By Sharon Salzberg – The cultivation of generosity is the beginning of the Buddhist path. When the Buddha taught, he always began with generosity. The path begins there because of the joy that arises from a generous heart. Pure, unhindered delight flows freely when we practice generosity. We experience joy in forming the intention to give, in the act of giving, and in recollecting the fact that we’ve given.
If we practice joyful giving, we grow in self-esteem, self-respect and well-being, because we continually test our limits. Our attachments say, “I will give this much and no more,” or “I will give this article or object if I am appreciated enough for doing so.” In the practice of generosity, we learn to see through our attachments. We see they are transparent, that they have no solidity. They don’t need to hold us back, so we can go beyond them.
Therefore, the practice of generosity is about creating space. We see our limits and we extend them continuously, which creates a deep expansiveness and spaciousness of mind. This happiness, self-respect, and spaciousness is the appropriate ground for meditation practice to flourish. It is the ideal place from which to undertake deep investigation, because with this kind of inner happiness and spaciousness, we have the strength and flexibility to look at everything that arises in our experience.
The aim of giving is twofold. The first is to free our minds from the conditioned forces that bind and limit us. Craving, clinging, and attachment bring confinement and lack of self-esteem. If we’re always looking for some person or thing to complete us, we miss the degree to which we are complete in every moment. It’s a bit like leaning on a mirage only to find that it can’t hold us; there’s nothing there. The second purpose is to free others, to extend welfare and happiness to all beings, to lessen the suffering in this world. When our practice of generosity is genuine, we realize inner spaciousness and peace, and we also extend boundless caring to all living beings.
The movement of the heart in practicing generosity mirrors the movement of the heart that inwardly lets go. So the external training of giving deeply influences the internal feeling-tone of the meditation practice, and vice versa. If we cultivate a generous heart, then we can more easily allow things to be the way they are.
As we learn how to give at the most obvious level—giving material objects to others—in that giving, we develop the ability to let go, to let things be as they are. We begin to see that compulsive attachment really doesn’t bring us any happiness, whereas the benefits of being able to give fully with a pure intention are innumerable.
The Buddha talked about many worldly benefits that come from giving. When people are generous, other beings love them quite a lot. Such love occurs without a sense of contrivance or expectation: we don’t give so we can become popular. Being loved is not part of the motivation for giving. It’s just a law of the universe: as we give, we receive. So there is an openness that beings feel toward us and a great deal of love.
The Buddha taught that a generous person can enter any group without fear. Once again, such courage is without contrivance; it’s not thought out or planned. It’s just the natural consequence of opening one’s heart. A certain brightness grows within us as we learn to give, and people are drawn to us and trust us.
These types of worldly happiness are all types of spiritual happiness as well. There’s value in a single act of giving that goes beyond what we would normally conceive. The Buddha said that when we offer someone food, we’re not just giving that person something to eat; we’re giving far more. We’re giving them strength, health, beauty and clarity of mind, even life itself, because none of those things is possible without food. We’re offering the stuff of life itself.
That single moment of offering someone food represents a tremendous part of the spiritual path. All four of the qualities known as the brahma-viharas, or divine abodes, are found in that single moment. Love, or metta, is there because we feel goodwill toward the person who is receiving; we feel a sense of oneness with them, and want them to be happy. We feel compassion in that moment because we wish that being to be free from pain or suffering. There’s that trembling of the heart that responds to a being and wants them to be free of pain. We also experience the third divine abode, sympathetic joy. We rejoice in the happiness of someone else rather than feel envy or jealousy. The last divine abode, equanimity, is also found in the act of giving because we’re willing to let go of an object of craving—to give it away to others.
All four of these qualities are found in that one moment of giving. At that moment, we’re abandoning desire and grasping. We’re abandoning ill will and aversion. And we’re abandoning delusion as well, because when we perform a wholesome or skillful action we understand that what we do in our life—the choices we make, the values we hold—matters.
In an act of giving we’re aligning ourselves with certain values. We develop love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We let go of grasping, aversion, and delusion in a single act of giving. That’s why the Buddha said that if we knew as he did the power of giving, we wouldn’t let a single meal pass without sharing something.
To rejoice in our ability to make choices, to cultivate the good, to let go of that which harms us and causes suffering for us will give us the confidence and joy to keep practicing, to do things that are difficult and unfamiliar to us. As we keep rejoicing in generosity, we will keep on purifying.
No one of us can do these things perfectly; it is a practice. We practice generosity with others and with ourselves, over and over again, and its power begins to grow until it flows almost like a waterfall. This is who we become, this is how we continually are able to touch on and deepen a true and genuine happiness.
Sharon Salzberg is one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and a well-known meditation teacher and author. She is also a member of the Council of Advisers of Buddhist Global Relief. This essay is excerpted from an article originally published in the March 2005 issue of the Shambhala Sun.