Generosity: The Art of Being Happy
By Mark Nunberg
It’s nice to reflect on how Common Ground and this whole tradition is built on wholesomeness and the generosity of those who have come before us. It’s unfortunate that all of us, each in our own way, probably have some tension around generosity. It just brings up fear. But in the teachings of the Buddha generosity is really all about happiness. In order to live life and be happy, we need to understand the happiness of generosity. It’s just essential, whether we discover it in relationship with another human being, or in our places of work, or in the communities we are involved in. This circle of giving and receiving is really at the heart of being happy. It’s really the art of being happy.
It’s so beautiful how in the Buddhist tradition generosity is there, right from the very start. The Buddha, being a wise person, understood this basic law of happiness. If you put it in the opposite, it would all make so much sense: does anybody think that having a closed, stingy heart is the way to happiness? No. We know that so clearly. So why isn’t the opposite true? That a heart that is interested in contributing, interested in responding, interested in showing up in a generous way, offering the world what we have to offer, is a cause for happiness. Why don’t we see that?
There’s a beautiful story from the discourses all about this. It’s about Anathapindika, who was known as the number one lay supporter in terms of generosity. This story is from when he first met the Buddha. He was quite a wealthy merchant banker at the time of the Buddha. At one time he was visiting his mother-in-law’s place. Normally, they would treat him with a lot of respect when he would show up, but this time they were all very busy and didn’t seem too concerned with him. So he asked some of his relatives there what was going on, and they informed him that the Buddha and his monks and nuns were coming for their meal the next day, so they were busy getting prepared. When he heard that, he had to ask three times, “Did you say Buddha?” It awoke something in him, a sense that we probably all feel, about the possibility of being awake, of being in this world but not burdened by it, having a mind and body, living the life that we’re living, but not experiencing the weight that we usually experience in our lives.
It wasn’t easy for him to sleep that night. It is said that he woke up three times wanting it to be dawn, but it wasn’t, and the third time he just decided to go off into the night. The monks wouldn’t stay in the towns proper; they would be just outside, in the forest. So Anathapindika set off in the dark of night, and eventually he found the Buddha doing his walking practice in the very early morning, back and forth, mindful, serene, happy. And he didn’t really know what to say, he was a little tongue-tied, so he came up with a very simple statement: “I hope all is well with you sir.” The Buddha sensed the spiritual potential in Anathapindika, so he responded with this beautiful verse:
“Indeed the sage who is fully quenched rests at ease in every way. No sense desire adheres to him whose fire has cooled, deprived of fuel. All attachments have been severed. The heart has been led away from pain. Tranquil, he rests with utmost ease. The mind has found its way to peace.”
And as these stories often go, in that moment Anathapindika had a deep, transformative insight, which in the tradition is called stream-entry. It wasn’t just because of the Buddha’s words; it was probably due to a combination of factors: the Buddha’s words, his modeling of freedom, and Anathapindika’s receptivity. Because of these, Anathapindika understood what the Buddha was pointing to; he directly experienced the letting go of attachment, the letting go of identity, and had a real taste of the path. He became a great student of the Buddha, and there are many, many stories of how Anathapindika supported the nuns and monks. He built monasteries, including a very famous monastery where many of the talks we have today were heard and recorded, first via the oral tradition by memory, then written down centuries later. So we here at Common Ground are in a way the beneficiaries of Anathapindika’s generosity of supporting the monastic community back then.
So part of the understanding of generosity is learning, sensing what moves our heart. And wanting, wishing to respond to what moves our heart, whether we are currently moved by the injustice in the world, or we are moved by the suffering in our own heart or the suffering in our families, or whether your heart is moved by the beauty that you experience at times in the world, or the peace that you experience in your heart. But all of us in different ways, we experience deep movement. We sense what’s not ok, what needs to be addressed: the movement of compassion. We sense the beauty that exists or that is possible and we’re moved by that. But however we’re moved, we can acknowledge that movement, and let it blossom into action, blossom into a kind of trust. Or we let it blossom into our willingness to practice, or to sign up for our next retreat, or to do our morning sit.
In a way, we are falling in love. We all have this capacity for devotion. We see it a lot in the different religious and spiritual traditions. And it also exists in this practice, in this tradition. We channel the love for these teachings and how they support human beings, how they are a cause for people living more skillfully in the world. A verse from the Dhammapada (a famous collection of verses attributed to the Buddha) summarizes all the teachings: “To do good, to refrain from harming, and to develop the heart.” We all know directly in our experience the value of these teachings: to support what is good, to help us refrain from what isn’t helpful in the world and in our lives, and to develop the mind and heart in wisdom and love, resulting in clarity, resilience, stability, deeper understanding, and freedom from reactivity. To different degrees we know these qualities. So why not fall in love with what we directly know and support that so that it’s available for others?
That is the act of generosity. It needs to come out of our own life and our own life situation. It’s a natural movement. And it involves all of our faculties including the pragmatic faculties of understanding our life situation and duties and responsibilities: other beautiful, good things in our life that we’re inspired by, that we’re devoted to, that we want to help set in motion in the world. It’s a study of karma: we’re practicing being real with what we see is of value, sensing the tradition, the wholesomeness of these teachings, how much benefit human beings have found in these teachings, and wanting to be part of that wide and deep river of goodness, in a way that will feel and taste good, not just in the moment, but days, months, years after. That’s really the only way we get a sense of how to let generosity move through us. What will leave a good taste? What will actually be a cause for happiness for us?
Because that’s what it’s about. It isn’t so much about supporting the teachers or supporting Common Ground, or whatever we are moved to do; it’s about understanding how to participate in the causes for happiness, for ourselves and for the whole world. Because it makes us happy! So, the way you figure out how to do that is you have to pay attention to your happiness in the moment. And then just keep tracking it, like “how does that feel?” And then the next opportunity you have you’ll learn from the previous opportunity you had to give. And this isn’t just in our relationship to Common Ground, but in all places in our life, we are learning how to show up in a way that creates and supports the causes for happiness.