Filed in Generosity

The Bodhisattva's Gift

Dale S. Wright

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When we examine our own giving, we often discern that we give for a wide variety of reasons, often with mixed motives. Although we may have the well-being of the recipient in mind when we give, we also give in order to receive. 

Giving often creates the expectation that it’s now our turn to get something. We give because we like the other person and hope to be liked in return. We give in order to be accepted or recognized in a particular community, to be admired, honored, or praised. Often we give in order to think well of ourselves, in order to think of ourselves as truly generous people. Even the admirable desire to become a profoundly generous person still maintains the primacy of self-concern. It focuses on me, the giver, rather on those who might need my help. But it is a mistake to simply reject these mixed and sometimes immature motivations, because for most of us these are the motives that do in fact drive our lives.

The movement from ordinary states of self-concern to selfless giving always involves a gradual transformation of character, not a sudden leap. Like any form of strength, generosity needs to be intentionally cultivated over time, and everyone must begin in whatever state of mind they already happen to be. Understanding and accepting who you really are right now is as important as the commitment to become someone more open and generous. Whatever the quality of motivation, when we intentionally reach out to others in giving, some degree of transformation occurs. We become what we practice and do in daily life. When we engage in acts of giving, we begin to feel generous, and the force of this feeling encourages our wanting to give.

Generous feelings are not always enough to make someone truly generous, however, because there are other important capacities entailed in effective giving. One of these is receptivity, a sensitive openness to others that enables both our noting their need and our willingness to hear their requests. If we simply don’t notice the problems and the suffering all around us, our generosity won’t amount to much. And if we don’t present ourselves as open and willing to help, we probably won’t help, because we won’t be asked. Our physical and psychological presence sets this stage and communicates clearly whether or not we care about the plight of someone there before us.

The traditional Mahayana embodiment of receptivity is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, whose multiple arms are always extended in the gesture of generous outreach. The Bodhisattva of Compassion welcomes and invites all pleas for help. Other familiar forms of presence, other gestures, restrict the field of asking and giving. Eyes down and arms folded tightly around ourselves communicate that we are self-contained, not open outwardly. Arms raised in gestures of anger or self-assertion say even more about our relations to others. The extent to which we are sensitively open to others and the way in which we communicate that openness determine to a great extent what level of generosity we will be able to practice in daily life. Practicing mindfulness, we open our minds to the very possibility that someone may need our assistance, and we welcome their requests for our help.

If we are both open to offering help and notice when help is needed, but are mistaken and ineffectual in how we go about giving it, then what we intend as an act of generosity may in fact just compound the difficulties. Without practical skill and wisdom, giving may be counterproductive or misguided in a number of ways. First, giving is best when it is based on a sound understanding of the overall situation. Effective generosity requires understanding who might benefit from your giving and how that giving might affect others beside the recipient. It is important to know when to give, how much to give, and how to do it with integrity, both for the well-being of the recipient and for that of others, including yourself. Wisdom is involved in knowing how different ways of giving might be received by others, and to what effect. There is also wisdom involved in asking how often to give and at what intervals. Intelligent giving is learned through practice, both as a meditation when we reflect on possible giving and as an activity in the world. Moreover, wisdom includes mindfulness that is watchful for our deepest ingrained habits, most especially the intrusions of self-concern and the always-present manipulations of self-interest.

One of the reasons that practicing generosity is so closely linked to Buddhist enlightenment is that the quality of our giving always proceeds from the true state of our character. Normally, we act as separate and self-contained beings who need to attend to our own well-being and security. Grounded in that ordinary but limited self-understanding, the generosity that we are able to practice is at least partially self-concerned. Still, as we practice generosity in the spirit of selflessness, we develop a sense of interdependent connection to others, a sense of community and reciprocal responsibility, and we begin to understand and feel all the ways in which our selves are in fact interlinked with others. When barriers separating the self begin to dissolve, generosity becomes easier—more natural—because more in alignment with our self-understanding. When this occurs, the motives that initiate giving become less patently selfish, and the meaning of the Buddhist sense of no-self begins to become clear. Indeed, every act of generosity reminds us of the possibility that we might actually live the bodhisattva’s vow, the vow to engage in everyday life as though the well-being of others is just as important as our own.

To act generously is to awaken a certain kind of freedom: freedom from the stranglehold of self-concern, and, consequently, freedom to choose a level of responsibility beyond the minimal charge most of us have for ourselves. To give unselfishly is at least momentarily to be free of ourselves, free of greed and attachments, resentments and hatreds, habitual and isolating acts of self-protection. This experience is exhilarating because it entails an expansion out beyond the compulsive anxieties of self-protection. In this sense, the practice of generosity is the practice of freedom, and it carries with it all the joy and pleasure that are associated with liberation. Indeed, there may be no greater sense of fulfillment in life than the simultaneous feelings of human interconnection and pure freedom that arise from an authentic act of selfless generosity.

Dale S. Wright is the Gamble Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at Occidental College. He has published a number of books, including The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character, and Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism.

Artwork by Yasuaki Masumoto, Annunciation

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jackelope65's picture

Yesterday, I met a small grey haired man from London and his 10 year old son on a near deserted beach in Costa Rica. He asked me if I spoke english.(Sort of Australian-American). We watched a beautiful sunset together and his son was wonderfully curious. It was their day of arrival and they seemed a little unprepared. After sunset, it was getting dark and they asked me about somewhere to eat. First I gave them directions but I was afraid they would get lost on the unlit jungle roads. Therefore I planned to walk them part way to the restaurant on my way home but my concern grew and I ultimately walked them there where they could get a bite to eat and arrange to get a ride to the house where they were staying. Although, at the time, I did not feel openly generous, today after reading this article, I feel strangely satisfied about getting their vacation off to a good start. Generosity seems to give us the most when we expect the least.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Opportunities abound for people to practice the bodhisattva ethic, anywhere, anytime.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I love this article. Thanks for spotlighting it again.

"Intelligent giving is learned through practice, both as a meditation when we reflect on possible giving and as an activity in the world."

I've found that learning intelligent giving through practice involves being willing to try a lot of different things and make a lot of mistakes, in order to learn what works and what doesn't. At one time in my life I would have been paralyzed by the prospect of so much failure. Now I realize that success in giving can only be accessed through repeated failures.

may all sentient beings enjoy happy giving this holiday season!

Danny's picture

"the bodhisattva's vow, the vow to engage in everyday life as though the well-being of others is just as important as our own."

Living this ideal could be effortless and even natural if we created a more friendly social structure grounded in mutual well-being and cooperation, rather than competition and the often painful delusion of an atomistic self.

with metta

lschaden's picture

You don't have to wait for that social structure. You can begin to live that vow in your own life and that will help to bring about that social structure. We are taught to be competitive but we can change. It may not be easy but I believe it is possible.

Dominic Gomez's picture

This "more friendly social structure grounded in mutual well-being and cooperation", ideally, is the sangha.

raymondtovo's picture

is there really altruism?

marginal person's picture

If, by altruism, you mean selfless behavior with no thought for yourself, then the question is unanswerable.
The motivation for the apparently selfless act would be unknowable, except by the person acting.
The important thing is to incline your mind toward skillful behavior (in this case generosity) and notice the results.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It is nothing more than an abstract concept. Until put into action, that is. At that moment action speaks louder than abstract concepts.

Shae's picture

This hits the head on explaining when we give gifts, we always expect something in return for the gesture. Unfortunately people get so wound up in that idea when the gift is not returned to them, they take it personal. This is something I would like to work on myself, as I find in my past I had a difficult time trusting others without knowing their own true intentions returned to myself. This is a great wisdom for today, and will be focusing on this more so.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's through the human revolution achieved by practicing Buddhism that people can transform the lower life conditions of hell, hunger and animality into those of bodhisattva and buddhahood. The upcoming Season of Giving can then be extended all year round.