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Jul 16
Dharma Teachings
Generosity and Creating Enlightened Society

By Walker Blaine

This article was written in preparation for the Great Mandala Offering. The Great Mandala Offering is a sangha-wide event occurring this weekend at Shambhala Mountain Center. It will be broadcast live by Shambhala Online to Shambhala Centers throughout the world.

Cultivating a path of warriorship and a culture of compassion in a competitive, materialistic world demands a lot of us. Coming back to our heart in environments that are speedy or aggressive can be difficult. It can be easy to get thrown off track and forget the message of wakefulness. The basis for going forward in these times is confidence in basic goodness and the implications of that, both for ourselves and for others. Another support to strengthen our individual and collective journey enlightened society is generosity. To me, the English of it seems to come down to the phrase, ‘helping out.’

The traditional breakdown of generosity has three categories and sometimes a fourth is added: giving material things, giving protection, offering dharma, and giving love. The trick with generosity is timing, context, and what to give. Timing comes from staying in the present moment; if we’re relaxed and trust in the magic of the world, we usually know what to do. Context and what to give are based on the situations that life provides us. These are highlighted by the four categories of generosity.

The first thing we can be generous with is our possessions. A gift to others could be very small, just one’s spare change. Some gifts can seem insignificant, but mean a lot to others, such as the use of our home for a potluck dinner with friends or sending someone a cheerful email. Then there are extraordinary gifts, like giving an organ to a friend or relative suffering in the hospital. There is no end to what we can give because the world is always presenting opportunities to share. The amazing thing about giving is that it actually opens up both the giver and the receiver.

I recall a story about the practice of generosity that a Tibetan teacher once told about someone in a three-year group retreat. This retreatant could not meditate very well and asked the teacher what the problem was. The teacher explained that the student needed more merit to support his practice. This meant that we need positive habits and virtue backing us up when we sit down to meditate. If we don’t have that support, it is hard to be confident and to relax. Merit, the result of virtuous acts like being generous, helps us to establish confidence.

The teacher advised the retreatant that cleaning the retreat facility during his breaks would help him gain merit and strengthen his practice. So, the retreatant did this during the next months of the retreat and soon found that his meditation became more stable and clear. When the teacher returned, the retreatant reported that his meditation was good, but now he was cleaning during all of his free time. At that point, the teacher gave the student more subtle instructions on how to gain merit. Being generous is a way to strengthen our practice. Sometimes even the smallest gift can inspire us toward further openness and compassion.

The second way to give is to offer fearlessness. The kind of generosity is usually described as protecting people from the fear of thieves, dangerous animals, and so forth. There are many famous stories about saints protecting beings from danger. The great yogi Milarepa once calmed a deer being chased by a hunting dog. Then he tamed the dog chasing the deer, and finally he pacified the hunter who abandoned hunting and began to study with Milarepa.

It is rare to be confronted by deer running from hunters and, in my own experience, the deer usually run from me too. However, parents often get the opportunity to enact Milarepa’s compassion when they help their kids meet the hunting dogs of childhood. Misunderstandings in close relationships can give any of us the opportunity to be brave because fear and other emotions can be very strong between people who have a heart bond.

The Shambhala teachings place a huge emphasis on fearlessness, developing the courage to meet the challenge of new or difficult situations in our lives. Becoming free of fear requires that we meet and investigate what is troubling us. When we can do this and project that confidence outwards, it invariably strengthens us and inspires others. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche often said to his students, “You can do it.” The example of the voice of experience can be just the be just what someone needs to make a leap into the unknown, whether it is riding a bicycle for the first time or balancing a budget. Courage in adversity creates joy and open space.

The third gift is that of dharma, actually sharing the teachings with someone. Buddhism is non-proselytizing; it does not seek to recruit people into its tradition. Therefore, it is no wonder that the traditional advice for sharing buddhist teachings is not to teach immediately, but instead to get to know people, examine them well to see if they are ready and interested in learning about meditation so on. It is sometimes difficult to follow this advice with people we’ve known a long while, especially family. As one teacher said, say less and be more. If we are a decent and gentle person, that should be enough.

Sometimes there is a fourth kind of generosity, which is love. This is the wish for all beings to be happy and have the causes for happiness. Besides cultivating this generosity in meditation, it can be developed in daily life. For example, if there’s a particularly good day or experience one is having, it’s easy to take a second and think, ‘I wish everybody could have this.’ This might sound contrived, but it can expand the joy of the moment. Appreciating our lives can provoke further goodness.

There are many ways to enjoy and play with generosity both on and off of the meditation cushion. Imagination can jumpstart the process, and then when real opportunities present themselves, we can find we are more fearless and free. May all beings find the path to generosity and the other virtues that form the path to the Kingdom of Shambhala.

Walker Blaine completed his bachelor’s degree at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado in 1986. After graduation, he spent the next 15 years practicing and working in rural retreat centers in North America. From 2001 to 2008, he divided his time between retreat, pilgrimage, and study in Asia and the West. He is a member of the Nalanda Translation Committee and lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Walker’s new book, The Great River Of Blessings, is offered for free at The Sakyong Foundation. His two CDs of Buddhist music, Highland Eyes and Body Of Light can be sampled at iTunes and at http://www.highlandeyes.com.

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