Generosity is one of the most important virtues in the Buddhist tradition. Generosity helps us cultivate harmony with the world around us and makes people like us. It’s hard to hate someone that’s giving things away all the time. It also helps us in another way. Generosity is one of our antidotes to selfishness. We want to learn to be generous instead of miserly and to be giving instead of covetous. Selfishness doesn’t serve us very well because we can always chase after more. The trick is to learn to stop chasing, to step off the hamster wheel of greed and obsession with gaining.
This is not to say we don’t have material needs, of course we do. But too often we are spending our money and time chasing after things that we don’t even really want that much.
In his “Letter to a Friend” Nagarjuna has this to say:
“Possessions are ephemeral and essenceless—
Know this and give them generously to monks,
To brahmins, to the poor, and to your friends:
Beyond there is no greater friend than gift.”
With all respect to Nagarjuna, I’d put the poor first on this list. That being said, possessions are ephemeral because nothing lasts. The cool new iPhone wears out or stops working so well. The new car loses a significant portion of it’s value really fast. The things we own end up owning us. I was really happy when I could move out of my apartment and buy a house. But I just replaced apartment problems with house problems. I had to buy a new furnace and now I hear a woodpecker pecking my house. I don’t even know how to address that.
And possessions are essenceless. Nothing you can get will meet the expectations you have in your mind. We build things up in our mind when we really want to acquire them. And we don’t become happy that way. A not insignificant number of people get rich and famous and then set about wrecking (or even ending) their lives. I think this happens because they finally accomplish their goals and can get anything they want…and they realize it’s not what they thought it would be. I could be wrong about that. I’d have to experience that kind of success to know for sure.
So, Nagarjuna says who the best people to give to are.
Monks and brahmins are those we look up to, the spiritual teachers who share teachings with us. Again, I’d put the poor ahead of them. But giving to the spiritual community is important. The Rime Center has been trying to raise enough donations to build a new temple because Kansas City needs one. Buddhist communities have a heck of a time staying afloat because they just don’t receive the donations and attention that other religions do. And that’s okay, we’re going to get it together eventually.
I don’t think I have to convince you that giving to the poor is good, but it is. A lot of people need help in this world because this world is full of suffering. So the poor, the needy, the sick, the desperate people with nowhere else to go…giving to these people is a wonderful thing.
Being generous with our friends strengthens our relationships. This is not to say that we should let people take from us all the time, but most of us can probably give more to our friends than we’re doing.
Don’t give so that you have nothing left, but give because the act of giving is a powerful way to help yourself and others.
If you like this writing and have an interest in this text, you can join us in “Introduction to the Mahayana” at the Rime Buddhist Center. We have in person and online options. Here are the details:
Facilitator: Lama Matthew Palden Gocha & Daniel Scharpenburg
Date: 6 sessions beginning on November 22, 2023
Time: 7:45 – 9:00 pm
Class Fee: $30
Text: Nāgārjuna’s Letter to a Friend – Get it on Amazon or at the Rime Center gift shop.