The First Practice and the First Perfection from a talk by a SnowFlower
Dana is the term used in Buddhism to refer to the practice of giving. Recognized in all wisdom traditions as one of the most basic virtues, the practice of giving can deepen one’s humanity and water the seed of spiritual development. Whenever the Buddha delivered a discourse to people who did not yet regard him as their teacher, he would start by emphasizing the value of giving. Only after there was appreciation of this “first practice”, would he introduce other teachings.
Dana is also the first of the six Paramitas or “perfections.” Thay writes that the practice of the Paramitas is what we do in our daily lives to cross over to the Pure Land, right now. He quotes the Buddha, ‘Don’t just hope for the other shore to come to you. To cross over to the shore of safety, well-being, non-fear, and non-anger, you have to swim or row across. You have to make an effort.’ This effort, Thay continues, is the practice of the Paramitas, the perfections.
Buddhist teaching distinguishes among the different states of mind with which one can give. A distinction is made between acts of giving that lack wisdom and those that are accompanied by wisdom. The highest type of giving is that associated with wisdom before and during the act. An example of wise giving would be to give while maintaining awareness that the gift, the recipient, and the giver are all impermanent. While providing the benefit of helping an individual, the giver remains aware that the impact of the gift is necessarily limited and the immediate benefit of the gift is not the main reason for giving.
The highest motive for giving is as an effort to be free by reducing the delusion of a lasting self. “Giving helps make egoism thaw” is a phrase that rings true for me. Aspiring to ultimate peace and purity by practicing generosity, we are developing the true dana paramita, the perfection of giving. The effort that we put into acts of giving assist us by freeing us from our normal ego-based outlook as we move along the path to freedom.
Thay emphasizes that there are different types of gifts. To give means first of all to offer joy, happiness, and love. He says that the greatest gift we can offer anyone is our true presence. He also says that we can offer our stability, our freedom from craving, and our peace and understanding. These are all such important gifts that we can offer the people around us and those closest to us.
Giving as an act and a practice is related to the personal quality of generosity, which is the inward disposition to give. Generosity is strengthened by outward acts of giving. The quality of generosity has a particularly strong connection to the entire movement of the Buddha’s path, which involves the destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion. When we grow strong flowers of generosity, they crowd out the negative shoots of greed and hatred, and help to free the mind of delusion.
To summarize, Buddhism teaches a gradual process of emptying oneself. The practice of giving strengthens a generous attitude accompanied by the deepening insight into the nature of reality. Reinforced through meditation, one is emptied of deep-seated attachments and filled with positive qualities. This whole process of rising above our negativities starts with dana paramita, the perfection of giving.