As most of us know, dana, or generosity, is the first “parami” or perfection of a Buddha taught ias the fundamental basis of happiness and freedom. The generous offering of the teachings is a wonderful model of the Buddha’s philosophy of interconnectedness. Teachers from the Buddha to now have made the teachings available for 2,500 years in a long lineage leading to us, from a fount of compassion and deep generosity. In turn, this requires reliance on the generosity of students–one of many beautiful examples of our interdependence.
While the spirit of giving that the Buddha taught is the natural expression of a generous, connected and loving heart, we must cultivate it in our practice. Giving needs to be practiced and developed because it cuts through our underlying tendency toward attachment, aversion, and confusion and develops the free and happy heart. So, we can look for opportunities to give of our time, our energy, our resources, our love and our service to others. With its cultivation, true generosity grows in us and kindness and joy grow in us, all bringing us closer to freedom. With each act of generosity, our heart opens more, and as the heart opens, our generosity becomes even more spontaneous and immediate. We become a natural channel for our own happiness and for the happiness of all around us.
Chan master Hui Hai said “Deluded people fail to understand that the paramitas [usually translated as the “Perfections of a Buddha] all proceed from the Dana Paramita and that by its practice all the others are fulfilled.” “Dana” is usually translated as charity or almsgiving—of goods, money, or the teachings. More precisely, dana is the spirit and act of generosity. Its salutary effects are endless, and they multiply beyond measure every time we form an intention to be generous and each time we fulfill that intention. Neglecting its cultivation in the heart also has the inevitable consequences of the contracted heart, the blocking of the fulfillment of our Buddha heart.
With cultivation of the Dana Paramita, the Buddha’s teaching of universal harmony is put into practice. Mutual interdependence becomes mutual intersupport. And its practice is not only Buddhist–it is perennial. The Earth itself flourishes by what Emerson calls the endless circulation of divine charity: “The wind sows the seed, the sun evaporates the sea, the wind blows the vapor to the field…the rain feeds the plant, the plant feeds the animal.” The very stars hold themselves on course through a mutual interchange of energy. And the flow of this energy is dependent on every living being.
In keeping with this natural charity, ancient customs of gift giving and circulating the gift has kept human society healthy from primal times to now. In reflecting on our suttas, we turn the virtue of the reflection back to ancestral teachers in gratitude for their guidance. We are constantly receiving that teaching, constantly sending it around again.