Many years ago I learned that the Buddha taught ethical conduct as the necessary prerequisite for meditation practice. It made perfect sense. As my teacher Jack Kornfield says, “Can you imagine settling down on your cushion for a peaceful meditation session after a full day of killing, stealing, and lying?” Much later I discovered that the Buddha taught the practice of generosity first, as a foundation for establishing an ethical lifestyle. I marveled at the possibility that generosity might be the most important thing of all, the platform on which our actions, our meditation practice, and our spiritual journey rest.
The Buddha said, “If you knew, as I do, the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing some of it.” He taught that when we truly understand the power of generosity, we experience how it brings joy to the giver as well as to the receiver. Appreciating this, we learn to give not only when opportunities to give present themselves, but we actually look for opportunities to give, and take delight in being asked to give.
Generosity is this powerful for very good reason. Because it is characterized by the inner quality of letting go or relinquishing, it reverses the forces that create suffering. It is a profound antidote to the strong habits of clinging, grasping, guarding, and attachment that lead to so much pain and suffering. Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression: we experience joy in forming the intention to give, we experience joy in the action of giving, and we experience joy in remembering that we have given. As Gandhi said, “The fragrance remains in the hand that gives the rose.”
As a parent, I’ve wondered how to help my children experience these truths for themselves. I don’t mean how can I ensure that they grow up and become generous adults, although I certainly hope for that too. But I mean now, today, and at each stage of their development, how can I provide opportunities for them to express their natural generosity and experience the joys it brings? How can these insights become truly theirs, so that they will, as the Buddha said, deeply understand the power of generosity and continuously look for opportunities to give?
As my children grow and enter ever-widening circles of engagement in the world, they encounter new ways to express their natural generosity. As toddlers, their outstretched arms and sticky fingers offered me tastes of their favorite foods. In pre-school they soothed classmates’ hurt feelings, shared their toys and games, and helped with classroom clean up. During their elementary school years, they learned to work cooperatively with others, participated in food drives, gathered outgrown toys and clothing for donations to shelters and orphanages, and increasingly participated in household chores. Always generous with their smiles, their hugs and their love, they continue to express kindness and generosity towards our pets, neighbors, family and friends. They help cook and serve dinner at a local homeless shelter, and assist me in preparing meals for ill and bereaved friends. I trust they realize there are endless opportunities to give, and a multitude of choices as to what to give, and to whom to give.
I have also tried to show them that to simply pause and breathe, to sit in meditation, and to rest when we need to, are profound acts of generosity towards ourselves. They understand that to donate money, to offer your time and skills, to give food or drink, and to share tears or laughter, are all valuable ways to express generosity towards others. And I often tell them about the ultimate gift of all the gift of our presence. They can recite one of our favorite quotes of Thich Nhat Hanh: “Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer anyone is the gift of our full attention.” And with time, they more deeply understand the wisdom of this quote.
And there’s something else I want them to know about generosity, so that they can recognize it in themselves and in our world: Just as there are endless ways to give, there are also endless ways to shortchange ourselves, to squander a source of great joy when we choose to withhold our generosity or limit its expression. As a family, we have had opportunities to learn this truth as well. In her book “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” physician and story teller par excellence Rachel Naomi Remen relates a poignant story about children and generosity. “A woman once told me that she despaired of the selfishness of her children. She could not understand how they had turned out this way as she had always set them a good example. “And how did you do this?” I asked. “By serving them generously,” she replied. But perhaps we don’t help people to become generous by giving to them but by involving them as we give to others.”
I return often to this simple story, noticing how frequently opportunities arise for me and my children to together give to others. One such experience stands out in my mind. It was a few years ago, when our friend Lia offered to prepare a special Noche Vieja (New Year’s Eve, or literally “old night”) dinner for our family. This was the elaborate pastel de arroz from her native Colombia, which is customarily served at New Year’s Eve gatherings. This dish is a variation of the well-known Mexican tamale, and Lia created a unique vegetarian variant of her Colombian delicacy.
Although I didn’t see her preparing the pasteles, she described the process to me. First, a large rectangular banana leaf is laid open on a flat surface. Next, about a half cup of uncooked rice is placed on the banana leaf. A large spoonful of a sauted vegetables, tofu, and spices is placed on top of the rice. A small amount of grated cheese is sprinkled on the vegetable mixture, followed by another half cup of uncooked rice. The banana leaf is carefully folded around the filling. This is followed by a second larger and stronger banana leaf wrapper, which is tied tightly closed with twine. Once assembled, the pasteles are cooked for three hours in large pots of slowly boiling water.
Lia spent many hours preparing the pasteles in her kitchen, and then brought them to our house, where we had the pots of boiling water ready to receive them. My children were as fascinated by the unique appearance of these edible tied-up bundles as they were by Lia’s detailed description of how they were made. For three hours we periodically lifted the pot lids to assess how the packages were coming along, but of course all we could see were big green squares tied up in string. The increasingly pungent aroma let us know that the cooking process was indeed progressing.
At dinnertime, seated around a festive table, we unwrapped and admired our pasteles. Each one must have weighed a pound, and was definitely a complete meal in itself. They were delicious, and my children joined me in expressing our sincere appreciation to Lia for the time and effort that she spent preparing this special meal. Accompanied by salad, dessert, and sparkling cider for a toast, Lia and her pasteles helped us welcome the New Year.
We saw Lia again a few days later. Because she was working full time and going to school, she’d had very little time at home since New Years. She told us that the big mess she’d made preparing the pasteles remained untouched in her kitchen, and joked about how long it might be before she’d have a chance to clean it up. Another few days went by and Lia reported that the kitchen mess had grown bigger still, as she’d been adding a few more pots and dishes to it on a daily basis. Knowing she was indeed very busy, and aware that she doesn’t have a dishwasher, I offered to help her wash the dishes at her house. She flatly refused. The next evening I suggested to my then ten-year-old son Emilio that we make a surprise visit to Lia’s to clean up her kitchen. I explained that since Lia had worked hard to prepare such a special meal for our family, it seemed only fair that we help her clean up. He readily agreed.
Within minutes we were eagerly on our way, a mother and son with a surprise mission. We arrived unannounced at Lia’s door, and set to work amidst her vociferous objections. It took Emilio and I about an hour of well-orchestrated teamwork to wash, dry, and put away piles of pots, pans, plates, and utensils. Lia eventually gave up trying to stop us, and complied with our request to put on some music and relax as we worked.
When we were done, Lia thanked us profusely while continuing to complain that we shouldn’t have done this crazy thing. Emilio devoured the ice cream she served him, and grinned with pride as she continued to thank us for cleaning up her kitchen. Aware of how happy Emilio and I both felt to have done something kind for a good friend, I interrupted Lia’s ongoing exclamations of gratitude and said to Emilio, “Instead of Lia thanking us, we could be thanking her. Then she could say, You’re welcome.’” Confused by this suggestion, he asked, “Why should we thank Lia when we washed her dishes?”
He was awaiting my response with some anticipation. I asked him, “How do you feel right now after working hard with me to clean up the mess that Lia made preparing our New Year’s Eve dinner?” The expression on his face told me that he was beginning to guess where I was going with my line of reasoning. I continued, “Well, it’s a wonderful thing when we can do something kind for a friend. Being generous with our time and energy is a source of great happiness for us, in addition to whatever happiness it brings Lia. In this way, Lia and her messy kitchen allowed us to act generously and feel happy. So we can sincerely thank her for having offered us this opportunity to experience happiness.”
There was a long pause as Emilio digested my explanation. Once he realized that I was completely serious, he seemed to reflect more deeply on what I had said. The look on his face changed to one of recognition. We each said “Thank you” to Lia and she was able to cooperate enough to half-jokingly reply, “You’re welcome.” Emilio looked at me and said, “This must be another one of the Buddha’s teachings!”