Generosity: ‘Tis always the season. So, in our January magazine, six Buddhist teachers — Karen Maezen Miller, Judy Lief, Jan Chozen Bays, Gina Sharpe, Norman Fischer, and Tsultrim Allione — look at why generosity is the starting place of all the virtues. Here’s Gina Sharpe’s contribution, “The Heart of Generosity.”
The mental states we encounter when we sit in meditation—difficult emotions, negative thoughts, and even the pains in our bodies—are the consequences of life-long habit patterns and viewpoints that result in dukkha, or suffering.
We know from the second noble truth that the source of dukkha is greed, attachment, and craving. These cause us to hold on to what appears to give us relief from our suffering—things, people, viewpoints, habits. Yet, if these give any relief at all, it is at best temporary.
The heart of generosity—giving, sharing, and caring for others—breaks this cycle of attachment and the resultant suffering. Through generosity, we let go of self-centeredness and our mind/hearts open into loving-kindness, compassion, and tenderness. We experience our interconnectedness—how we rely on the generosity, caring, and hard work of others for our well-being. These realizations are direct antidotes to dukkha. Aligning our actions with them brings us true happiness.
Three aspects of the noble eightfold path help us practice giving: right understanding, the first aspect; right mindfulness, the seventh; and right effort, the sixth.
With right understanding, we know that selfishness and miserliness are negative states of mind. When selfishness asserts itself, we see it, and right mindfulness supports this seeing. Having become mindful of selfishness and attachment as unwholesome states of mind, we practice right effort: we make a balanced effort to abandon clinging and to cultivate the wholesome state of generosity.
One of the ten daily monastic reflections may be helpful in cultivating the generous heart: “The days and nights are relentlessly passing. How well am I spending my time?”
Imagine a world in which we all hold on tightly, where generosity is not an option or worse, is not even known? What would it be like to live in such a world, where we work only to get and hold on to whatever we can for ourselves, without any thought for the welfare of others? Is that a world in which we’d want to live? Or can we together create a world of kindness and compassion, in which we respond appropriately with generosity?
After retiring from practicing law, Gina Sharpe cofounded New York Insight Meditation Center.