Monday, August 30, 2010

Challenges of Generosity

The paramita of generosity is a great teaching for our time. (Or any time, but let's stick with our time for now.) Whether one gives material goods, deep listening, or a few words of dharma, the ability to share with others in a non-attached, open way is one of the most underrated qualities I can think of in the wild and crazy world of ours today.

And yet, I think it's important to examine both how we define generosity, and also the differing levels of impediments that hinder people from being giving in their lives. It is commonplace, at least in my country, to immediately link generosity with money and other material gifts. This doesn't mean people totally ignore non-material gifts, but from what I have seen, material gifts tend to be highly privileged. For example, the IRS provides tax breaks for people who donate money or valuable material goods to non-profits and other charity organizations. If I give X number of hours to the same organizations, I cannot expect to receive anything equivalent, unless, perhaps, if I work for a large corporation that offers incentives to its employees in exchange for their service, which is considered a "gift" to the corporation's public image.

Now, here's one of the rubs. Everything I described above seems to be giving that has some attachment laden in it. Wanting tax breaks for donations isn't freely giving. Corporations wanting good public images, and more profits as a result, taints the giving being done in their name. And beyond all of this, there is a continued emphasis on some sort of material value to giving, which is not in line with the depth of the teachings on generosity in Buddhism.

Khentin Tai Situ Rinpoche offers a short teaching on the paramita of generosity, beginning with this:

The practice of generosity is to give what is worthwhile and to give it with non-attachment. This can be studied through three main aspects: giving things, giving loving protection and giving loving understanding. The teaching on the first of these, material generosity, explains what is proper generosity and what is improper. We should abandon improper generosity and practice the proper one.

Motivation is very important when we give. If we give with a wrong motivation, such as making gifts which we hope will harm others or which we intend to bring us fame, or if we give with an inferior motivation such as through fear of future poverty, then that is improper. What we actually give is also important. A Bodhisattva should never give what is harmful, for instance, when he gives something suitable it should be generously, not meanly. To whom we give to is important - always pandering to the wishes of the crazy and the gluttonous would not be proper generosity. Finally, how we make our gift is important. The Bodhisattva avoids reluctant giving, angry giving, disrespectful giving and scornful, derisory giving, all of which are improper.

When it comes to living in societies that obsessively link giving with material value, and by extension with power, I think it's pretty challenging to tease out proper giving from improper giving. In fact, I'd argue it's challenging for many of us to actually see generosity when it's occurring because we have accepted a certain definition of giving, and any action that falls outside of that definition isn't even considered. In other words, generosity is happening all over the place, but our conditioned minds just leap right past it, over and over again.

Consider these lines from a recentpost on the blog Feministe:

Which brings us to the idea of a gift economy. [Seth] Godin suggests, and I think he means well, that a gift economy is something like an exchange of acts of great art and generosity without expectation of return. He suggests that it creates a virtuous circle of gift exchange that turns the givers into indispensable people who, in the natural course of things will eventually be rewarded.

What would a gift economy look like? What does it have to do with women’s pay?

In 1995, the United Nations estimated that women around the world generated work for which they were not paid to the tune of $11 trillion, or $15 trillion in 2007 dollars, as Raj Patel notes in his book, “The Value of Nothing.” Patel says that in 1995, “The daily work of rearing children, maintaining a household and engaging in civic work … [was worth] more than half the world’s total output.”

Godin suggests that offering wonderful, useful work as a gift will eventually draw a reward. Yet women’s gifts of necessary work, often microtargeted to the exact needs of a particular family, not only bring little compensation, they’re often barely noticed.

Now, certainly in these days, some men have joined the ranks of extensive family caregiving. However, women still do by far the majority of this kind of work, and yet how often do you hear people speak the word "generosity" when it comes to raising children, for example? There are, by extension, a whole array of activities that are either ignored or downplayed by societies which are, in fact generous. Deep listening to another who is suffering. Helping neighbors with basic chores. Telling funny stories to sick children. All hospital volunteer work or caregiving to sick folks. Offering kind words to stranger.

And it goes beyond gifts to people. Liberating animals, planting trees on formerly damaged lands, and simply limiting your general impact on the planet - all of these, too, can be acts of generosity.

Materially driven societies, however, aren't apt to uphold these kinds of actions because frequently have no "value," don't add to the "bottom line," and in some cases, actually hinder the all mighty "productivity and growth" that are seen as keys to a successful nation.

So, for many of us, cultivating true generosity requires that we run against the grain of our entire society. It requires that we break through the conditioning we have around what it means to be generous, and how such generosity looks. And it requires that we let go of getting anything in return.

At the same time, I believe we have to be more engaged about generosity on a social level. By doing what? I'm not sure exactly. But maybe a good place to start is to be more generous with what you see as generous. Second, be willing to call out acts of generosity that are normally ignored or downplayed. Third, it might be helpful to recognize that women, for example, probably have more of their generosity ignored collectively than men do. Or that acts of generosity by poor folks are often rendered invisible by the current social standards and mores.

At the end of the day, wanting to be recognized for acts of generosity is an attachment, and thus a hindrance to actually being generous. However, that absolute perspective must be balanced by paying close attention to, and working with, conditions in the relative, everyday world.


Robyn said...

Hi Nathan, Thanks for writing this - I appreciated those quotes.

More and more, the question of dana, the puzzle of dana, is becoming a main subject of my practice(s), including my art practice. It feels like one of the most radical things one can do in this current situation - give generously, openly, without expectation of reward. So easy, so difficult.

I would love to hear more if you feel moved to write more.

kevin said...

Great post. This almost seems like, not necessarily the other side of the same coin, but at least the same currency as Kyle's post on the Reformed Buddhist.

At the risk of sounding really offensive, I do kind of have a little bit of a problem with the quote from Feministe.

Maybe I don't really understand the point but the "unpaid" work done by women she lists are input into the maintenance of the household, which in a "traditional" model has the man doing the paying work out of the house and the woman doing the housekeeping.

It just kind of seems like the balance has been thrown the other way, opposite from the man saying "I work all day to bring home money to put a roof over your head and what do you do...?"

I hope I can mention this without sounding like an ass because for the last several months, I've been a full time student without a job doing the housework while my girlfriend goes to work and slaves away to pay our rent.

But like I said, maybe I just missed the point. I don't want to get confrontational about it, it would be a waste.

I think Dogen expresses dana paramita in this sense in the Tenzo Kyokun when he refers to a "motherly heart" as the mind that gives without thinking about it. Giving without expecting anything in return.

What I do want to mention is another great quote/source concerning dana paramita is the chapter "God Giving" in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. It was my first real introduction to the concept as Buddhist.

I totally agree with the spirit of your post, and as always, well written and enjoyable to read.
thanks again

Nathan said...

Hey Kevin,

I think you're right to point out that the Feministe post does seem to focus mostly on what are household activities. I did feel that the post itself could have offered a more diverse array of examples, such as some of the issues I considered in my post. I actually think the comments on the post were much more interesting, and included struggles around volunteering, caregiving, and other activities that have often been given short shrift in comparison to paid work.

For myself, I continue to see a need to balance this:

"I think Dogen expresses dana paramita in this sense in the Tenzo Kyokun when he refers to a "motherly heart" as the mind that gives without thinking about it. Giving without expecting anything in return."

With the fact that many of us are householder practitioners, living in capitalist societies that aren't at all about supporting generosity.