Reflections on dana

On the last day of my very first meditation retreat, I kept thinking, “Who is Donna and why is everyone giving her all this money?”

I soon learned (of course) that dana is the Pali word for generosity and is also one of the more beautiful and challenging practices of this path. It’s beautiful because it invites us to cultivate a generous heart, free of rigid convictions about what is mine and what is yours. And it’s challenging for the very same reasons.

In the West, dana is often taken to mean a donation, as in “I give dana to Common Ground,” or “That event brought in a lot of dana.” But dana does not mean money. It means generosity. And there is a world of difference between the two.

flowerI’m inclined to think that only in the West could a notion as expansive as generosity come to be interpreted in such a narrow and materialistic way. A kind word, a willingness to forgo judgment, a warm meal lovingly prepared–these also are dana. Forgiveness is dana. A life devoted to teaching and practicing the Dharma is certainly dana. Common Ground, in its very essence, is dana.

Yet when we talk about dana at the end of a retreat, it seems we are talking about money. This is appropriate and necessary because, as each of us knows too well, money is a prominent feature, if not a central symbol, of this realm of existence. Whether we like it or not, it’s one of the forms of sustenance we need in this world. That’s true for Common Ground, just as it is for our physical bodies.

But for me, the mere mention of the word money brings up a host of unpleasant responses that seem to have nothing to do with generosity. For example, there’s the feeling of shame for about having so little of it. There’s shame about wishing I had more. There’s fear about my own survival, a sense of scarcity. There’s the impulse to give more than I can genuinely afford because I want people to like me, because I want to be the kind of person who gives a lot.

The beauty of dana practice is that it invites us to shine the light of discerning awareness into these dark and unpleasant corners of our experience. Dana practice asks me to recognize the most troubling aspects of my personality. Not to ignore them, disparage them, or try to shove them out of the way, but to greet them at the door and invite them in for tea. Hello, fear. Hello, unworthiness. Hello neediness and greediness and doubt. Welcome.

There’s nothing easy about any of this, which is why it’s helpful to remember that it’s a practice. No matter how badly I screw up today, I will have opportunities to practice generosity tomorrow and every day that follows. It’s not about getting it right or finding the magic number. It’s about learning to listen deeply–learning what contraction feels like in the body, what expansiveness feels like in the body, and what expansiveness feels like in the heart.

Mark speaks about learning to give and receive without friction. At some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced giving joyfully from a genuine upwelling of basic goodness and receiving openly with simple gratitude and humility. Imagine living like that, inviting that kind of freedom into our lives.

These teachings are offered freely. This is truly radical practice, which would probably be illegal if anyone could figure out how to stop it. It flies in the face of so much that is held dear in our society.

Yet to offer something freely is to be like the earth, giving expression to natural generosity. In the neighborhood where I live there’s a big community garden and every day I walk through it and marvel at its beauty and abundance. And it occurs to me that this is simply what the earth does; it gives and receives freely without friction.

But we are earth also. Kurt Vonnegut says that we are “sitting-up mud.” I love that; I think it’s exactly right. Sitting-up mud. We have risen up from the common ground of being into these temporary forms, to dance our brief little dance of life. We can choose to let that dance be an expression of native generosity, of basic goodness, of love. But in order to do that, we have to learn how to get out of our own way; we have to be willing to see our obstacles clearly; we have to open up a spacious place to dance. This is why we practice generosity, beginning with ourselves and letting it grow until it can embrace all beings everywhere.

May you give and receive joyfully. May the joy of your good heart continue. May it increase. May it never end.

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One comment on “Reflections on dana
  1. Peter says:

    Very nice post, Renie. Well-written.

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