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Stealing in Reverse: The Economics of Generosity

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.”

Comments (4)

  • Philip Kienholz

    “Attempting to plant a dana model in the midst of such a hyper-capitalist society is daunting.” Agreed, but I think that as an individual is learning to practice Buddhism their mind learns to become open to the value of generosity, particularly if they learn the Theravadan approach to ethical begging in order to support their meditation retreats. Could you address this please?

  • Kenji

    Hi Philip,

    Yes, I completely agree that with continued practice, generosity will most likely flower in an experienced meditator’s mind. I think that this opening especially comes if the person has been sitting a retreat of some length, or has been practicing regularly for a number of years, since this allows them to really deepen into the effects of mindfulness continuously.

    I think that in the US, it might be somewhat more difficult if many in the sangha are relatively new to the practices. To someone who is just trying it out, or has been practicing for a short time, it might be harder to push against the dominant socialization that de-values something offered for free.

    During my first years of practice, I would often tune out when dana was discussed. I think this is partly because I had not yet seen any significant and lasting positive effects of practice in my life, so being asked for dana seemed like a kind of manipulation. I felt I had not “gotten anything” from the exchange, so why should I “pay” for it?

    US Theravadan centers I’m familiar with—even those that have been established for some time—struggle to make ends meet and have adopted hybrid models. These models can not be deemed a complete success so far. So it remains to be seen if dana as a practice can really take root in a significant way.

    Kenji

  • Juliana Essen

    Respectfully, Kenji, I’d like to offer a different perspective. I think you give a good assessment of the attitude toward giving in the market economy, but as an anthropologist who focuses on the everyday actions of individuals, I see so much giving going on outside the market realm. We give soup to a neighbor who just had surgery, outgrown clothes to one with younger kids, and money to a relief fund to help a local family whose house burned down. We make incommensurate exhanges everyday without attempting to calculate them (I’ve actually tried with a baby sitting co-op–we finally decided it didn’t matter because we were all happy to give our help freely). Maybe I have this perspective because I do not belong to a formal sangha–I receive the dharma through interactions with my community and with nature, so if the purpose of dana is to show gratitude and support that community, it makes sense to me to conceive of both more broadly.

    I’d also like to comment on my experience with dana within the concept of mainstream Buddhism in Thailand (where I have lived and worked and researched now and again over the years). Many Thai Buddhists give to make merit, and the higher the field of merit, the more the merit (e.g., for the construction of a temple, big merit, for monks on alms rounds, less so). And they consider this merit to be spiritual currency to improve their lot in this life and the next. This seems to be quite different from the spirit of giving you described, but it’s a popular Theravada practice.

    Thanks for the stimulating posts. It feels good to stretch my brain muscles and contribute to the conversation.

  • Kenji

    Hi Juliana,

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think your perspectives are incompatible with what I’ve described. Part of my background is in anthropology as well, and I’m familiar with the argument that there’s an informal economy based on gifts and exchanges that isn’t always calculated. I completely agree.

    I think what I’m trying to point out in the context of several US convert dhamma centers I’m familiar with, is that for whatever reason, practitioners are not being generous in the ways that will sustain these centers for the long run. The cost of maintaining a facility and paying staff, however minimal, is not being completely met by dana. This leads to a difficult problem since grants are not stable sources of income, and holding fundraisers, no matter how many, are still often asking this same sangha for more money. Dhamma should be given freely, but how to do so if it’s not economically feasible?

    The Theravadan suttas (especially the Anguttara Nikaya) describe at least eight motives for giving connected to the giver’s expectations, but maintain that generosity should be without expectations. The giver’s attitude is also important, for example—(1) to give in a way where the receiver does not feel humiliation or hurt, (2) to give with warmth and friendliness, (3) to give personally with one’s own hand, (4) to give what is useful and appropriate, (5) to give without callousness, or in a way where the recipient does not want to come again, (6) to give at the proper time to meet a dire need, (7) to give to contribute to the well-being of the recipient, and so on.

    These are very high standards for noble giving. Add to this any existing, unfavorable cultural-economic conditioning around generosity, and we are trying to swim upstream. At least in the Thai context you describe, people have a motivation (no matter how much this is based on gaining spiritual capital) to give. I’m not sure what motivation we have here in the US aside from the marketized, commodity exchange motivation. Is that a worthy basis for dana? I argue probably not. But what can we replace it with, so that our meditation centers stay open?

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