Stealing in Reverse: The Economics of Generosity
In considering the second Buddhist precept of not stealing, it’s useful to also discuss the opposite of stealing—generosity (Pali: dana). In the Theravadan context, dana is an extremely important practice that helps the giver reflect on their values and develop a sense of goodwill, gratitude, and appreciation. The teaching of dhamma (dharma) is a kind of dana, offered freely without any expectation of payment for a service rendered. It is left to those who have received the gift to determine for themselves how to express gratitude for such generosity.
This is a practice that has continued at Theravadan meditation centers in the United States, though not without difficulty. Attempting to plant a dana model in the midst of such a hyper-capitalist society is daunting. As a society, we are so accustomed to paying for everything, and often, we only value something if we know its price tag. We only know how to relate with definable commodities.
We live in an economy where almost everything has a use-value and an exchange value. Use-value is the utility, the ability of an object or service to satisfy a want or need. Anything socially useful has a use-value. Exchange value is the dollar price of that object or service, which places it within the realm of the market. Clearly, the teachings of the Buddha are very useful—it is a step-by-step path to freedom from suffering. However, to attach an exchange value to such a thing is more complex, if not impossible. Should we estimate the Buddha’s total hours spent meditating and teaching, add several millennia of inflation, and account for the exchange rate between, say, India and the United States? Can we measure the exact amount of liberation we have achieved since making contact with the dhamma, or the number of hours we have meditated, chanted, walked, or drummed, and multiply by our normal hourly wage? Dhamma is not a commodity to be consumed—it is, as is often said, priceless.
The Buddha offered his teachings freely, in the spirit of liberating everyone, regardless of their station in life. It didn’t matter if you were wealthy or poor. There is an important egalitarianism in this approach. Yet for those of us deeply socialized by capitalism, if we cannot find a way to quantify a thing’s value, we have a hard time fully appreciating it. We want a clean, one-to-one exchange. We might suspect a trick, or even devalue it, which is a common response when offering dhamma freely in the United States. We associate lack of dollar value with lack of quality, like a cheap plastic Buddha statue trinket.
In the Theravadan tradition I initially practiced in, everything—the meditation center facilities, meals, teachings—were offered freely without any expectation of payment. When the subject of dana was discussed, it was not framed as an exchange for a service or product. Instead, the practice of generosity was framed as an opportunity to reflect on how I had benefited from the retreat, and to enable future practitioners to benefit as well. If I had in any way developed a measure of insight, equanimity, kindness, or other positive experience as a result of dhamma practice, would I not want others to have such an opportunity as well? Any money I gave was in support of the liberation of others, and not at all about my own satisfaction. This seemingly simply turn of attention to the well-being of others coming after me was an important path into the practice of generosity for me.
Strengthening the practice of dana is not easy in a capitalist society lacking a common tradition of generous giving without strings attached. At an institutional level, the idea of social welfare—a very large-scale form of giving—is hard for many to swallow. Many people do not like the idea of “donating” their taxes for the benefit of others, their minds filled with stereotypes and ideological assumptions. In the United States, we are more likely to support political equality (voting, citizenship) over economic equality. But in many ways, political generosity does not require a commitment to each other the way economic generosity does. Much like the practice of dana, true economic equality or generosity would require us to cultivate a sense of ethics and goodwill towards everyone, and perhaps a sense of responsibility and history with regard to our uneven distribution of wealth. For true generosity does not involve pity or guilt, but a sense of integrity and discernment:
These five are a person of integrity’s gifts. Which five? A person of integrity gives a gift with a sense of conviction. A person of integrity gives a gift attentively. A person of integrity gives a gift in season. A person of integrity gives a gift with an empathetic heart. A person of integrity gives a gift without adversely affecting himself or others.
—Sappurisadana Sutta: A Person of Integrity’s Gifts (Anguttara Nikaya 5.148)
Or, to echo a common socialist sentiment—“from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] needs.”