Part of Summer 2003’s Special Section on Dana: The Practice of Giving.

© Montien Boonma, Courtesy of Asia Society, New York.
© Montien Boonma, Courtesy of Asia Society, New York.

The Sanskrit word dana is often translated as “alms.” One of the paramitas, or “perfections,” on the Bodhisattva path, dana is traditionally understood as the full circle of giving, from lay supporters to the ordained sangha, in the form of material support, and back again to the laity, in the form of dharma teachings.

Dana is the practice of pratitya samutpada, mutually dependent arising. Everything is contingent upon everything else. Plants transpire, the moisture evaporates and returns as rain. The earth is dampened, allowing rootlets to absorb nutrients in the soil. The nutrients themselves are released by worms that eat the earth, and by the casts of countless other beings as they give themselves in death. People, animals, and other plants flourish, and give themselves in turn. The Buddha suggested that human beings can get along best by following this natural way of things. Giving creates happiness; greed creates misery.

The circle of giving can be found in the stories of people everywhere. In Hawai’i , where I live, the land was traditionally divided by the ahupua’a, a pie-shaped parcel extending from a point in the mountains down the tops of two ridges bounding a valley to the sea. Some people foraged for herbs and harvested timber for house and canoe construction in the highest elevations, others grew taro and vegetables lower down, and still others fished in the sea. They gave the products of their labor to their neighbors, and everyone—foresters, farmers, and fisherman—had what they needed to live creative lives.

How do we make such stories on our own?

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