitas are actions. Okay? So it's going back to what I was saying at the beginning. From a Buddhist point of view, we're not human beings, we are human doings. There is no intrinsic Patrizia, or intrinsic James, or intrinsic Jackie, or Alistair.
There is no Being behind everything. So we can't sit back in this smug sort of, "Oh my intrinsic, authentic Alistair, he's really good, and, I can just relax because when I die, it'll be my authentic, intrinsic, good Alistair that goes forward". From a Buddhist point of view, there is no authentic or, intrinsic Alistair.
You are what you do. You are literally what you think, how you behave, what happens, what you, and what imprints you leave in the world. So you are a human doing. And this is an "oh, shit!" moment. It matters. It really matters what you do. This is the truth, the great truth of karma. That it matters what you do. It's not irrelevant.
It matters what you think, it matters what you feel, it matters what you say, it matters how you act, it matters how you interact. And this is, of course, a much more challenging state than the "Oh, I'm just going to relax into my essential, Buddha-nature and just let that do all the work" state.
That's not how the Paramitas work. That's not how this teaching goes. In this teaching you have to embrace the fact that you are an active agent in the world and it makes a difference what you do.
And I think probably the most important of all the Paramitas is Dana, is generosity.
Because when we dig into generosity, then we dissolve the notion of self and other. Because if we give away everything, if we give away, even in thought, if we give away all our money, if we give away all our prestige and well-being, give away our house, give away everything we've built up, then something very peculiar happens to our sense of self.
Often If we pursue this thought experiment as we will next week, there is an enormous sense of relief. And this is the flip side of donation.
Dana is donation. And when we think about donation, we tend to think of the gift: the thing that we're giving and the person that we're giving it to. "I've donated this to my old college, I've donated this to Oxfam." But the Tibetan word for generosity is dzinpa, which means, Dzin is like the open hand, so it means open hand, open palm, and pa is like the substantive, so it means the act of opening the hand.
Dzinpa is much more to do with letting go. So the translation of dzinpa is letting go. So generosity is really about letting go. Letting go of this idea that the money is mine: "A thousand pounds dropped through the letterbox. It's just a thought experiment. I've just given it away".
Letting go of the person that I give it to: "You should be grateful". Or letting go of the gift itself: "It doesn't really exist. It's just numbers printed on a bit of paper".
So there's a great deal of liberation when we take these paramitas into the extra turbocharged realm. It's life-changing. It's life-changing.
Almost all of us have a problem with the concept of generosity. If we're really honest. there are bits of us that are quite stingy, that don't really want to give anything away, or maybe think about giving things away but don't actually give things away. So there's a kind of clinging - if we're honest.
And then I notice that, if people don't respond in the right way, I get furious, Ingratitude is like a red rag to me. If I've given this beautiful thing, and they're say "Hmm, meh" - I'm furious. And of course that's not generosity either.
So there are all sorts of edges to generosity. And when we elevate it to this concept of dana or dzinpa, then it becomes genuinely energizing.