I guess I’ve always been pretty able to live within my means and never worried too much about money. Partly because I don’t have extravagant tastes and prefer a simple life without getting unduly attached to objects and partly due to somehow getting paid more than I should in my day job. I donate regularly to charity and am always prepared to pay my share or provide things for others without any fuss. The teachings on generosity at the Kopan Monastery November course that I recently finished, however, take the whole concept of “giving” to a different level in a way that I really liked.
It seems appropriate to consider this even more around Christmas – not least because the teachings emphasise the mindset behind the act rather than the giving itself. I’ve never been particularly good at finding presents, and being half way around the world I won’t be able to give or receive this year.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the founder and head of Kopan and the FPMT organisation which upholds the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, gives away everything with the faith that through generosity things will come back to you. We were told one story of an offering made to Lama of a precious artefact worth many thousands of dollars that would have assisted in the running of the organisation in the early days, to the astonishment of the person making this offering Lama casually proceeded to offer it back to the next person in line! This practice of giving works to cut attachment, to undermine pride and, done with the correct motivation, without regret or hesitation, it is the embodiment of generosity.
It matters not who the person giving was or who Lama was giving to, in fact, by not discriminating it is also showing an equanimity of spirit, giving regardless of the status of the receiver or our attachment to them. Not giving expecting something in return but giving purely for the good of the person asking.
In Tibetan Buddhism the practice of generosity is said to result in a rebirth not lacking in worldly things, but I think even without believing in the concepts of future lives it is often that by being more open and giving that we see things coming back to us.
It’s not all about material things either but more about your overall attitude and approach. We learnt at Tushita that even the act of paying a bill could be made into generosity if you were doing it in the right frame of mind. What is the benefit of getting worked up and upset over your gas bill (I mean, sure, if they get it wrong then sort it out but it doesn’t need to be a big deal) by paying it with a mind-set of joy and appreciation you will find even this can make you happier.
Giving time or advice is also as valuable, or maybe even more valuable than giving money or things. As someone who doesn’t like talking about real problems most of the time I find letting others explain their issues and really listening to them often helps me at the same time. I may not be able to offer the best advice but I can hear what they are saying and at least be sympathetic.
These aren’t particularly groundbreaking concepts but the key is the way in which you undertake the actions. Giving without being fully happy about doing it is a counter-productive activity because it is only going to cause your mind to become more disturbed.
Giving without thinking about your own well-being is also important. At our level of course it is perhaps not sensible to give everything we own away but you can generally give a lot more than you think. This practice encourages you to think of others and their well-being before your own which cuts through the self-cherishing ego and leads to more happiness because one naturally becomes less absorbed with the minutiae of so-called problems that we seem to spend our lives moaning about… Nothing is really a problem if you don’t apply that negative label to it.