Whether it’s your time, talent, joy, or other offerings, giving like a Buddhist is about expressing kindness and compassion.
Generosity can come in many different forms. We can be generous with our possessions, with our time, with our emotions, with our talents, with our wisdom, and with our joy. —Hsing Yun
The modern Chinese Buddhist Master Hsing Yun offers a powerful reminder that generosity can be delivered in a wide variety of ways and is an inclusive activity not limited to the wealthy. It can be offered by anyone with a good heart and a great imagination. “Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness,” says the Dalai Lama. Here are six ways to apply Yun’s six forms of generosity.
1. We can be generous with our possessions.
Material things such as money, food, shelter, and clothing are to be shared when necessary. This kind of generosity is a direct teaching of the Buddha:
“If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness 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.”
An example of this teaching in practice comes from the life of modern Buddhist Master Sheng Yen (1930-2009). He was raised in China by parents who were desperately poor because their country was at war. Famine was a constant presence when he was a little boy. One day he was given an entire banana to eat. It was the first he had ever tasted and after the initial bite, he decided it was too delicious to consume alone. He carefully replaced the skin so that he could take it to school and share it, piece by piece, with his friends.
[Read: “The Shirt off My Back.”]
The key for becoming more generous with your possessions is to give whether you have a lot or a little. In fact, author Joshua Becker advises to “start really small. If you’ve never given away money, start by giving away $1. The point is to get started. If you’ll feel more comfortable giving $5, $10, or $20, start there. But no matter what dollar amount you choose, jump right in with something small. You can afford it… and that little push can help build momentum in your life towards generosity.”
2. We can be generous with our time.
Greg Dailey has delivered newspapers to the same New Jersey community for 25 years. During the Covid pandemic, he has added grocery orders to his route.
This additional service came about when an 88-year-old customer told him she was having trouble getting to the bottom of her driveway each morning for the paper, so she asked: Could throw the newspaper a bit closer to her house? Of course, he agreed. Then it occurred to him that if this customer was having trouble getting to the sidewalk for her paper, she was surely having difficulty getting out to buy groceries under quarantine conditions.
The next day, Dailey placed a note inside each newspaper that was dropped on the properties of his 450 customers: “My name is Greg Dailey and I deliver your newspaper every morning. I understand during these trying times it is difficult for some to get out of their house to get everyday necessities. I would like to offer my services, free of charge, to anyone who needs groceries, household products, etc. I can deliver the goods directly to your front door.” Since leaving that note, Dailey has carefully placed the morning paper as well as groceries and other essentials on the doorsteps of more than 100 elderly citizens on his route.
3. We can be generous with our emotions.
In his book, The Way of The Bodhisattva, ninth-century Indian Buddhist sage Shantideva describes people who are emotionally generous as those “who fill with bliss all beings destitute of joy, who cut all pain and suffering away from those weighed down with misery.”
He is referring to giving the gifts of fearlessness and hope when someone is feeling frightened and hopeless. An example of this kind of generosity is related by a young couple whose four-year-old son Thomas brought the gift of fearlessness to a neighbor. They live next door to a man who was recently widowed after living with his wife for over 60 years. They had no children. Her sudden death from an aortic aneurysm left him “destitute of joy.”
One day when Thomas was playing outside, he saw the man weeping on a bench outside his home. Intuitively, Thomas stopped playing with his toys and went over to sit beside the man and held his hand. Thomas’ mother, who had been watching from through a window, was quite moved by this sight. When Thomas returned she asked him, “What did you say to our neighbor?” Thomas replied: “Nothing, I just helped him cry.” That’s being emotionally generous.
4. We can be generous with our talents.
“If you have a talent, use it in every which way possible. Don’t hoard it. Don’t dole it out like a miser. Spend it lavishly like a millionaire intent on going broke” said Irish poet Brendan Francis. Put your talent to good use by generously sharing it. If you’re an attorney, guide someone who can’t afford legal services. If you’re a medical professional, devote some of your time, unpaid, at a clinic that serves low-income families. If your talent is writing, then help someone write up a resume for a job search. If you are fluent in another language, help a person by being their interpreter. Remind yourself that a talent you have is not for yourself only.
5. We can be generous with our wisdom.
In the words of sixteenth-century poet and Buddhist monk Han Shan, “The great quality of wisdom is that it always responds with precisely what is needed. Like a well-aimed, sharp-pointed sword—it always hits the spot.” Contemporary writer Ross Nervig tells of a bitterly cold winter night when he sat on a city bus full of passengers. “We weren’t going anywhere,” he explains. “This bus had been sent by the fire department to keep us warm.” Looking outside the bus window, Nervig could see his apartment building on fire with “orange flames chasing black smoke into the sky.”
The following morning, he was with other apartment residents being served coffee and donuts in the basement of a nearby church. There, they were taking turns speaking with a kind Red Cross representative. Though Nervig, like the others, was clearly in need of aid, she sensed that Nervig was resistant and sought to soften his reluctance by offering this wisdom: “You have to let people help you now. Do this for them.”
6. We can be generous with our joy.
Buddhist teacher and author Judy Leif tells of visiting a temple that claimed to display one thousand Buddhist statues. Of all the Buddhas she observed, the one that has remained in her memory was the “one that most invoked the feeling of generosity for me.” It was a statue of a very chubby Buddha “embracing piles of children who were tumbling all over him. Laughing with delight, he maintained a sense of peace in the midst of their chaos. Instead of shooing the children away because he had more important things to do, he gathered them in with a big hug. He radiated love and happiness and acceptance.” That statue provides a concrete example of what it means to be generous with our joy.
As you share with others, bring to mind the truth that generosity doesn’t only bring happiness to the recipient but casts a wider net. Every generous act makes our planet a kinder, softer, and gentler place.
For further contemplation: “How Awe Makes Us Generous.”