Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

The Basic Buddhist Virtue

Talk two of four on generosity or dana

I will begin with a quote from Sangharakshita taken from his lecture on Perfect Emotion, the second stage of the Noble Eightfold Path. He says; In a sense Dana or giving is the Basic Buddhist Virtue without which you can hardly call yourself a Buddhist. Dana consists not so much in the act of giving as in the feeling of wanting to give, of wanting to share what you have with other people. This feeling of wanting to give or share is often the first manifestation of the spiritual life.(8) When we are dealing with Dana, generosity, we are dealing with something very fundamental in the spiritual life. There is an image which you often encounter in Buddhism, the image of the lotus. It is said that after the Buddha’s Enlightenment experience he had a vision of the world as being like a lotus lake with lotuses in all stages of growth, some still beneath the water, some just little buds appearing above the water, some half open and some completely out of the water and fully open. In other words he saw that all living beings are at different stages of development just like the lotuses. Many of us are like little lotus buds peeping our heads out of the water but still closed up within ourselves, concerned with ourselves, protective of ourselves, looking into ourselves. This is a necessary stage of growth but we need to move more and more towards being open flowers, looking outwards, regarding others as well as ourselves. This stage of the partially opened lotus flower is akin to the point where we experience feelings of wanting to give, the feelings of wanting to give which indicate that we are beginning to tread the spiritual path. Dana or Generosity has to be there right at the beginning of the spiritual life. It is also present throughout the spiritual life and is present at Enlightenment too, as the Great Compassion (Maha-Karuna). I am going to talk about Dana in terms of five different stages, each a bit more advanced than the other, but all constituting the practice of Generosity. These five stages are the stages of Hospitality, the stage of Conditional Giving, the stage of Helping, the stage of Harmonising, and the stage of Spontaneity. This is not a traditional list by the way. For those of you who have studied these things, it is based on the levels of Going for Refuge but only loosely connected to that list. The first stage of Dana in my list is the stage of Hospitality. Hospitality according to the dictionary means, “kindness in welcoming strangers or guests”. I grew up in a society and culture where hospitality was like a beautiful thread woven into the fabric of human interaction. People visited each other very frequently, because conversation was the main source of news and entertainment and visitors were always treated well. Usually some cake or biscuits were kept by for treating visitors. After my elderly mother died last year I wrote a semi-poetic tribute to her and one of the things I wrote there was an evocation of her hospitality; In my mind I see our Christmas windows all alight with candles proclaiming the ancient welcome to the wanderer and it is now an image of your ever open door and warm heart welcoming neighbours and strangers with kindly regard and the well worn words of a courtly country ritual, ‘Come in and make yourself at home, the kettle’s on the hob, you’ll have a cup of tea.’(9) That was my memory of my mother’s hospitality which was the hospitality that was regarded as the natural way to behave in that time and place. So I personally come from a background where kindness in welcoming strangers and guests was something people did very easily and naturally without thinking about it. Now that the story of my life has opened a new chapter with me taking on the role of Chairman of the London Buddhist Centre I would like to try to bring some of that flavour of my early life into the LBC and the surrounding Buddhist village, that flavour of hospitality. Most of you here are not newcomers, you have been coming along to the Centre for a while or you have been on retreats and so you are in a position to welcome strangers into the Centre, your Centre. You are in a position to practise hospitality, which is another word for friendliness. Hospitality is a basic level of Generosity. It is Generosity as a cultural phenomenon, Generosity as an ingredient for making our contact with each other pleasant and harmonious, and in this way hospitality is a foundation for the spiritual life. Hospitality teaches us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others and it encourages us to kindly welcome strangers into our space, our territory. So it counteracts any tendency we might have to ‘clique-ishness’ or exclusiveness. I would like to encourage everybody to a wholehearted practice of hospitality whether here at the Centre or when visiting each other at home, and visiting each other is itself part of the culture of hospitality, counteracting the attitude of “my home is my castle”. As we practise generosity we will increasingly want to let down the drawbridge of our castles and extend a kindly welcome to our friends on the Path. Another area in which to exercise hospitality is in answering the telephone. Before we pick up the receiver we could simply say to ourselves “this is another human being” and in saying that try to be open and friendly. Sometimes people are very offhand, almost rude, in the way they answer the telephone, perhaps with a sharp, “Yes”. Let us not be like that, let us practise hospitality even on the telephone and be kind in welcoming strangers or friends into our space. Kulamitra (Chairman of North London Centre) was telling me that he had to ring a computer help-line, an American Company, and their office was in Ireland and he said he was treated with such friendly regard, that it did not seem to matter too much whether his problem was sorted out or not. So it is possible to practise hospitality on the phone too. Danavira was telling me he rang the DHSS in the North of England, and was moved to tears by how helpful the man on the phone was. The second stage of generosity is the stage of Conditional Giving. This is when we give gifts, give money, time etc. but if we are honest with ourselves, if we look closely we see that we are expecting a return. Perhaps we expect that we will receive gifts in return, like the exchange of gifts that takes place in some families at Christmas time. Or perhaps we just want to feel good about ourselves or feel less guilty or perhaps, like traditional Buddhists in Asia, we think of ourselves as accumulating merit. Whatever the case, sometimes, often, when we give, we do so with an expectation of getting something in return. Well, that’s alright, that’s okay. The important thing is that we give. Giving is a practice. We move gradually from no giving to conditional giving and eventually to spontaneous giving. So we do not need to worry too much about our motivations or expect to have pure intentions when we give. The important thing is to give. We see a need and we give. No need to agonise about it or wait until we are certain of our motives. We just need to practise, to make a habit of giving. When there is a need for money we give money. When there is a need for time we give time. When there is a need for energy we give energy. Where there is a need for education or culture we give education and culture. Here at this stage I am just talking about giving in response to needs, open-handed generosity; sharing our money, goods, time, energy and intellect with others who need them. In every need there is an opportunity, an opportunity for us to give, to share. This second stage of Dana is conditional in the sense that our motives may not be pure and it is also conditional in the sense that it is in response to needs. We are giving because we have been asked to or because we see a need and respond. The third stage is what I call the stage of Helping. At this stage we move on to a practice of Generosity that goes beyond a response to needs. At this stage we are practising generosity as a way of getting beyond the separation between self and other, at this stage we are trying to open up more to other people just as human beings like ourselves. We can assume that people have certain needs because like us they are human and all humans have some needs in common; a need to be loved, a need to have meaning in our lives, and a need to cope with suffering. At this stage of Generosity we give out of a heartfelt response to humanity and an aspiration to grow beyond the narrow confines of our own small world. At this stage we are beginning to practise the Perfection of Generosity, Dana Paramita, we are beginning to experience something of the desire, “to become that which maintains all beings situated throughout space, so long as all have not attained to peace”, as the words of the Puja say. At this stage of helping we will be giving our time and energy to the Buddhist movement ever more unstintingly, just giving whatever we have in order to help create the best conditions for practice. We will be supportive where support is needed. Most importantly, at this stage, which I have called the stage of Helping, we will be willing to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of others, we will be able to put ourselves out in order that others may be happy. At this stage our open-handed generosity has become even more open-hearted. Our generosity becomes the activity of our Metta; we love therefore we give. The next stage of Generosity according to my list is the stage of Harmonising. In Buddhism there is a concept known as Skilful Means. Skilful means are the means employed by the Boddhisattva to help people to grow and develop. One list of skilful means is known as the Four Sangrahavastus, the four Means of Unification of the Sangha. They are the means employed by the Boddhisattva to help create the Spiritual Community. They are Dana, Kindly Speech, Beneficial Activity and Exemplification. At this stage Generosity is a Skilful means. At this stage the greatest motivation for giving is to create the spiritual community, to unify the Sangha. We have experienced the benefits of the spiritual community, we understand the necessity for the spiritual community in the world, our hearts respond to the vision of a world infused with Metta, permeated by metta and out of this experience, this understanding and this heart-felt response we want to establish friendly contact with as many people as possible. We want to create spiritual friendship, we want to create the Sangha. At this stage of Harmonising, our Generosity will be expressed in giving encouragement, in being affectionate, in giving attention, in rejoicing in the good. The FWBO is not a service provided by some for others. The FWBO is the joint creation of all those who come together in harmony out of a deep response to the Dharma and co-operate to create the conditions for practising meditation, spiritual friendship etc. Because the FWBO is our joint creation, the product of all our efforts to grow and develop, it depends completely on the spirit of Generosity. We exist as a spiritual community, as a force for good in the world, to the extent that we can give of our property, our time, our energy, our affection; give ourselves in short. Giving ourselves wholeheartedly to the situation, to the Movement, is what creates it, what gives it vitality and heart. We can all give something whether it is money, flowers for the shrine, time or a welcoming smile. We all have something to give and at this stage of giving, the stage of Harmonising, we can see that what we give to others, what we give to the situation, the LBC, what we give to the Movement, the FWBO, we also give to ourselves. We are beginning to see that giving and receiving are not so separate. I and others are not so separate. By creating a culture of hospitality, friendliness and spiritual endeavour we create the ideal conditions for living out our lives meaningfully. And this brings us to the profound truth central to the Boddhisattva Ideal. To use Sangharakshita’s words; One cannot really help oneself without helping others. One cannot really help others without helping oneself.(10) This truth is our motivation for practising Generosity at the stage of Harmonising. When I gave a short talk a couple of months ago outlining my vision for the Centre and Mandala for the future, I said that I thought this would be a suitable motto for the Centre and Mandala for the next few years: “You cannot really help yourself without helping others and you cannot really help others without helping yourself.” I would like to reiterate and emphasise this! The last stage of Dana according to my list is the stage of Spontaneity. At this stage our generosity is simply the natural, spontaneous, creative overflow of an internal richness and abundance. On the archetypal level this is represented by the figure of the Buddha Ratnasambhava. He is golden yellow in colour, the colour of harvest. He is seated in the full lotus posture, his left hand resting in his lap holds a jewel, symbolising the richness and abundance of the Enlightened consciousness. His right hand is extended in the mudra, the gesture, of Generosity symbolising the overflowing of that richness and abundance into the world, as love and compassion. So at this stage, the stage of spontaneity, there is no thought of giving or receiving. There is just expression, creative expression of positive mental states, taking form in the world as a constant flow of generous activity. At this stage Generosity is no longer a practice, it is just the way one is. At this stage to be alive is to give. At this stage what is given is the Dharma, the means to Enlightenment. As one of the Buddhist Sutras puts it; Material help is not sufficient. Whether a dunghill be large or small, it cannot possibly be made to smell sweet by any means whatsoever. In the same way living beings are unhappy because of their acts, because of their nature; it is impossible to make them happy by supplying them with merely material aids. The best way of helping them is to establish them in goodness.(11) At this stage, the stage of Spontaneous Giving, the Bodhisattva is establishing human beings in a life of goodness, simply by being alive, by filling the world with an exuberant, abundant, rich overflow of generous, loving and creative activity. Our Movement, the FWBO, is a direct result of this kind of generosity on the part of Sangharakshita. Giving Dharma requires receptivity. Giving Dharma is sometimes a matter of giving a new perspective. You cannot receive the Dharma unless you are willing to accept the possibility that there are other different perspectives on life which may be wider, deeper, better than those you have got at present. Discovering our wrong views through interaction with others more experienced that us, being willing to accept that we could be wrong is part of growing and developing Wisdom. There is an image in Buddhism of the Bodhisattva Manjughosha. He is the Boddhisattva of Wisdom. He is giving Wisdom. In one hand he holds a book, a text on the Perfection of Wisdom, to symbolise Wisdom. In the other hand he holds a flaming sword symbolising the destruction of ignorance. To give wisdom is to destroy ignorance. To give the Dharma is to attack wrong views. Wrong views divide human beings against each other, right views are rooted in Metta, Universal Loving Kindness. The Dharma attacks with the sword of Wisdom all views, all ideologies, which divide humanity. So, in this last stage of Generosity, the stage of Spontaneous Giving, the Dharma is given, the key to a meaningful life is given unceasingly and all kinds of mundane views and ideologies are shown up for their narrowness and bigotry in the brilliant light of that sublime perspective. I have talked about the five stages of Dana. The stage of Hospitality which is the foundation for a truly Buddhist society. The stage of Conditional Giving which helps to establish us in the habit of open-handed generosity. The stage of Helping when we become more willing to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of others, as we see more clearly our common humanity, and our common human needs. The stage of Harmonising which expresses our response to the Bodhisattva Ideal when we begin to see the necessity of Sangha/spiritual community and the conditions that support it. Then finally there is the stage of Spontaneity when there is no longer any thought or idea of giving or receiving, just a spontaneous outpouring of spiritual wealth. Now I would like to say a few things about how all this applies to us more specifically. All of you will have heard of the Dana economy, our attempt to change how we interact financially, the basic principle being, “give what you can, take what you need.” I would like us to imagine taking this further and thinking in terms of the Dana Society where we attempt to change all our interactions, not just our financial interactions, to a Dana basis. So what does this mean? What would a Dana society be like? How could the principle of “Give what you can and take what you need” be more widely applied? Perhaps if we look at what it is that we can give and what it is that we need we will be able to get a feeling for how the principle of Dana could pervade our lives as a Buddhist Community. First of all what do we need? What do we need in order to practise the Dharma, in order to live the spiritual life? For the answer to this question I will turn to Sangharakshita. He says; There is in fact only one need of one’s own that has to be fulfilled before one can preoccupy oneself effectively with the needs of others, and it is not a physical or material need, but simply a matter of emotional positivity and security. We need to appreciate our own worth and feel that it is appreciated by others, to love ourselves and feel that we are loved by others.(12) It is quite obvious from this what is to be given, we need to give the same things that we need. We need to give appreciation and love. Because it is all of us who need appreciation and love, we all need to give appreciation and love. So the Dana Society is one in which we give and receive appreciation and love (love in the sense of Metta). This is via body, speech, and mind. We give gifts to each other to show our love and appreciation. We give money to our joint projects to show our support, our care and appreciation. We give time and energy to help each other individually and to help ourselves collectively by assisting in the running of the Centre or the Right Livelihood businesses or the Arts Centre. We give love and appreciation through hospitality, kindly and affectionate speech, listening with attention, rejoicing in merits. By paying attention to all the speech precepts and building a culture of Buddhist hospitality and friendliness we give appreciation and love. We give appreciation and love by making efforts to take responsibility for ourselves and so growing in confidence. If we meditate, become more aware of ourselves, take control of our lives, change ourselves, we will grow to appreciate and value our own worth and become an example to others of the value of the Dharma, an example of the great difference the Dharma can make to our lives. By doing this we will be giving others the means to greater love and appreciation of themselves. Let me tell you a little bit about myself. When I first got involved in the FWBO in 1984 I was extremely shy and quiet. I found it very difficult to speak when I was with a group of people. I mean five or six people. I was too frightened and shy. But my desire to change and my faith in the Dharma kept me involved and well, here I am ten years later doing something that was simply unimaginable to me ten years ago, standing up and talking to a roomful of people. What has happened? The main thing is that through meditation, reflection and friendship I have come to appreciate and care for myself and value my own worth. So I hope that by simply standing here before you this evening and sharing my thoughts on generosity, I will be giving something to inspire you both through my words and through my example. To conclude then, the Dana Society is a Buddhist Society based on the principle of give what you can, take what you need. What we need and what we can give is not different. As human beings we need love, we need appreciation and we need friendship. As human beings, we have the ability to love, we have the ability to appreciate, we have the ability to be friendly. “You cannot help yourself without helping others, you cannot really help others without helping yourself.”

The Basic Buddhist Virtue - References (8) Sangharakshita, Vision and Transformation, page 43. (9) Shabda, December 1993, page 19. (10) Sangharakshita, The Inconceivable Emancipation, page 36. (11) Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, page 467. (12) Sangharakshita, Wisdom Beyond Words, page 83.