Generosity is not limited to the giving of material things. We can be generous with our kindness and our receptivity. Generosity can mean the simple giving of a smile or extending ourselves to really listen to a friend. Paradoxically, even being willing to receive the generosity of others can be a form of generosity.
When you are practicing generosity, you should feel a little pinch when you give something away. That pinch is your stinginess protesting. If you give away your old, worn-out coat that you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, that is not generosity. There is no pinch. You are doing nothing to overcome your stinginess; you’re just cleaning out your closet and calling it something else. Giving away your coat might keep someone warm, but it does not address the problem we face as spiritual practitioners: to free ourselves from self-cherishing and self-grasping.
Buddhist teachings emphasize that the manner in which we give is as important as what we give—we should give with respect, with happiness, and with joy. When we are practicing generosity, and it does not bring happiness and joy, we should pay close attention to our motivations for giving, and perhaps even reevaluate whether to give at all.
Greed is the salty water consumed by those who thirst for self-centered gratification. This kind of thirst can never be quenched and becomes the source of increasing torment.
“You can measure the depth of a person’s awakening by how they serve others”
—Kobo Daishi (774–835 CE)
Meditation is one of the keys to unlocking the natural generosity of the heart. Underneath the greedy and selfish thoughts and feelings that are part of the human condition lies a pure desire to help. We experience this in our mindfulness practice; when we let go, there is a natural acceptance and feeling of care.
Phototgraph by Gyorgy Kepes, “Juliet’s Shadow Caged,” 1939. Courtesy of Joel Soroka Gallery