The Pali term dana – from daan, in Sanskrit – translates into English roughly as giving or generosity, an expression of gratitude for what has been received. It invites deep reflection as a spiritual practice within itself.
Practicing dana invites us to explore the truth of who we are and the best of who we want to be, and to participate in a world that exemplifies our deepest joy.
At its heart, dana is a fluid and natural expression of appreciation, gratitude, and care. Practiced mindfully, it invites us to reflect on the value of what we have received and to reciprocate. But, very different than a fixed, pre-determined exchange, dana invites our generosity to bubble up naturally and flow as it will.
Traditionally, when a dharma teaching or any service or kindness is received, we have the opportunity to allow dana to emerge in response. In the cultures where dharma teachings arose, teachers do not set fees for what they offer. No one owns the dharma and no one can lay claim to it. No price can be put on the teachings, which have been handed down for thousands of years. They benefit our lives in subtle and profound ways, and those who have received this richness share it in the spirit that they received it, as grateful homage to their teachers.
Western 21st century culture can seem at odds with this model. “Giving” is often transactional, or obligatory, or stressful, rather than natural and fulfilling. It becomes the opposite of ease and generosity. Yet, of course, like everyone else in our culture, dharma teachers require food and shelter and have commitments and obligations. So students have the opportunity to explore that spontaneous sense of natural generosity that arises in appreciation, and to offer dana to the teacher motivated by happiness, respect, and gratitude.
Dana invites us to relax. It acknowledges the importance and value of the teacher, but doesn’t impose requirements. Dana encourages recognition of what has been received, but each student freely arrives at their own decision to give honestly and appropriately. Unbound from assumptions or fee structures, this practice presents us both freedom and responsibility. It welcomes us to reflect and come to a fitting decision.
In this way, dana is another spiritual tool in your toolkit, an opportunity to see what it feels like, just as in meditation we sit and sit and see what comes up and what it feels like. There is no right or wrong dana, and it is customarily extended anonymously and unceremoniously.
Practicing dana allows us to consider our own situation and our impulse to give, and to offer an appropriate gift – to neither under-give nor over-give, but find what reflects our own truth. Approached with mindful intention, the practice of dana offers teachings of its own. It provides potent insights into our emotional, psychological, and spiritual condition. each time we consider giving. We get to see where trust, gratitude, and honesty inspire us, where practical reality influences us, and where fear, grasping, ego, or greed constrain us.
There is no “right” way to give. We can give quickly and impulsively, generously or frugally, and then harvest lessons as we reflect after the fact. Or, we can carefully contemplate our motives and hesitance, consider our practical circumstances, and decide thoughtfully how to proceed. Either way, with mindful attention to the process, the practice of dana provides rich lessons.
All traditions and cultures honor generosity and charity as core values and virtues. Yet when giving is motivated by obligation or virtue, it is tainted with complicated emotions, and sometimes includes resentment or a self-serving quality. We may give grudgingly or too lavishly, or with an eye to offsetting our shortcomings on the celestial balance sheet, or to bolster our ego and earn “dharma points.’
Dana allows us to avoid those traps. A beautiful description of the spirit of dana is found in the Islamic practice of sadaqah, defined as “… the heart being truthful to itself and to God.”
The practice of dana invites us to –
- Live in trust, love, and openness rather than fear, grasping, and separation;
- Give tangible expression to our gratitude for all that we receive;
- Participate in a world where gratitude, connection, and generosity keep the wheel turning.
Every aspect of life expresses a primordial flow of giving and receiving. From our first in-breath to our final exhale, from the abundance of a well-tended garden to the sweetness of rain drenching summer soil, selfless giving and receiving are inherent in the cycle of life.
The river of giving is wide and deep, with rushing currents, quiet eddies, deep pools, slippery rocks, and misty falls. Like sparkling water that pours and flows in an endless cycle, the spirit of dana enriches our world.