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Why, When and How to be Generous

An exploration of the daily practice of generosity in a Shambhala household

by Walker Blaine

sunrise over oceanIf people understood the benefits to themselves of generosity, they would not be able to contain their joy at seeing opportunities to give. Saints and sages from all spiritual traditions have spoken words like these. Generosity—giving to others with a good heart and an open mind—is the pathway to directly experiencing the insight and joy that the wisest teachers, leaders, warriors, and parents have nurtured in themselves and society with since the beginning of history.

A few years ago, I had the idea that every day I should actively try to be generous and give something to someone. It didn’t have to be a big gift, just something of use, some change to a homeless person, a few dollars to a noble cause, a card or small gift to somebody I cared about. I thought this would be easy, but it turned out to be challenging. I quickly discovered that beneath my inspiration lay a fear that I couldn’t be that consistent. There was also fear of loss and a hidden belief that such discipline would be either depleting or exhausting. Even with daily meditation practice, and making imaginary offerings to the buddhas and great beings, the idea of actively choosing to give was intimidating.

gift boxSo, I gave up on this cause and continued to give in my more usual ways with occasional gifts to friends and family, giving to the homeless on the street, and to noble causes when the spirit moved me. Then a few weeks ago I felt like I had to try again to make this conscious leap toward generosity and see if I could make a shift in who I was. I mentioned this plan to my wife and asked if we could do it as a household. She was immediately inspired and excited about the idea and we decided to mark each small act on our calendar. Within a few days, we realized that whenever we were had the opportunity to be generous, we were happy about it. It didn’t matter what we gave, it always felt good.

It was almost immediately obvious that the size of the gift didn’t matter. Instead, we noticed that what felt right and strengthening was consistency in generosity. This made me realize that I had a huge blind spot. I’d believed that gifts to friends at special events, during winter holidays, or in response to a fundraiser somehow made me a generous person. This actually wasn’t true. If someone decides to give to a few charities a few times a year, for example, that just makes that person generous a few days a year. But someone who regularly feeds birds in the park by their home is generous every day of the year. Who is really developing a mind and heart of giving at that point?

mani stoneOn pilgrimages to holy places in Tibet, Nepal, and India I’ve observed that pilgrims tend to make offerings at every sacred spot they visit. Often it is just a small amount of money or some food. From the vantage point of cultivating ongoing, consistent generosity, I saw that this repeated gesture was an incredible expression of health and sanity because these people were actively and consciously giving in the moment of every encounter with sacred space. How often have I walked into a meditation center, hospital, or other place of virtue without dropping a coin into a donation box? Of course, these days many holy places in the West prefer ongoing monthly donations—and it is great to do that—but the act of physically making a choice to give when stepping into a space of virtue has great impact because at the moment of giving, that donation happens now. There is no substitute for making a conscious choice, moving the muscles, and letting go of a coin, a cookie, or our seat on the subway. This is different from the choice to make a monthly donation, which might have happened a year or two ago.

At the heart of all this is intention. Why be generous? Because the mind of openness, the mind of giving, is essentially joyful and creative. The more we make the choice day-by-day to invite that mind into our household, into our community, the more that joy spreads outward. There is absolutely no substitute for generosity in the world. And if anything right now, the world needs ongoing, daily doses of people experimenting with giving to others, whether that is money, art, listening, kindness, or just the gift of time and patience.

If you can experiment with consciously giving on a daily basis, give it a try. Some days in our household here in Halifax, we forget to give, but that seems to be part of the pathway to being more brave about giving. At first, I thought I’d somehow ruined things by having blank spot on our calendar, but then I noticed that we’d already gone a week giving a little every day, and that was something we’d never done before. And that was when I realized I would like to explore daily generosity for the rest of my life.


Walker Blaine is Master of Liturgies to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and a Herald of the Kalapa Court. He has studied and practiced the dharma in Shambhala for more than 30 years, and has done extensive pilgrimage in Asia. His ebook, The Great River of Blessings an account of the Rinchen Terdzö received by the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in the winter of 2008-2009, can be downloaded at the Sakyong Foundation.

His two CDs of Buddhist music can be sampled on iTunes, and a trailer for his recent play can be viewed here. Walker lives with his wife Patricia in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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16 responses to “ Why, When and How to be Generous ”
  1. Generosity is so important. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was once asked why he established his monastery, Nagi Gompa. He could have said many things — to preserve the teachings of the Buddha, to train monks to practice dharma to benefit beings, to create an inspiration for dharma practice. Instead, he said that he established his monastery because wherever three monks are gathered together it creates an opportunity for people to give and that generosity benefits the donors.

    Then, he went further and said that it doesn’t matter whether the monks misappropriate the gifts — that is the monk’s business and their problem. The gift with pure intention is enough to create benefit and to give a reason for the existence of the monastery.

  2. Seann Tayler
    Dec 25, 2016
    Reply

    Walker — Thank you for the generosity that you have bestowed to the sangha over the years. Your generosity is compounded as we recipients become more generous, having been encouraged by your writings.

  3. Timaree Bierle-Dodds
    Dec 26, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you Walker for sharing your efforts and household experiences. Our teachers, too, are such great examples for us in the area of generosity.

  4. Curtis Ronci
    Dec 27, 2016
    Reply

    “Generosity is the virtue that produces peace.”

    Thank you for the reminder Mr. Blaine.

  5. Dear Walker,

    How strongly I agree with you and I have also been trying this as a daily practice. Thanks for the encouragement when I miss a day or two. There is a lot of joy here. I have certainly experienced this in the past when I gave away a favourite item or a substantial sum of money. But adopting this as a daily practice with intention is the way to really cultivate generosity as a way to be. What if we all practiced this?

    Thanks for sharing this with us and may you find peace and joy with every gift.

  6. Theresa Barritt
    Dec 29, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you, Mr. Blaine. It’s always inspiring to hear from your heart!

  7. Marguerite Sands
    Dec 29, 2016
    Reply

    Thanks Walker, this is so much more inspiring than, say, New York Times headlines for example (my other morning reading for the moment)

  8. Greg Smith
    Dec 29, 2016
    Reply

    This is wonderful! Still, I would like to make a plug for automatic regular giving. Living at SMC, I know how important this kind of giving is to the health of this center. It is true that it does not have the “feel good” quality that Walker is talking about here. In fact one may forget that one is giving at all. But the actual benefit is much greater.

    So if someone wants to manually give one dollar a day to the practice center–that’s great! But why not just sign up for $30 a month? I don’t know if it is possible but maybe SMC can come up with a way to send repeat donors an email everyday to let them click a link to confirm their donation. Then the practice aspect of conscious giving would be engaged.

  9. Denise Kilshaw
    Dec 29, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you so much for this wonderful reminder, and simple practice.
    It is inspiring!
    Denise

  10. Thank you, Walker, for continually enriching our hearts and minds.

  11. Herbert Elsky
    Dec 30, 2016
    Reply

    Muchas gracias Walker for this inspiring reminder about how to open ourselves and our world.

  12. Susie Cook
    Dec 30, 2016
    Reply

    Yes!

  13. Michael Greenleaf
    Dec 31, 2016
    Reply

    Dear Walker, thank you for this…it rings true to who you are. In all you do, you and Patricia are a mirror to those of us who, out of fear, are always looking for ways to hold back, or who give only when we hope that others will notice our generosity and that our gift will bring some recognition or privilege. May those of us who pretend to give actually relax and let go and may all beings recognize their inner wealth, which is the energy of love.

  14. Judith Smith
    Jan 4, 2017
    Reply

    Dear Walker — As always, your words are terrifically inspiring! Acts of generosity are both gratifying and challenging. Much of my giving is via automatic withdrawals, which I review every month — but the challenges are the many opportunities on the streets of Halifax. One of my much wealthier friends told me that she is going to start carrying around a bunch of Two-nies ($2 to those of you who don’t know about this delightful Canadian coin) in her pocket and hand them out to those women and men on the street who ask.
    There’s another aspect of Generosity we shouldn’t forget. It is much more difficult. And that is to accept acts of generosity from others, and not reject them. This really is hard to do, at least for me. Something to think about.
    Thanks, Walker, for raising our gaze on this subject.

  15. Sala Sweet
    Jan 8, 2017
    Reply

    Thank you Walker. A treasured practice much needed in this time – or any time. It does bring joy.

  16. Thank you, Walker. Very inspiring – both that you and Patricia are doing it and that I could try to do it too!
    Shortly after I read this I heard a program on the CBC about New Year’s Resolutions which made me think about how short a time-span resolutions aspire to in our culture – only a year? So I decided to try to think of this coming year as the beginning of a five-year aspiration for giving growth; if I were younger I would go for ten!


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