Practicing dana invites us to express 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. Traditionally, when a dharma teaching, workshop, or any service or kindness is offered, we have the opportunity to allow dana to emerge in response.
At its heart, dana is a clear, 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 price, dana invites our generosity to bubble up naturally and flow as it will.
In the Eastern cultures where dharma teachings arose, teachers do not set a fee for their services. No one owns the dharma and no one can lay claim to it. And the teachings – which have been handed down for thousands of years – are priceless. They are precious and benefit our lives in subtle and profound ways. And of course, here and now, dharma teachers need food and shelter and have commitments and obligations like everyone else. So students offer dana to the teacher motivated by respect and appreciation of the benefit they have received.
Western 21st century society can seem at odds with this model. Often in our culture, rather than being light-hearted and happy, giving is understood as a transaction, obligatory, or stressful. It becomes the opposite of ease and generosity.
Dana invites us to relax. It acknowledges the importance and value of the teacher, but doesn’t impose specific requirements. Dana encourages recognition of the training or teacher, but each student freely arrives at their own decision to give happily and appropriately. Unbound from assumptions or fee structures, this practice presents us both freedom and responsibility, and welcomes us to reflect and come to a fitting decision.
Dana is encouraged because it 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 often 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 lessons are rich.
All traditions and cultures honor generosity and charity as core values and virtues. Yet when giving is motivated by obligation or virtue, it is often tainted with 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, to bolster our ego and earn acclaim.
Dana allows us to avoid those traps. A beautiful description of the spirit of dana can be found in Islam, where the practice of sadaqah has been 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 supports our lives;
- 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 quenching summer thirst, selfless giving and receiving are built in to the cycle of life. The river of giving is wide and deep, with rushing currents, still pools, slippery rocks and misty falls. Like sparkling water pouring and flowing in an endless cycle, the circle of giving enriches our world.