Generosity: Selected Spiritual Colloquia

The Generosity 2010. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, born 1977. Presented by Tate Patrons 2012. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T13654

One of the most powerful ways of approaching the Buddha’s teachings is via the gradual instruction (Pali*: ānupubbikathā or anupubbi-kathā). The gradual instruction has six constituent topics:

  1. Generosity (dāna)
  2. Ethics (sīla)
  3. Heaven (sagga)
  4. Drawbacks (ādīnava)
  5. Renunciation (nekkhamma)
  6. The four noble truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni)

Ideally, the first components are developed first, starting with generosity, and slowly building up from there. This runs contrary to the 21st-century custom of directly jumping to mindfulness. Though mindfulness is an essential part of the Buddhist path, if one follows the gradual instruction, mindfulness only comes into focus after 99.0%* of the preliminary stages have been firmly established. Starting with mindfulness, therefore, risks bypassing important preliminary developmental steps that may take years to properly develop, a phenomenon that could be called “spiritual bypass.”

In this blog post, I’d like to focus on the first component of the gradual instruction: generosity. More specifically, I’d like to sketch one way of exploring the topic: through selected spiritual colloquia given on generosity. In addition, I’ll provide some extra secular resources. In quasi-random order*.

Spiritual Colloquia

Have you ever gotten upset or angry when people don’t appreciate all the kindness you’ve shown them? Ajahn Brahm explains how to keep giving without expecting or getting any reward.

Venerable Brahm 2014. How to Keep Giving Without Reward

Ajahn Brahmali discusses the importance placed on generosity by the Buddha, how we can develop generosity and how this quality of mind supports our meditation practice.

Venerable Brahmali 2014. Generosity

Ajahn Nissarano offers a talk on the very important subject of giving and generosity.  Ajahn Nissarano discusses how giving can take both material and non-material forms, such as time, friendship, trust, advice and joy. He advises us to always give with a wholesome intention. Giving is a form of making merit.

Venerable Nissarano 2011. Giving

Venerable Hasapanna talks about giving and forgiving, which Venerable says are very important qualities many of us tend to overlook. Venerable recollects the great generosity that the Venerable nuns receive, but reflects on how many of us are looking for success in accumulating things and only a few of us are looking for success in giving and forgiving.

Venerable Hasapanna 2011. Giving and Forgiving

Here is a Youtube playlist with the four colloquia.

Secular Resources

One way of practicing generosity—among many!—is by giving to charity. Unfortunately, charities are not all created equal. I like the following principle:

The Principle of Non-Maleficent Donation (PNMD): Do not donate to causes one does not understand or causes that do harm.

The principle is motivated by the notion that giving to charity may be harmful. If one agrees with this notion, PNMD follows from the Principle of Non-Maleficence: Do not harm.

One approach to charity is effective altruism. Though this approach is controversial, some of its institutions provide resources that guide informed decision making about donating to charities. A philosophical bibliography on effective altruism is provided at PhilPapers.org. Unfortunately, I currently do not know more accessible, yet critical, introductions to effective altruism. 

Another opportunity for giving is one’s career. It is possible to dedicate a career to an important social problem. This radical approach to work is drawn out in detail at 80000hours.org

Notes

*Pali. Pali is the language in which substantial parts of the Early Buddhist Texts are written. In turn, the Early Buddhist Texts constitute the primary sources for understanding Early Buddhism: the doctrine taught and practiced by the historical Buddha and his direct disciples.

*After 99.0%. The percentages have as their sole purpose providing a scale for the gradual instruction, where 0% is the beginning and 100% the end. They are decidedly not a scale for spiritual progress. Furthermore, their magnitude has no inherent meaning, apart from indicating how far a certain topic is on the “gradual instruction scale” relative to other topics. In other words, the gradual instruction scale is only an ordinal scale and not a cardinal scale. Why 99.0%? Mindfulness is the seventh component of the noble eightfold path, which is the fourth component of the four noble truths, which is the sixth component of the gradual instruction. See calculation here.

*In quasi-random order. I won’t go into detail here, but alphabetical sorting can come with social costs. It is my belief that there are viable alternatives.

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