Dana is a much mis-understood practice that goes right to the heart of the teachings and "project" of Buddhism and Yoga: the transcendence of self-clinging.
Many contemporary practitioners of Buddhism and Yoga are confused by the concept of dana. We see this confusion whenever dana is referred to as a “donation.” But dana is actually a deeply profound practice that goes right to the heart of the teachings and “project” of Buddhism/Yoga: the transcendence of self-clinging. No deep philosophical understanding nor deep samadhi is needed in order to practice dana, which is why it was often the first teaching and practice the Buddha would offer; the practice of dana is available to everyone at any time.
So, what is dana if it’s not charity? If dana is not a donation, what is it? Simply, the practice of dana is the practice of sharing. If I have a chocolate bar and I offer you a piece, I am simply sharing what I have with you. I am not donating a piece of chocolate to you. We can see how silly and awkward it is to even think of my sharing my chocolate with you as “making a donation!”
Think now to any time you were moved to share something you were enjoying with another person; it may have been some food, or money, or simply a genuine smile of appreciation. What were you feeling when you had the impulse to share? And then, what did you feel when you shared whatever it was? How do you feel now, remembering that experience of sharing something valued with another?
If the Buddha was correct, and the act of sharing was motivated by the sheer joy of sharing, you probably are feeling joy now in remembering that experience. The fact is, sharing feels good. It feels good to share what we have with others, which means both the presumed “giver” and the presumed “receiver” are both benefiting. From the perspective of the “perfection of sharing” (danaparamita) the one who receives my offering of chocolate has given me the opportunity to share and thus to feel joy in sharing! We both give and receive in any true act of dana. The apparent duality of “giver” and “receiver” is dissolved and transcended.
At a time when we are seeing the hollowness of late-stage corporatist capitalism, dana is a practice that takes us back to a “gift” economy. Sharing what we have is not a “fee for service” exchange of goods and services. At the time of the Buddha, there was already a burgeoning “mercantile” class offering goods and services for fees and the Buddha turned his back on such an economic system. The teachings, being “priceless” had no price and he did not have the “closed fist” of a teacher, making his teachings available to kings and queens, merchants, farmers, sex workers, and even those deemed “out-caste.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about dana as most of the income that has come to me in the last 7 weeks has been through dana. I have been offering meditation twice a day and three yoga classes a week on a dana basis. And a workshop I offered was on a sliding fee basis with a “no person turned away” policy. People were encouraged to share what they felt comfortable and happy in sharing.
I share the teachings and practices of the Buddha and other yoga traditions in the same way I would share my chocolate with you. I value these teachings and practices that have brought me life; that may indeed have saved my life, and so it delights me to share them with any and all who are interested. And to be able to do so, before receiving anything in return from others, already provokes a deeply abiding sense of gratitude just to be able to do so! The word gratitude comes from the Latin gratia, meaning “favor” and gratus meaning “pleasing.” To feel gratitude in itself is pleasing; if feels good. And it’s motivating, when grateful, we are moved to share that goodness with others.
An aspect of gratitude that is often overlooked is the sense that if this is not an economic exchange of goods or services for a fee, then whatever I receive is undeserved merit. If I am offering teachings as a gift, if I am authentically sharing, I have no claim on what I receive; it was freely bestowed out of love, compassion, generosity or appreciation. This was brought home to me dramatically when a community of teachers and students shared funds with me to get me through my cancer treatment last year. And it has been further brought home to me by several students – some of which I have not had any contact with for years – having shared funds with me through this time of pandemic. I open my email and see a gift from a student from a training at Kripalu that I shared over ten years ago, and my heart overflows with gratitude, joy, and love.
I recently read a philosopher of ethics define gratitude as “the willingness to recognize the unearned increments of value in one’s experience.” And though I am an atheist, I see the connection with the theological concept of “grace.” In a beautiful alignment of concept, we have grace, gratis, and gratitude all flowing as an integrated stream of dana.
In the neo-liberal, capitalist ideology permeating contemporary Buddhism and Yoga, creating the dynamic of customer and merchant, there is the customer’s mental economic calculus based upon the “what is the value of this for me” and the merchant’s calculus of “what do I deserve for this?” We begin to take what we receive for granted because it is expected; tit for tat. Neo-liberalism feeds the self-conceit that we – as individuals – are responsible for all the good that comes our way. But if we look more deeply, we see the delusion behind such thinking. We are the recipients of support from others, known and unknown, past and present and mindfulness (sati which comes from the word for “remembering”) is to remind ourselves of this.
Finally, gratitude is the short-term feeling we experience when we receive a gift. With mindful remembrance, and the practice of dana (both in “giving” and “receiving”) the long-term disposition of gratefulness arises which has been shown to be a boon to both mental and physical health! The practice of recognizing the gifts we receive cultivates a mental disposition of gratefulness which lessens and eventually prevents the arising of impulses such as envy, greed, resentment, and bitterness.
I don’t wish to sentimentalize gratitude which then can itself fall victim to the neo-liberal emphasis on the emotional and individual “benefits” of gratitude. If personal happiness becomes the be-all of gratitude and sharing, then we’ve once again missed the point. I also don’t wish to sound all “Polly-annish” about life. It’s not “all good.” Shitty things happen and there may be times when gratitude is an incorrect response.
And with that acknowledgment, I will still stand by the assertion that sharing what we love with joy and appreciation is good medicine for the dis-ease of the self-contraction.