In most Buddhist traditions, the winter solstice is not a time for presents wrapped in paper with big bows on top. While there are Buddhist cultures with gift-giving conventions—such as in Japanese etiquette—the practices of donating alms or offerings is much more widespread. But for those of us living in the West, ’tis the season for trading tokens of gratitude. So how can we give gifts in a Buddhist way?
An article in Tricycle’s Winter 2007 issue, “Gifts That Keep Giving” by Joan Duncan Oliver, provides an answer: give compassionately. Oliver suggests that we purchase gifts that are ethically sourced, environmentally conscious, and help someone in need—in other words, they relieve suffering instead of creating it.
One approach is to give to a charity in someone else’s name, and there are many excellent organizations to choose from (see below). But for those times when we’re expected to hand out gifts (at the annual office Secret Santa, for instance), here is a selection of ways to give in the Buddhist spirit.
For a variety of ethical shopping needs, visit the online store Ten Thousand Villages, which as its name implies, offers ethically sourced crafts from developing countries around the world. The Pennsylvania-based nonprofit’s mission is to provide their artisans with fair, living wages and safe work conditions as well as to promote energy-efficient practices and the use of local and recycled materials. The organization, one of the oldest and largest fair-trade groups, started in 1946 and was based on the Mennonite principles of its founder, Edna Ruth Byler, but its shop includes several goods from Buddhist traditions. Check out its selection of singing bowls from Nepalese artists or pick up a yoga mat bag from a pair of female weavers in Guatemala. Or for non-Buddhist recipients, browse their selection of jewelry, home goods, and other handicrafts.
The Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP) is a more Buddhist-oriented alternative for handmade crafts. Known for their Sponsor a Nun program, TNP was created to help refugee nuns coming to India from Tibet, but it has expanded to “provide food, shelter, education, and health care to over 700 nuns of all traditions,” the group says. Their online shop supports these efforts by selling bags, malas, prayer flags, and other crafts that are made and blessed by nuns. You can also purchase pujas [prayers and rituals], which can be dedicate to a loved one.
Words to the Wise
For booklovers, there are a lot of options to choose from. Three of the largest publishers of Buddhist literature, Wisdom Publications, Shambhala Publications, and Sounds True, all boast environmental initiatives, and Wisdom’s Books for Prisoners programs and Sounds True’s Prison Library Project make Buddhist resources available to incarcerated populations.
Need a book suggestion? Check out what we’re reading.
Presents for Presence
One way to support the dharma with your gifts is to buy from shops that help fund meditation centers. Right livelihood is the guiding principle of the Monastery Store. The shop, which sells supplies for Buddhist practice, is staffed by residents and volunteers at the upstate New York-based Zen Mountain Monastery, where they are trained in “work practice” or “sacred labor” as part of the Mountains and Rivers Order of late American Zen teacher John Daido Loori. The store also puts an emphasis on responsible environmental practices. I can personally recommend the buckwheat zafu, or meditation seat, and their plush “bodhi seat” zabuton, which I bought two years ago after repeated efforts to get my left leg to stop falling asleep and have been happily using ever since. They also have a wonderful selection of low-smoke incense for those who want to maintain an altar with a sensitive nose. But for gifts outside of the Zen tradition, shoppers will need to look elsewhere.
The Namse Bangdzo bookstore at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) in Woodstock, New York, also carries shrine and practice supplies, including meditation cushions, malas, and incense, as well as items that are specific to Tibetan Buddhism and might be harder to find, such as a bumpa ritual vase or a kapala, or skullcup, used in some Vajrayana practices.
Tea and Sympathy
You can’t give someone peace of mind, but you can give them the next best thing: a warm cup of delicious tea. Tea has been a symbol of enlightenment ever since 9th-century Zen master Joshu told his students, “Go drink tea!” But while there are a wide variety of fair-trade tea sellers to choose from, including some of the bigger distributors, many tea farmers around the world continue to be exploited and abused. A 2015 BBC report uncovered widespread abuses by British tea companies in India, although those companies claimed to have improved conditions. The group Ethical Consumer, which ranks UK-based tea suppliers, recommends that in addition to looking for fair trade and organic certification, buyers pick single source teas over blends, which are harder to trace, and opt for loose tea over bags, which are rarely made from sustainable materials.
Mellow Monk only sells single estate tea from Japan’s Kumamoto region and places extra emphasis on being eco-friendly. Through the micro-lending site Kiva, they also support small farms in the area. For a broader range of tea options, the Oregon-based Strand Tea Company promises sustainable fair-trade practices and also donates proceeds to charities, including tiger conservation efforts in Tamil Nadu, India, and its local chapter of the League of Women’s Voters.
For some recipe ideas, you can check out Zen teacher Bo-Mi Choi’s guide to Korean tea remedies.
When wrapping your gift, consider alternatives to wasteful paper and scotch tape. One alternative is the Japanese method of wrapping gifts in reusable cloths called furoshiki (which literally translates to “bathmat” from its origins as a way to wrap up items at bathhouses). You can spend hours looking up different ways to tie the colorful wraps, which become part of the gift itself. If crafts aren’t your thing, reusable gift or tote bags are another great option.
Or you can wrap your gift in a scarf, adding another seasonable gift. You can purchase Tibetan yak-yarn scarves from the mYak for Social Good collection, which donates its proceeds to a mobile library project on the Tibetan Plateau that brings books to children in 50 villages.
Perhaps your loved ones have given up their attachment to material things—or has a hard enough time finding room for the stuff they already have—but you still want to let them know you are thinking of them. Donating to a charity in their name can be the perfect gift, and some people might even request it. While there are many worthy charities, here is a selection of some notable initiatives:
- The Jamyang Foundation aids nuns in the most remote parts of the Himalayas.
- Nangchen Nuns helps Tsoknyi lineage nuns in Eastern Tibet.
- Ayya Yeshe’s Bodhicitta Foundation provides job training and education to women and children in India.
- The Yogini Project raises awareness about and supports female practitioners across traditions
- Lotus Outreach supports young girls in India and Cambodia.
- The Lineage Project teaches mindful movement, meditation, breathwork, and conscious conversations to vulnerable young people in New York City. You can read an interview with the group’s executive director here.
- Pete’s Place is an interfaith homeless shelter in Sante Fe, New Mexico. You can find out about their work in this essay by a volunteer from Upaya Zen Center.
- Buddhist Global Relief, founded by Buddhist teacher and translator Bhikku Bodhi, seeks to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition worldwide through direct food relief, education initiatives, and promoting sustainable food production.
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Editor’s Note: The Yogini Project shut down in January 2020.
View our updated 2021 gift guide here.
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