THE PRACTICE OF DANA
The first thing the Buddha often taught to lay followers was the practice of Dana or generosity. When we give freely from the heart we feel a natural sense of joy, connection, and belonging. This experience of well-being, when consciously recognized and fostered, creates an essential foundation for the path to Awakening.
The spirit of generosity is woven into the fabric of traditional Buddhist societies, where the lay and monastic communities have lived in dependence upon one another for millennia. Monks and nuns offer spiritual and religious guidance to the lay community, who in turn offer material support in the way of food, medicine, clothing, and shelter.
The teachings of the Dhamma are considered priceless – beyond material value – and thus have been offered for free since the time of the Buddha. For thousands of years, the Dhamma was preserved and taught primarily by monastics. Today in the West, the teachings are also offered by a growing cadre of lay, householder teachers.
In many respects, lay teachers and monastics complement each other, providing a range of practices to serve different needs in society. Monastics present an alternative lifestyle of renunciation, model a healthy disengagement from the social arena, and preserve key aspects of Buddhist culture. Lay teachers, on the other hand, are often more in touch with the pressures and trends of society and, therefore, can present the Dhamma in ways that address social issues and the unique challenges of modern life.
All of this has created greater access to powerful practices and teachings. Yet our materialistic culture and the commodification of spirituality can pose a challenge to touching the joyful, freely-offered aspect of Dana between student and teacher. With lay teachers, Dana can become reduced in our minds to an exchange, or relegated to making financial donations. This is a tragic limitation of a rich practice that is much more about living with a spirit of broad, open-hearted generosity than about giving money.
There are many ways to give: we give time, we give energy, we listen. We give with our care, with our service, or with our finances. The practice of dana invites us into a relationship of mutuality, care, and joyful connection. Making a donation is just one way to express this.
-- Oren Jay Sofer