Generosity is the first paramita (perfection) to be cultivated along the Bodhisattva path. When we give to others we momentarily let go of clinging to what is “ours” and enlarge our hearts. We can be generous not only with our money, but also with our energy, time, attention, and caring. It’s a way of opening to the world and making it just a little bit kinder — of breaking the bonds of isolation and strengthening our connection with others.
Generosity is hard-wired into us when it comes to helping family, friends, and tribe, and when we view beneficiaries as deserving. It comes harder when we think of helping strangers, enemies, and the undeserving. Buddhism is unique in suggesting a kind of impartiality — that we view all beings as worthy of our care and concern. This goes against the grain. It asks us to stretch ourselves, to widen our circle of caring, to loosen the boundaries that separate “us” from “them.” Buddhism is generosity boot camp.
As we live out our perpetual struggle between stinginess and generosity, between clinging to and loosening our grip on what is “ours,” we face the daily koan of “how much is enough?” How much can we give, and how should we reserve for ourselves, our families, and heirs? Buddhist mythology contains tales of unlimited and inhumanly selfless giving — of the Buddha in previous incarnations feeding his body to hungry tiger cubs, or giving away his children to serve a greedy beggar. (While the tiger cub story has its charms, the Vessantara Jataka’s account of the future Buddha giving away his children is — to say the least — genuinely creepy.) Suppose a donation of $25 can save a child in the third world from starvation or dysentery. Can we do that and feel good about ourselves? No problem. Especially before April 15th when we can take it as a charitable deduction. But $50 saves two children, $100 saves four, and $1,000 saves forty. Is it right to take a vacation when one can save the lives of forty children instead? Is it right to live in a nice home when one can save ten thousand? You can see where this kind of moral calculus leads.
Tracey Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains describes the life of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard educated physician who could easily have chosen a life of comparative luxury while doing the praiseworthy work of helping the sick. Instead, he tirelessly devoted his life to helping the poor of Haiti. During the time Tracey Kidder describes, Dr. Farmer kept nothing for himself. He donated his physician’s salary to his clinic, lived in a small peasant’s house, and slept only four hours a day. He walked miles through the Haitian countryside to personally bring medicine to a single sick patient. There was no limit to his devotion. When Kidder asked him how one could possibly expect others to follow his example, Farmer just smiled sweetly and replied “Fuck you.”
Genuine saints like Dr. Farmer and the Buddha are not comforting figures. They make us squirm. They throw every assumption we have about how much is enough into doubt. They point to a horizon of possibility that few of us will aspire to or achieve, but which challenges us to be bigger than we already are.
A number of years ago I went on retreat with a Tibetan lama who asked us to engage in deity yoga by imagining ourselves as the bodhisattva Vajrasattva. “What’s the point of pretending to be something we’re not?” someone asked. The teacher replied, “We spend so much time imagining ourselves to be these little beings we tell ourselves we are — it couldn’t hurt to spend a little time imagining we’re something bigger.”
That’s what generosity is about. Being bigger.
Buddhism isn’t mind-expansion — it’s human being expansion.
Prepare to be stretched.