Dana as an expansion of consciousness

On Buddha Day we are going to launch “Dana Week”, 21-28 May. A number of us got together a few weeks ago, and decided that we would like to evoke and practise this primary Buddhist quality more.

I have been feeling rather unqualified to be writing about “Dana” or generosity (which is a translation from the pali). The truth is that when it comes to generosity with money I have been a beneficiary of other people’s generosity more than I have been a donor myself.

I have been bowled over by other people’s generosity again and again: As an example, I remember that when I needed to go to Guhyaloka for ordination, my friend Gianni set up a simple website in ‘Pozible’, an online fundraising tool. We exceeded the target of $4100, with 36 supporters- largely this was achieved with some very generous gifts from Sangha members. For this I am really grateful, as ordination was extraordinary for me: I can’t do it justice in just a few words. It was a transformation, a rebirth which will keep unfolding for the rest of my life I feel. 

People in the Sangha have also been really generous in other ways, and Dana is not just the giving of money and material things, but the giving of time, attention, love and affection. An example is friendship which has seen me through difficult times. What sticks in my mind are the times that Khemadhamma has put aside his own affairs quite spontaneously to help me.

I recall a time ringing Khemadhamma from the bottom of a black well that I had created: he said at the end of the call something along the lines of: “Well, yes, but thank you, too- thank you for thinking of me, it is sharing yourself and your difficulties openly in this way that makes for a real communication.” It really stayed with me. It points to a magical quality of Dana- that it is a quality of sharing. We benefit from the act of giving: As Sangharakshita says elsewhere: “One cannot really help oneself without helping others. One cannot really help others without helping oneself.”

Generosity really marks out our movement, I think. All around the world, you can go into a Triratna Centre and feel that they are united by a common ideal: they feel inviting, they feel alive and cared for. And yet they aren’t owned by anyone! What a miracle! They are also each autonomous and self- sufficient. They are a physical embodiment of generosity, of something created jointly by many people giving their time, possessions and money.

Our own centre was purchased in 1994 for $800,000. Those involved at the time were donating their energy, and yet they managed to raise the money from nothing. For long stretches of time the administration of the centre was done by Sangha and order members who weren’t paid, and teaching has never been paid as far as I am aware. It is worth speaking to some of those pioneers to get an idea of the energy that went into the project, and to get inspired by living examples of Dana.

Money is a fascinating subject: In a survey done by the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia recently, 1 in 4 people said that they disliked talking about their personal finances, with only sex being more taboo, and 1 in 3 people said it was an off- limits topic. It seems like a ‘dirty subject’, not at home in a Buddhist Centre Newsletter. And yet one key thing that a Buddhist centre needs to survive and thrive is money. How are we to reconcile our awkwardness around money with a healthy practice of generosity? Amalavajra, on his recent visit, spoke of “awakening your money”. He was saying that money, used well, is a force for good. 

Why do I find it hard to give money? ’I am an artist- I don’t have enough’ is the mental defence I bring when I decide to gloss over the Dana bowl one more time. I delay giving, until the desire to give goes. A ‘poverty mentality’, a sense of not having enough can often pervade my decisions. “Other people will give” I think.

One of the most useful bits of advice I have been given on generosity is to give as soon as you feel the impulse, before it fades. I was on a retreat on Art and Mindfulness recently, the first retreat that I have led. I found it a strong practice of giving: Mainly I think it was giving up the ideas I have of myself. For example, I like to withdraw and have my own time. I had to call on more extrovert tendencies, to be available almost constantly. I was surprised by the energy that was released: It felt like I was a lot less preoccupied with myself and my challenges, and a lot brighter and happier.

As Ratnaghosa says, “Dana is energy that has been freed. Energy that has been freed from the constraints of our selfishness. When we feel the impulse to generosity and act on that impulse we allow our energy to move, we allow the vibrant life swelling within us to expand out into the world. We allow our consciousness to expand and mingle, as it were, with the consciousness of other. Dana is an expansion of consciousness.”

On the retreat, our joint experience of greater awareness blossomed in our collaborative art projects. A refugee from Iran, an immigrant from Germany, and an English- born woman got together and made an artwork in the bush. The process of their artwork told their own stories of a diverse cultural heritage and difficulty communicating, as well as what they had in common and their sensitivity to one another. Their openness and sharing blew apart notions of separateness and led to the refugee recounting her own unimaginably difficult passage to Australia. Dana is people coming together.

Our centre is the public face of the Sangha. It’s a place of refuge for many people: I know for me its offered peace, beauty and meaning which goes beyond consolation, in a world that can be harsh and confusing when there isn’t community and practice united by a vision, “The only myth that is whole” (Aloka).

I like to think of Dana as “energy that has been freed”: I find it a relief to let go of the transactional mode of being: that idea if getting something for what you give, and instead think of Dana as a stream of energy I can participate in. To give without strings attached or expectations of reciprocation. I feel the need to honour more fully my gratitude to our Sangha.

We hope that you’ll be able to get involved in the events during the week (see the program) and that you might sense a change in the quality of your own practice, and the atmosphere around the centre. If there is a way in which you would like to contribute, do let me know at the centre.

~ Aryadharma