Go your way, monks, for the benefit of the many: for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the benefit, the happiness of gods and men. (Vinaya, Mahavagga).
To accomplish good is to perform actions that have beneficial consequences. It is to make a gift to the world. One might see a turtle in the road, stop the car and carry it to one side lest it be run over by a less mindful driver; one might cook a meal to the delight and nourishment of one’s family; one might rescue a flood victim from perilous waters; one might teach Buddhism or offer a match to those in need of light; one might help overturn an unjust economic order for those in need of a bite. The practice of accomplishing good is also known as generosity (dāna). Note, however, that “generosity” is the translation of either of two words in Pali. Dāna is the physical act of giving something material or immaterial, including service, and therefore directly accomplishes good. Cāga is the internal mental disposition that most typically underlies dāna, though kindness (mettā) and compassion (karuṇā) are also implicated and is thereby more relevant to purifying the mind. I will resort to “giving” as a translation of dāna when it is important to distinguish physical act from disposition.
A little reflection reveals that how much and what kinds of good can be accomplish is far more open-ended than how much and what kinds of evil we might refrain from. This is probably why the Buddha hoped that we might refrain from all evil, but only accomplish some good. Some people use all of their available energy to feeding the homeless, adopting rescue dogs, campaigning for universal health care, while others, for no apparent lack of good-will, sit at home, read the news and fret, … but don’t steal or lie. Sometimes people are lazy or just lack the imagination or self-confidence for intensive good accomplishment. Others are clever in finding an excuse that it is not their problem, while others readily take responsibility. While refraining from evil can be formalized reasonably effectively in a fixed set of rules, accomplishing good is practiced in an astounding number of different ways. It is not feasible to itemize all of ways to accomplish good in the way we can with refraining from evil.
For the most part the Buddha focused on generosity as it is practiced in the narrow context of the Buddhist community and of the household, on what we will call conventional generosity. The remainder of accomplishing good we will call unrestricted generosity. Conventional generosity lends itself much more readily to description and formalization and thereby to specific practice commitment than does the hugely open-ended unrestricted generosity.
The rationale of accomplishing good. Accomplishing good belongs to the class of ethical systems that philosophers call consequentialism. Whereas refraining from all evil is guided by the good or bad character attributed to the proposed action itself independently of context, achieving good is guided by the future good or bad consequences of the proposed action. The Buddha introduced this practice to his newly ordained son as follows:
“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”
“For reflection, sir.”
“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.
“… if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do. (Similarly for skillful verbal and mental actions, unskillful actions with unpleasent consequences, etc., MN 61)
Our practice is in its broadest sense to aim for good consequences, and thereby to give to the world. The world carries a burden of great suffering; it needs people to accomplish good, now more than ever. The great challenge of accomplishing good is to trace as best as possible, with discerning wisdom, just what the consequences of our actions might be. We live in a very complex and highly interdependent world in which the consequences of the simplest action runs very deep, playing themselves out almost forever. We are like the famed butterfly (of the butterfly effect) who, by choosing to fly from one flower to the next, will, meteorologists tell us, trigger storms and hurricanes on the other side of the world in the decades and centuries to come that otherwise would not have occurred, or prevent those that would have. Similarly our actions may enable wars to happen or not to happen, and we may never know. We, like chess players, can only see a few moves ahead. We are at the same time nearly omnipotent yet almost totally blind. This is why the Buddha recommended that Rahula consider his karmic actions with great care.
Conventional generosity tends to confine accomplishing good safely to a context in which our actions have immediate and traceable beneficial consequences. It is prescribed for certain categories of recipients, certain categories of gifts, certain manners of giving and certain intentions around generosity. Generosity is often described in terms of merit-making, which refers to the amount of benefit that accrues for oneself through the law of karma, that is the fruits of one’s karmic actions. It is dubious that this can really be quantified in any verifiable way, though some aspects of karmic results are usefully highlighted in this way.
- Worthy recipients of generosity are ascetics and priests (who live on alms), destitutes, wayfarers, wanderers, the sick and beggars, as well as family members and guests. The purity of the recipient correlates with the amount of merit made. For instance, offerings to those of great spiritual attainment gain oodles of merit. (DN 5, DN 23, DN 26)
- The gift of Dhamma (dhammadāna) exceeds all other gifts, which tends to give monastics an edge in merit-making. Religious gifts made to the general public would in later Buddhist traditions include contributions to building pagodas, Buddha statues and things along those lines. Otherwise gifts satisfy mundane material needs. It is important to note that the merit earned correlates inversely with one’s resources, for instance, a meager offering from a pauper might easily earn more merit than a sumptuous gift from a tycoon. This is because it is the intentions that count. Although most gifts are material, the gift of service (veyyāvacca) is also very meritorious. (SN 1.32, Dhp 224)
- One might give with different intentions: out of annoyance, fear, in exchange, thinking generosity is considered good, to gain a good reputation, out of kindness, aware of the karmic consequences, or to beautify and adorn the mind. The last gains a truckload of merit. (AN 8.31) Again, we find intention to be critical, for merit ultimately is about purity of mind. In general it is best to give with no expectation of personal benefit. (AN 7.52)
The practice of conventional generosity is adapted to the structure of the traditional Buddhist community, in which the relationship of laity to monastic has played a central role since the time of the Buddha and still does in most Buddhist lands to this day. The Buddha gave great attention in the Vinaya to organizing and regulating the monastic community to a level that seems to have been unknown in other ascetic communities of the time, with full understanding that the lay behavior would shape itself to the behavior of the monastics. Alms-giving, the support of ascetics in various traditions, was already prevalent in India at the time of the Buddha, and is naturally a part of conventional generosity and merit-making for Buddhists. However, the Buddha did something interesting: he imposed on the monastic community through the monastic precepts an enhanced level of dependence on the laity, removing them entirely from the exchange economy and making their dependence a matter of daily contact with the laity. He made the monks and nuns as helpless as house pets or young children with regard to their own needs (but did not substantially restrict what monastics can do for others). The result is that monastics live entirely in what has been called an economy of gifts in which goods and services flow entirely through acts of generosity. Laity participate in this economy in their interactions with monastics, but the economy also naturally generalizes to the larger community. In Burma, for instance, I observed how readily this classical practice of generosity carries beyond the monastery walls, how people naturally take care of each other with a sense of obligation that requires no compensation. The Buddha fashioned an economy particularly conducive to the practice of conventional generosity. Although the same material benefits might be realized in an exchange economy, the economy of gifts affords more opportunity for merit-making, which is to say, for the improvement of personal development of purity of mind.
We have been discussing the practice of conventional generosity, which is handled in Buddhism rather formulaically. However, this is only a part of our hugely open-ended potential for accomplishing good. We can call the remaining range of generosity as unrestricted generosity, to distinguish it from conventional generosity. This would include addressing a range of local social needs such as giving alms to the poor, providing care for orphans, organizing education and other charitable projects, or addressing more global issues like ending wars, oppression, crime or ecological degradation, sometimes through advocacy for changing social, economic, political or cultural structures and institutions. Presumably because of its diverse range, the Buddha had few specifics to offer about unrestrictive generosity and no structured practice.
Nonetheless, the Buddha did leave us with quite a few examples of unrestricted generosity. In an incident described in the Vinaya (Mv 8.26.1-8) the Buddha and Ānanda come upon a monk sick with dysentery, uncared for, lying in his own urine and feces. After he and Ānanda had personally cleaned the monk up, the Buddha admonished the other monks living nearby for not caring for the sick monk, famously proclaiming:
“Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.”
The Buddha’s design of the monastic order as a kind of microcosm of society gives a clear idea of many of the social values the Buddha felt should be upheld. The traditional Indian caste system completely disappears and almost complete gender equality is implemented within the monastic Sangha. Moreover, governance is decentralized such that major decisions are made by consensus only among monastics who are physically present in a local community. Detailed instructions sustain harmony within the Sangha.
The Buddha did not actively champion the similar reformation of civil society, but did have a bit to say about responsibilities of kings toward their subjects, sometimes describing the righteous or wheel-turning king as a kind of ideal. In DN 26 he even recommended that such a king seek ethical guidance from wise monastics:
“Whatever ascetics and Brahmins in your kindom have renounced the life of sensual infatuation and are devoted to forbearance and gentleness, each one taming himself, each one calming himself and each one striving for the end of craving, from time to time you should go to them and consult them as to what is wholesome and what is unwholesome , what is blameworthy and what is blameless, what is to be followed and what is not to followed and what action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, and what to welfare and happiness. Having listened to them, you should avoid evil and do what is good.”
This passage is significant in view of the common understanding that monastics should not get involved in political or social matters, and are perhaps ill-equipped to do so. It clearly opens a nonpartisan role for them as moral advisors. In DN 5 the Buddha describes a chaplain offering wise advice to a king concerning the relationship of crime, poverty and general prosperity:
“Your Majesty’s country is beset by thieves, it is ravaged, villages and towns are being destroyed, the countryside is infested with brigands. … Suppose Your Majesty were to think: ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment’, the plague would not be properly ended. Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty’s realm. However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague: To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people, with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in open houses.”
We do well to note here and elsewhere a characteristic feature of the Buddha’s method of ethical scrutiny: its uncommon tolerance and forgiveness. He thereby maintains unwavering kindness for all common participants in human society, whose worldly actions he sees as almost unavoidably conditioned by circumstances and as controllable to the extent that conditions can be adjusted, at least by kings. Underlying this understanding is the impersonal law of cause and effect found also in the seminal teaching of dependent co-arising, which the Buddha applies particularly effectively to the understanding of human psychology. The plague addressed in this passage arises from social conditions, not from some inherent evil, and therefore a hateful response is counterproductive. The Dhammapada reaffirms this attitude:
Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal. (Dhammapada 5)
The practice of generosity is limited by the practices of refraining from evil and of purifying the mind. We have seen that Buddhist ethics is a hybrid of three ethical systems, each related to what is generally found in isolation in other ethical traditions. Although accomplishing good is in itself consequentialist, it is tempered by its concomitant duty and virtue ethics. Therefore, whereas a purely consequentialist ethics is generally subject to the rather radical principle, “the end justifies the means,” in the Buddha’s ethics the means cannot be violent, cannot be exploitive and cannot be deceitful, lest precepts be violated. Nor can they be motivated by greed, hatred or delusion, lest impurity of mind be fostered. This is fortunate given the practical difficulty, noted at the beginning of this section, in tracing the consequences of our actions, the butterfly effect. Whereas we can fairly clearly understand the means, the ends are rarely reliably predicted in any complex domain, such as in human social systems. It is very easy to inadvertently cause harm. Adhering to precepts and acting with pure intentions tends to offset the confidence we otherwise misplace in our own views and analyses..
This brings us to the questionable status of conceptualized views in Buddhism relative to direct verification, particularly direct verification in one’s own experience.
Come, Kālāmas, do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our guru.’ But when, Kālāmas, you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them. (AN 3.6)
Notice how this passage discounts almost every basis for a reasoned view in favor of direct verification. Consider that probably all of the great man-made evils of history have been ideologically driven, in which the means were justified in terms of allegedly beneficial but misperceived ends. These include many Communist programs, such as the Cultural Revolution in China and the attempt of the Khmer Rouge to impose a rural peasant society on Cambodia; the remaking of European society through ethnic cleansing by the National Socialists in Germany and like-minded Fascists elsewhere, the removal of democratic controls and adjustments over markets in neoliberal economic theory and the practice of the British colonialists in playing one ethnic or religious group against another, with unanticipated but devastating consequences that the worlds’ statespeople are trying to sort out to this day. Views are dangerous things: they tend toward delusion (that is, they tend to abstract from from reality), and we tend to become so infatuated with our own views that we refuse to acknowledge any conflicts with reality that might remain. Through views our efforts to accomplish good can go alarmingly wrong.
Entering into the practice of accomplishing good. The mix of incentives for undertaking the practice of achieving good is much the same as for refraining from all evil, that is, some blend of our our level of kindness of compassion, of our commitment to and identification with the Buddhist path of which accomplishing good is an integral and highly recommended part, and of our expectation of a karmic payback that will work for our future benefit. Moreover, conventional generosity, because it is practiced primarily in the context of Buddhist community, is also encouraged and reinforced in that community. Young children who grow up in Buddhist families traditionally learn communal generosity, including support of the monks and maintenance of communal facilities as an integral part of being Buddhist, along with refuge and following precepts. For many Buddhists conventional generosity will remain the primary practice for one’s entire life.
In practice, a family or an individual will commonly pick a particular practice of conventional generosity according to a daily or weekly schedule. This might be to prepare and offer rice or other foods for monks on alms round every morning, or to bring a meal offering to the monastery once a week, or to provide work for the community one day a week. In addition an individual might be routinely on the lookout for any Sangha or community need in order to play Johnny-on-the-spot when one arises. Financial contributions to conventional projects also constitute conventional giving.
All of this works pretty smoothly in Asia at the village level, but is more difficult in cities where there is less sense of community, or in the West where there may not be a local monastery and one might not even know one’s neighbors. In these circumstances, efforts should be made to create local communities of like-minded people, often centered around temples to which dispersed community members must travel on special days. It is important that a temple or monastery operate without fee or dues, if this is at all possible, because any financial exchange is an opportunity lost for the practice of generosity. In the West, where the Buddhist ethic of generosity is seldom understood, implementing the economy of gifts may require educational effort.
Unrestricted generosity moves beyond the immediate religious community, but also is a matter of taking up projects in a persistent way. One might volunteer as a candy-striper at a local hospital, engage in hospice work, rescue abandoned puppies, pick up trash along the highway, mentor troubled youth, teach meditation in prison, offer sandwiches to the homeless. Regular volunteering is highly recommended as a means of fulfilling the practice of accomplishing good. Such volunteer efforts can scale up to enterprise-level efforts, like founding and funding hospitals, or advocacy for peace, social justice or environmental preservation.
Buddhism has not traditionally been as known for its enterprise-level efforts as has Christianity, for instance. But there is no reason that the ethic of accomplishing good should not scale up in this way. Probably social conditions in Asia have been, until recently, less conducive to enterprise-level efforts of this kind. On the other hand, Ven. Rahula (not the Buddha’s son, but the author of the widely read What the Buddha Taught) devoted a book to making the case, specifically for Sri Lanka, that the widespread reputation of monks as indifferent to social concerns reflects colonial history, in which the Sangha was systematically disenfranchised from responsibilities in which it had previously routinely engaged, such as running schools. In fact, in recent decades Buddhist communities have become quite socially engaged, often inspired by Christian example.
The practice of accomplishing good. A prominent feature of the practice of accomplishing good is that in the Buddha’s teachings it is not enough to do something with beneficial consequences. Close attention must also be given to proper dispositions, intentions and manner in the act of giving. We will see that this kind of mental engagement brings the practice of accomplishing good and the practice of purifying the mind in alignment.
We might give with different intentions: to stop the nagging of our child, to avoid retribution (buying “protection” from mobsters, for instance), in exchange (giving money for a product or service, for instance), as a bribe or in repaying a debt. These are fairly neutral with regard to merit, since in each case one is generally taking as much as giving. We might give because it is proper, a family tradition. We might give out of kindness. If we give with no expectation of personal benefit our intentions are clearly pure (AN 7.52).
The Buddha recommends a degree of wisdom around giving: that we are aware of the law of karma, that is, that we accrue personal benefit when our intentions are pure, and that we are on a path of practice leading to the purity and ultimate perfection of the mind. We understand that if we feel happy before, during and after gift we are in the swing of this practice (AN 6.37). Also,
When this gift of mine is given, it makes the mind serene. Gratification & joy arise. (AN 7.49)
Accordingly, we should take care that there is later no resentment for having given (SN 3.20). The purest form of giving is with the attitude:
This is an ornament for the mind, a support for the mind. (AN 7.49)
Notice how the Buddha’s emphasis in discussing generosity moves freely from benefit for others to pleasant personal experience and back again. Pure acts of giving are expected to gladden the heart and contribute to the development of personal character. This creates some confusion concerning motives: are we practicing generosity for them or for us, out of benevolence or out of selfishness? The inescapable fact about generosity is that it is most rewarding personally when it is most selfless. It feels great, which is certainly why it is such a foundational practice in Buddhism. At the same time, it provides direct experience of the law of karma: personal benefit accrues from the most selfless intentions.
We have seen that the practice of generosity, particularly conventional generosity, is often accompanied by the notion of merit-making. Sometimes this notion is criticized as inherently self-serving, compared to squirreling away money in the bank. A more useful way of thinking about it is as score keeping, much as we might track our meditation practice by marking each meditation period on a calendar. The advantages of scoring merit are that it helps us stay relentless in our practice, and it reminds us that our practice is progressive. It is true that we can create a selfish attachment to our score, but this is a pervasive issue for all aspects of our practice life. I once, over one five and a half year period, never failed to meditate at least once every single day (I kept score), until I realized I had developed a degree of pride in that record, and so intentionally skipped a day. We can work with our attachments. Merit-making often assumes some rather specific metrics, which should clearly not be taken literally. The Buddha himself, for instance, offers:
If one were to feed one non-returner, that would be more fruitful than… if one were to feed 100 once-returners. … If one were to feed one arahant, that would be more fruitful than… if one were to feed 100 non-returners. … (AN 9.20)
The Buddha recommends that offerings should never be given in a callous manner, but rather respectfully, not in a way that humiliates the recipient and ideally with one’s own hands rather than through an intermediary. It is also best to give at a proper time and to give what is not harmful. (AN 5.148) Notice that these recommendations encourage direct engagement in, and full experience of, the act of giving. In this way, these measures encourage feelings of friendship, appreciation and interpersonal harmony in association with the act of generosity. They also enhance the benefit consequential on giving, to such a degree that one begins to lose track of who is the giver and who is the receiver in a particular transaction. For unrestricted generosity this manner of giving would suggest that it is better to be actively present at the orphanage one is donating too rather than simply writing out a periodic check, or arranging an automatic fund transfer. Notice that that would also allow us more closely to track the consequences, for harm or benefit, of one’s generosity.
It is significant that generosity is the first element in many different lists. In particular, it is at the very beginning of the gradual instruction, which the Buddha presents in various discourses (Udana 5.3, for instance) to newbies who lack the prerequisites to entering the Noble Eightfold Path. It is helpful to review at this juncture the steps of the gradual path to get an idea of how the practice of generosity is foundational to the entire Buddhist path:
- Generosity, the practice of accomplishing good.
- Precepts, the practice of refraining from all evil.
- The heavens, which refers to the law of karma, most commonly conceived as an assurance of rebirth in a heavenly realm.
- The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions.
- The rewards of renunciation.
Only when, from the understanding and pursuit of the foregoing, the mind is ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright, the Buddha recommends that following should be taken up:
- The Four Noble Truths, including the Noble Eightfold Path.
The reasons for beginning with generosity certainly include the ease with which the practice is understood and taken up, even by children; the traditional community support around conventional generosity that the Buddha had fashioned; and the immediate gratification that arises in conjunction with the practice of generosity, both on the giving and on the receiving end. Generosity can actually engender unwordly mental states of joy and happiness that are, like meditative states, quite independent of sense pleasures. The next factor in the gradual instruction, precepts (here, sīla), is sometimes categorized as a subtype of generosity. It is the gift of harmlessness and fearlessness.
Heavens, or the law of karma, follows closely the practices of generosity and precepts. Initially it provides a primary incentive for undertaking these practices, the accrual of personal benefit. Generosity, probably in particular, then provides direct experience of at least some of the paradoxical workings of the law of karma, since it feels so good, but less good to the extent selfish motives intrude.
The next two factors (drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions and the rewards of renunciation) are subtle realizations that arise from the practices of generosity and precepts. Together they provide the entry way into the entire Buddhist path, and at the same time, into our third ethical practice of purification of mind, which can be equated with the entire Buddhist path. Precepts and generosity force us to struggle and compromise with those mental aspects that attempt to divert us from those practices. Sensual passions are the primary human motivations when no ethical considerations are present. These are presumably what motivate animals almost entirely, but ethical practices repeatedly force restraint. Generosity, in particular, gives occasional rise to supermundane feelings of delight and joy, sometimes inexpressible delight and joy, which are not rooted in sensuality. This puts a new light on the efficacy of the pursuit of sensual pleasures as a path to personal well-being. In fact, at some point these considerations will throw us for a loop and make us wonder why we have been living the way we have. The more we investigate this, the more we discover the shallowness of pursuing satisfaction in selfish pursuits. This begins the process of renunciation, the gateway to the remainder of Buddhist practice.
I should note that it concerns me that in the West we, more often than not, attempt a physical impossibility: we start walking the path at the far end. We tend to postpone the practice of generosity and precepts to some future stage, perhaps even after awakening, to dismiss renunciation from the range of Buddhist values altogether, to jump past the first six steps of the Noble Eightfold Path, and then to focus almost exclusively on meditation practice. We then often get hooked on Buddhist practice through the experience of unworldly states of joy and happiness in deep meditative concentration, but then we wonder how to make our practice relevant to the real world or how to involve our children in Buddhism. However, there should be little problem understanding the relationship of practice to the real world if our practice has its roots from the beginning in ethics, as the Buddha intended. If we start with generosity we can also get hooked through the experience of unworldly states of joy and happiness, and our children can get hooked at the same time. (This is not meant to diminish the ultimate importance of meditation practice in any way, just to nudge it into its proper context.)
Next week: Purifying the Mind