If you’ve ever attended a Buddhist meditation group, you’ve probably heard the “dana talk,” the request for donations to support the group. When we think of dana, or generosity, in Buddhism, this is often what comes to mind. However, the word dana refers to much more than just giving money to support a meditation group. The principle of generosity goes much further than this.
What is Dana?
Dana, or generosity, is the act of giving. We can look at the Buddha’s life and teachings to see how generosity has played an important role in this tradition from the beginning. When the Buddha began teaching, he gave his teachings for free. He was a monk, traveling around without permanent home or shelter. He generously gave his teachings, and the laypeople generously provided him with food and shelter. The generosity of the community around him allowed the Buddha to continue teaching without having to work to provide for himself. The Buddha was thus able to devote his entire life to teaching dhamma. Generosity is an important part of the Buddhist tradition, rooted in the very beginnings of this path.
Generosity is the act of giving and one of the ten perfections. We can complicate it a million ways, but dana really is simply giving with the intention to give. We don’t have to “feel generous” in order to give (more on this below). Dana is simply just giving. It may be money, resources, time, attention, energy, or any other thing we have to offer. I personally believe that attention is one of the greatest things we can offer someone with generosity. It’s important to understand that dana is not a feeling or an emotion. Dana is an action. We give of ourselves with the intention of giving, and we give appropriately. The Buddha said that a rich man feeding the entire sangha of monks and nuns is as generous as a poor man tossing his scraps of food to fish in a pond. We give what we can, when we can.
Caga is a Pali word (as is dana). Caga refers to a quality of mind/heart, where dana refers to the actual action. Caga is the quality of a mind inclined toward generosity. It is a word that means “feeling generous.” when we develop and cultivate caga, we feel more inclined to give with kindness. Being generous arises naturally, and we act with dana with ease. When cultivated, caga gives rise to dana. However, it may also go the other way around.
We don’t always give just because we are feeling generous or because caga has been cultivated in the mind. Sometimes we act with generosity in order to cultivate caga. As we continue to act with generosity, we slowly cultivate the mind that is inclined toward giving. Sometimes I have to give myself a little nudge toward generosity. Other times generosity comes easily as a result of the caga in the mind. It can be very helpful to understand the difference between the act of dana and the quality of caga. When we tune in to experience, we can see the difference easily.
Cultivating Caga, Acting with Dana
Caga is an important quality to cultivate. It is helpful in and out of our formal meditation practice. We cultivate caga in many ways. First, we act with dana. The generous heart doesn’t pop up overnight. As we continue to put forth effort to bring generosity to our actions, the mind and heart eventually open up to care and generosity. We keep acting with generosity even when we are not feeling generous. We give people our full attention, help others when we are able, and are present for life.
We may also work on cultivating caga by practicing with metta, the practice of cultivating gentle friendliness. As we begin to open the heart to both ourselves and others, we begin caring about the wellbeing of all. As we grow to care about the wellbeing of ourselves and others, we naturally begin feeling more generous. Metta practice is a great way to cultivate caga and begin acting with generosity.
You may also cultivate caga by noticing how it feels when somebody else acts with generosity. Whether they are being generous toward you or somebody around you, you may notice a feeling arise in the heart and body of how it feels to be around generosity. This can serve as an inspiration to grow and cultivate these qualities. As we discussed in our last post about sangha, surrounding ourselves with good community is extremely important. When we are surrounded by generosity, we begin to feel the effects and opening of the heart.
Quotes from the Suttas on Generosity
Below are some relevant quotes from the Pali Canon related to generosity, along with a link to read the entire sutta. You can read more about the suttas, or discourses in our post on the Buddhist suttas.
“And what is the treasure of generosity? There is the case of a disciple of the noble ones, his awareness cleansed of the stain of stinginess, living at home, freely generous, openhanded, delighting in being magnanimous, responsive to requests, delighting in the distribution of alms. This is called the treasure of generosity.”
“These are the five rewards of generosity: One is dear and appealing to people at large, one is admired by good people, one’s good name is spread about, one does not stray from the rightful duties of the householder, and with the break-up of the body at death, one reappears in a good destination, in the heavenly worlds.”
“Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, ‘May whatever animals live here feed on this,’ that would be a source of merit.”
“If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of miserliness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift. But because beings do not know, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they eat without having given. The stain of miserliness overcomes their minds.”
Check out our page of Generosity Quotes for more thoughts on generosity.