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The Gift of Giving: Dana Paramita
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Andy McDonald: The Gift of Giving: Dana Paramita (15 min.)
Transcript of a talk delivered by Andy McDonald
November 13, 2016 - Dallas, Texas

Thank you all for letting me speak to you, and thank you, Bobbie, for inviting me. It's always an interesting experience for me when Bobbie asks me to speak here because it does a few things for me. It gives me a chance to assess what I think I know about a topic; and it gives me a chance to do research, consult people, various sources to try to learn more about that topic; and then see if I can convey a little bit of it in a talk. So it's always a challenge for me in that way. And as she mentioned, the next few weeks, the next several weeks, we're talking about the Six Paramitas. And the first one in the list is, of course, dana paramita. And these six qualities of happiness—she mentioned the aspect of "crossing over." So it's crossing over from a life filled with suffering to a life of well-being. These are qualities that help us to move to a greater sense of happiness and well-being in our lives. And they are sometimes translated as "perfections," so tonight as I talk about dana paramita, it's the perfection of giving, or generosity.

And it is said that this one is listed first because if we practice generosity in every aspect of our lives, then the other five will automatically come to us. And if you don't know, the other five are listed here in the newsletter. So if we practice this generosity, dana paramita, in every aspect of our lives, the other five tend to be realized as well.

So to start with, what is giving? When I have a word like that, I go to the definition first because I like to look at sort of this Western analytical viewpoint of what things mean along with the Buddhist teachings of what they mean. So if we look at "giving": "to freely transfer the possession of something to someone." So, three key things there: "freely," I think is important; and "something" and "someone." Note the definition delineates between a "giver" and an object that is "given," but it is "given freely." And then another way we can look at it is "to cause or allow the transfer of something"—some kind of a possession—"to another."

So, to whom do we give? I'd like everybody just for a moment—you can close your eyes if you'd like, keep them open if you like, doesn't matter—but just take a nice deep breath in and out and think in your mind the people, the things that you give to on any particular day. It may be people you know, may be complete strangers, may be pets, plants, organizations, schools, committees, all these kinds of places where you give some aspect of yourself. And hopefully you also give to yourselves, and, especially since you practice meditation, you may even think about the fact that you give to the whole world, all other beings.

And so then along with who we give to, there comes into this aspect, motivation. What motivates us to give? Why do we give? Do we just naturally do it? Do we hope to get something out of it? Are we giving just to share our abundance or knowledge? Are we giving because we're hoping that we get something back? What is it that caused us to give? And so if you look at the teaching, there are certain things that would be considered "impure" motivations for giving. Have we been shamed or intimidated into giving? Are we doing it out of a sense of, "I'm going to get in trouble if I don't give something"? Are we doing it just to make ourselves feel better, to feed our egos? That certainly happens. Or are we doing it with an expectation that we are going to be rewarded? Those could be considered impure motivations for giving. And what the Buddha teaches is, like with most things, to give without expectation of reward or of outcome or result—just give freely, not worried about what we get back. And then also to give without being attached to either the gift that we are giving or the receiver that we are giving it to. Attachment is definitely a lesson that goes very deeply threaded through our experiences (at least my experiences it does). And in giving we're able to practice, actually, this "letting go" of clinging, this letting go of attachment, this releasing of neediness or greediness, when we're able to give.

And so that kind of leads us to, "What is it that we do give?" And again I'd like everybody—eyes closed or open, either one is fine—but just take a nice breath in and out, and then start to consider some of the things that it is that you give. Before, I asked you to consider who you give to. What is it that you actually give to this world? And some things, very obvious, may come to mind quickly, that you give your time, your thought, your advice, your attention, maybe you give money, material resources… You know, again, those are very, kind of, surface-level things. I'd like to look at a few different ways in which we can apply what we give to a Buddhist understanding.

So of course, material support. That's pretty obvious. We can give material support to things, whether that's money, whether that's raw materials, whatever that may be, actual matter that supports somebody or something in creating things. We can give dharma. So we can share our knowledge as the teachings, as wisdom, as our understanding of the teachings, we can be giving dharma dana. We can also do, or give, non-fear dana through offering comfort, safety, security to people, and to things, and to places. You know some other, more subtle aspects, if you think about "visual" or "eye" dana: how do you feel when you're walking along and somebody just acknowledges your presence with a smile? Or you acknowledge somebody else's presence with a kind smile? That's a way of giving. "Speaking" dana: anytime that we give kind words, words of encouragement, that's another way of giving in a non-material sense. Of course, there is helpful assistance from physical things: "body" dana, how we use our body, how we use our physical ability to help others—and to help ourselves, because our selves definitely are prominent here. We might think about "heart" dana, generosity of the heart, giving praise, loving words, support in that manner to others. And we might also consider "space" dana: yielding to others, yielding the right of way. What happens if you hold a door open for someone, or they do that for you? Do you allow space for people to merge in front of you in traffic, or to turn in front of you? Or do you try to speed up and cut that space off? These are all ways in which we can experience giving.

And so, you know, when we look at this there becomes so many little subtle ways in which we are able to practice giving that maybe we had never even thought of before. And I think that's one of the reasons that it's said that if we practice this generosity in all the aspects of our lives, we start to realize these other five qualities of happiness as well. Because it is a very difficult thing to do, to be generous with everything that we do.

So if we look at the dana paramita, it's also associated with compassion and loving-kindness, very much tied in to that sense of being compassionate to self and to others. To let go of what we have in order to support the greater good. And in my reading about this, a lot of what came up is "greed" and "fear," in ways that I hadn't really thought about before. And these teachings talk about how fear results in greed. And I hadn't really considered greed in that way before. We may have the conditioning, the thought, whether conscious or unconscious, that we're not good enough for something or we don't deserve something or "This is too good for me to have, I shouldn't—" You know, "I don't deserve this." And that kind of fear of not having value or not being worthy actually creates a response of greed, of trying to hold on to what we have—in a sense, a way to try to prove to ourselves that we are worthy. "Look at all this that I can get and hold on to." And so the fear and the greed work together, and the dana paramita is actually good medicine for this, because we can learn that by releasing things, letting go of things, that we can find more of what really is worthy about us. And the gift of non-fear awakens the mind of generosity, so not only does being generous help us to experience less fear, but practicing non-fear gives us the power to be more generous. We're no longer afraid that our needs won't be met, that we have to hold on to stuff because we can never get them again, and, more importantly, the aspect that these things are even separate from us, and I'll get to that a little bit more in a moment.

So if we look at the practice aspects of what we do here, when we meditate, we're actually practicing non-fear. We're trying to sit in the present moment, not worried about the past, not worried about the future. We're here with our selves. Everything that we need is with us, on our cushion. It's a safe space. We're focusing on our breath, on this present moment, on the ultimate of who we are. So just this seated meditation practice in itself is one of non-fear. And in practicing that we're able to share this non-fear with all those people around us. When you leave here and you go home tonight, you go throughout your week, this non-fear that you're able to tap into in these moments of blissful meditation is radiated to all those around you. So that's something that we're able to give, just through our practice. We're also learning, practicing, to let go of thoughts, to let go of resistance, whatever we may be resistant to, whether that's stretching the limits of our, how we define ourselves, stretching the limits of our selves as individual beings versus being connected to the whole—any kind of resistance that comes up in our practice, that's another way that we're learning to let go, and this is dana. Anytime that you offer gratitude, or those of you that dedicate the merits of your practice to others: "may all beings be happy." That is dana. That is dana paramita. That is giving of what we receive in order to offer to others something elevated, something more elevated. And so then if we look at the practices in this way, it helps us to start to break down those barriers of separateness. We can relinquish that sense of, "I am a separate little self that doesn't belong or connect to anything else." This aspect of dualism begins to melt away.

And the same is true as we let go of clinging, attachment, let go of this greed that I mentioned. We start to let go of fear. Anytime that we do that, we get a greater sense of oneness. Anytime that we cling to those things, we get a greater sense of separateness. We lose that connection, connection with the One.

And so I think the separateness and the oneness is one of the most important aspects that I started to arrive to, through looking at all these different things related to dana, to giving. And one of the ways that I like to look at it (and this is a way that I have looked at it for some time, but I've gained a deeper understanding): giving is an exchange. Giving and receiving is part of a cycle that happens. We didn't sing the song tonight, but it's right here on the back of the sheet: "Breathing In and Breathing Out." It's not "Breathing In, Breathing In." It's not "Breathing Out, Breathing Out." Breathing in and breathing out. Breathing out, we give. Breathing in, we receive. They work together. And this can lead us to the fact that there is no giver without a receiver; there is no receiver without a giver. For us to practice dana, there is somebody or something that is receiving. There is somebody or something that is giving. When we move past the separateness, past the dualness, what we start to see is that the giver, the receiver, the gift, are all one. They're all of the One. They are one and the same. So when we give, it's as if we are giving our selves to ourselves. There is nothing to separate out. And in the realization of that fact, then, this act of dana paramita, of perfection and giving, of generosity, only seems to make more and more sense. There is no giver; there is no receiver. The giver, the receiver, and the gift are all One.

Transcribed by Meghan Horton

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