Don’t think of receiving, think of giving

Oct 30, 2020

The practice of generosity, or giving, or charity as Lama Zopa Rinpoche refers to it, is very interesting. Lama Tsongkhapa says in one of his lovely poetic lamrim text called Hymns of Experience that “Generosity is the wish-fulfilling jewel with which you can fulfill the hopes of all sentient beings. It’s the basis of the activity of the bodhisattvas in that it develops the selfless and undaunted courage to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment.” That seems like a lot of generosity! What does it mean? It means that it’s the doorway to connecting with others. Giving. It’s the first of the six perfections of the bodhisattva.

As Lama Zopa Rinpoche advises us: “Don’t think of receiving, think of giving.”

I think we like to give but usually only to people we’re close to, and then usually only what’s easy to give, or what we don’t want – we’ll buy a new coat and give away the old one.

The giving we’re trying to cultivate here is meant to be a powerful method to smash the I, to break down the barriers between ourself and others; we’re trying to cultivate a sense of responsibility to give sentient beings what they need.

There are different levels of giving. The first is giving material things. Then there’s giving spiritual advice, which is a more profound level of giving. But I think we find this pretty easy – we love giving advice! We’ll give anybody advice, even if we’re not qualified. But give five dollars? Not so sure!

If we’re trying to cultivate the practices of a bodhisattva, to think like a bodhisattva, we need to practice keeping our eyes open to what sentient beings need and then to do our best to give it. And we practice it, we consciously practice giving.

Because of attachment, we’re very possessive: this is mine; we think of that thing, that person, that house, those possessions, that money in the bank, almost as an extension of me. It’s the nature of attachment, it’s what it does. So, of course, we don’t want to give “mine” away. If I’ve got extra of it, fine. If there’s anything left over at the end of the month after I’ve paid my phone and my cable and bought my food and been to the movies and had a massage and put savings in the bank, then I might give something.

Giving money is very hard for us in the West because we concretize it so powerfully. One Tibetan Lama said once, “You’re very generous in the West but not with money.” Money is the thing we know so well. We reconcile everything at the end of the month. We’re very distressed if we can’t account for those dollars. If we counted our good and bad karmas every month, we’d be Buddha by now!

Money is the fruit of generosity

Well, “money” is a name we give to the fruit of generosity from past lives. That’s all. Having access to even a grain of rice in this life is the direct result of generosity in the past. When we really understand this, we will be sad not to give. If we don’t give now, we’ll end up with nothing in the future. Not giving now means we’re sitting on our laurels. “Oh, aren’t I lucky! I have money and things and a job.” No, not lucky! We worked hard for this by being generous – and by not stealing – in the past. So how sad to waste it.

They say that when bodhisattvas give something they feel like we feel when we get something. So happy to give!

And give tens and twentys to the homeless person!

We love giving money if we get something for it. We’re happy to spend twenty bucks for our coffee and pastry at Starbucks but find it hard to give anything to the homeless person outside.

The commonest way we think about homeless people is we’d rather avoid them. “Maybe they’re junkies, maybe they’ll buy alcohol, maybe they’ll buy guns, maybe they’ll buy heroin. . .” If we do give money, we want them to buy what we want them to buy, like a banana or something. We practically want a contract with them before we give them anything.

But why not decide in advance, before we go downtown, that we’re going to give to homeless people. We know they’ll be there, so be prepared. Get your dollars out of your wallet and put them in your pocket, ready. And not just dollar notes! Not even your fives! That would have been useful fifty years ago. Bring your tens and twentys at least.

Budget giving into your life

A really excellent first step – before you even start to actually give! – is to want to give. So one simple practice is to budget giving into your life. You don’t wait until, “If I have enough left. . .”; you just decide, like the Mormons, to give ten percent. This is very powerful to do this. You just decide, “I’m going to give something.” Make it a line item in your budget. Like anything, it’s painful in the beginning, of course it is. But you start. You factor it into your life, “Okay, I’ll decide I’ll give fifty a month to homeless people,” whatever you want, just decide.

Be happy to pay our debts

Another even simpler way to practice generosity is to want to pay your debts. I mean, we know we have to, but we don’t like it. We can actually cultivate the attitude of being glad to pay our credit cards. Look at our lives now, everything is based on debt, isn’t it? Everybody has credit cards. We get the service, the thing, and at the end of the month we pay for it.

We have to pay the debt, we know that, so why be miserable! Learn to be happy to pay it! It opens the mind; it actually creates a generous attitude. We’re not even deciding to give more, just deciding to be glad to pay what we owe. “I’m so happy to pay my Visa bill. Aren’t these people kind, they’ve given me they’ve given me credit for one month.” Of course, they’re making money out of you, but isn’t it marvelous that we can get money just like that, that someone can lend us money.

But check how we feel: resentful. We hate paying our bills, because we are not generous, because we don’t like giving. We’re happy to take their service: the phone, the house, the food, but we don’t like to pay for them.

Even if we receive ten dollars, we’re so happy. But I’ve never yet met a person who when they see their bill for ten dollars feels happy!

Of course, this means we need to treat money with integrity. We shouldn’t waste it. And we should pay our debts properly. Don’t be cavalier about money. Or don’t run round giving money to people, thinking you’re so generours, but not paying your credit card bills. When we understand the law of karma, we’d never be like this.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche is famous for his generosity. Whatever he receives in his left hand immediately goes out of his right hand to someone else. Don’t be too attached to that beautiful statue that you offer Rinpoche, because the person who visits after you will walk out with it!

“Everything exists on the tip of the wish,” as Rinpoche says. Everything starts with the mind, the thought. Then we get brave and start to think big and will gradually have the courage to want to give, to want to help sentient beings, to feel that “I can do it,” which is the brave attitude of the bodhisattva.

More blog posts

The buddhas and bodhisattvas come where they’re needed

A question came up recently: Since Lama Zopa passed away and there have been prayers for his swift return, is that to be taken in a literal sense? Will he only reincarnate if there's prayer? It’s a really good question, and the answer is completely logical and simple...

Big surprise! Attachment is the main source of our problems

As far as the four noble truths are concerned, the main source of our suffering is attachment: this is what we have to understand. This is surprising: we don’t think like this. This is not Jung's model of the mind, or Freud's. And you don't get attachment from your...

Share this article