Part 1 in a series of posts about improving any type of relationship by practicing basic Buddhist teachings
After almost 15 years of managing accounts in the fast-paced, demanding office of an order fulfillment company, I landed a job at the complete opposite end of the stress meter. For almost a year now, I have been the Office Coordinator of a Buddhist temple. I work with wonderful, compassionate people in a peaceful environment with two wise, funny, and amazing Tibetan Lamas. Last year they conducted a non-residential day retreat to teach the six basic Paramitas (a word which means ‘going beyond’): generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. For this series of posts, I will be writing about the first three Paramitas, which focus on our relationship with others (the second three Paramitas, equally important, have more to do with our inner selves).
Generosity, the first Paramita, is more about how we give than how much. One of my favorite quotes of the whole teaching retreat is “We have a fondness for imagining that we are poor and occupied at all times.” How true is that?! When the lamas said this, everyone laughed with the recognition that we all do exactly that. How many times do we talk about how busy we are, as if it’s a contest? How many times do we complain about not being able to afford something?
But knowing this about ourselves, that we believe we are poor and occupied at all times, makes generosity that much more meaningful. Being generous is more than giving a gift, donating to a cause, or volunteering at a soup kitchen. It’s about the attitude we bring to it, the hold that we have on whatever we’re giving – money, objects, or time – or the expectations of how our generosity should be received.
We probably all know someone who gives things to people with conditions attached, usually along the lines of “take care of this in case someday you no longer want it and I’ll take it back.” If we’re going to give something to someone, whether old or new, we must release the hold we have on what we view as ours. Practice letting go of the object and give fully, without attachment.
Perhaps the most difficult thing of all to accept and practice is to give without expectation of the results. That means giving teenagers $75 for their birthday and expecting them to buy a jacket or something else they might need, and you’re bothered by the fact that they decide they want to invite their friends to have a pizza party and race go-karts. Or they give some to a poor friend who needs new shoes. It means helping someone by loaning them money and not expecting them to do something for you, like helping them to move or fix their computer, as thanks. It even means not expecting thanks – some people might have disorders that make it difficult for them to say thank you, or remember to say it, or they’re embarrassed.
And it’s logical to think, “Well, if I give them something and they can’t even say thank you, they should be embarrassed.” But the word generous means “free in giving,” and even if someone should say thanks, which is the socially expected thing to do, we are not being truly free in giving if what we give comes with conditions and expectations. If someone doesn’t thank you or reciprocate and this bothers you, you can simply choose to stop giving to that person if you want to.
The lesson here is that no one should feel forced to do anything. No one’s saying they should keep giving if they don’t receive anything in return. This is just food for thought about what it really means to give without expecting anything – keeping the object in good condition in case they can give it back to you at some point, giving money saying that it can only be spent how you want it to be, even receiving a thank you – in return. I know, I’m there with you – it’s a concept that is difficult to understand, let alone embrace, but that’s why it’s a Paramita – it’s ‘going beyond’ what we know, and what we believe. No one’s saying we have to do this. But what if we did?