What is dana? Why do we practice it? What is the “right” way to give? What are some benefits of and obstacles to giving?

Dana (“giving”) is the most fundamental of all Buddhist practices. It is the first topic in the Buddha’s graduated talks, the first step on the bodhisattva’s path to perfection, and the first of the ten paramitas (perfections) in the Mahayana tradition. It therefore sets the tone for all that follows in the spiritual journey.

The act of giving purifies intention, the quality of mind with which any action is undertaken. For a brief moment, the giver’s self-absorption is lifted, attachment to the gift is relinquished, and kindness towards the recipient is developed. All actions—of thought, word, and deed—undertaken for the sake of others rather than for one’s own selfish purposes become transformed by the power of generosity.

Giving needs to be practiced and developed because our underlying tendency toward attachment, aversion, and confusion so often interferes with a truly selfless act of generosity. Consummate observer of human nature that he was, the Buddha pointed out the many ways we can give with mixed motives: we give out of fear, or in accordance with tradition; we give with the expectation of return; we give in hope of gain, or a favorable reputation or rebirth; we give to adorn our mind, or simply because giving brings joy.

All generosity is valuable. When asked by King Pasenadi of Koshala, “To whom should a gift be given?” the Buddha replied, “To whomever it pleases your mind.”

All schools of Buddhism recognize that giving brings the most benefit when coupled with wisdom. In the Mahayana tradition, this means recognizing the inherent emptiness of any true distinction between giver and recipient. In the earlier schools, less attention is paid to the metaphysics of giving and more to its psychology, focusing upon the intention of the giver, the nature of the gift, and the worthiness of the recipient.

An act of giving is of most benefit when one gives something of value, carefully, with one’s own hand, while showing respect, and with a view that something wholesome will come of it. The same is true when one gives out of faith, respectfully, at the right time, with a generous heart, and without causing denigration. Under such circumstances, according to the Buddha, “before giving, the mind of the giver is happy; while giving, the mind of the giver is made peaceful; and having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted.” One who is accomplished in dana is said to “dwell at home with a mind free from the stain of stinginess, freely generous, open-handed, delighting in relinquishment, devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing.”

The nature of the gift itself is less important, and is adapted to suit various populations. It is appropriate for people of means to give freely to those in need, for lay people generally to give the basic requisites of a simple life to monks and nuns, and for all people to give less tangible—but much more valuable—gifts to one another at every opportunity.

One of the most important acts of generosity involves Buddhism’s five precepts. By giving up killing, stealing, false speech, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants, one “gives to immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.” And the highest gift of all is the gift of dharma—by teaching (if qualified) or by facilitating the teaching of others.

In a profoundly interdependent world, generosity is fundamental to the entire economy of life. Even the simplest biological function involves receiving something from others (nutrients, oxygen, life), processing it in some unique way, and then passing it on to all other members of the matrix of life. We all do this whether we want to or not, and whether or not we are aware of it. The practice of giving becomes perfected when we align ourselves very deeply with this truth, by consciously and mindfully offering everything we do or say—even everything we think—as an act of universal generosity.

References from the Pali: A8:31-3; S3:3.4; M110:23; A5:148; A6:37; A4:61; A8:39.

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

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