Student’s Question: Understanding Generosity – should we always give to others?

Should we always give to others even if they show no gratitude or abuse our giving? How can we give in a way that benefits both the giver and receiver?

A student writes:

“I’ve just started studying book 2 of the Living the Awakened Heart Training coursebook, ‘Trusting the Heart of Buddhism’. It says a lot about ‘dana’ or generosity, and how we should always be generous.

But what if others then take our gifts or services for granted, show no gratitude or even abuse the things we’ve given? Should we still continue to give in the same way?

This seems intuitively wrong to me. What does Buddhism teach on this point?”

Lama Shenpen replies:

For our own good, we should give anyway – even more than ever. It is just ordinary social intercourse to give to those whom we like and who treat us well. It keeps the wheels turning, so that we have good relationships all round.

It is social common sense and not to be shunned. But to give to those who show us no respect or gratitude – to give with grace and love in spite of it bringing us nothing but pain in return – that is truly giving.

Having said that, there are other angles to consider. Maybe one could do even better than simply to ‘pile coals of fire’ upon the heads of our enemies, as it were. Maybe to give in such circumstances actually makes things worse in terms of helping people.

So we have to examine our motives carefully. Sometimes, as with children, it’s better to hold back and instil in others a deeper kind of respect for the things that you wish to give them or even greater respect for yourself.

Maybe it is not good for them to treat you with such disrespect. Maybe you could give more in the end by holding back in a particular instance. So you need to open out to the whole situation and try to respond appropriately.

Another thing to consider is whether in fact you are able to be that generous. Generosity of that kind is a spiritual accomplishment that we should aspire to emulate and embody. But if we try to act as the great Bodhisattvas do, while still being very involved in our egocentric thinking, we could just end up angry and resentful, vowing never to give anything to anyone ever again, or proud and conceited about our moral superiority and so on.

Better to hold back and give what you give with good grace, aspiring to do better in the future than to react angrily or try to shame others like this. You have to judge the situation for yourself. There is no absolute right answer here that you can or you have to subscribe to.

For example, you may think that the greatest generosity is to give away everything – but if you do that, then when the next person in need comes along you have nothing to give. This applies as much to material help as to one’s own time and energy.

So there is always a choice going on. Are you going to keep back a certain amount so that you have more to give if required? Or are you going to give up to the hilt until you couldn’t give more, however much it was needed?

I think in this respect it is good to think of giving in terms of the mandala principle. You want to give in such a way that your personal mandala is being constantly replenished and able to give again and again. If you give and give until you feel exhausted and exploited, then there is nothing left but disappointment and impoverishment. That is not the basis for more generosity.

A good rule of thumb is to give for as long as you are happy to give – and to keep trying to push the limit further and further. Sometimes great Bodhisattvas are happy to give all and to give to the undeserving and to those who torment them and sometimes they feel happier not to.

When you don’t give, it’s important not to close your heart and say an inward ‘Why should I?’ Instead just give mentally from your heart with pranidhanas (wishing prayers) that you will always remember this person and help them in the future, even if you have decided not to help them particularly at this present moment.



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