To think of generosity only in terms of giving can limit us. Sunada tells of her realization that being truly generous is as much about being open to receiving as it is about giving.
As a follower of the Buddha’s teachings, one of the ethical principles I try to live by is generosity. Most commonly, generosity is understood to be about giving freely, and putting others’ needs before one’s own. While this definition isn’t wrong, I think it’s a bit too simplistic. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that generosity is a two-way street. It’s an openness of heart that’s just as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving.
Generosity is a two-way street. It’s an openness of heart that’s just as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving.
I know that those of us who feel committed to living by our spiritual values want to reach out and give in any way we can. While this is a great ideal, there are times when it can become a blinder. Ironically, focusing too much on the outgoing act of giving can sometimes put up a wall between giver and receiver. There’s a danger of getting caught up in our own ideas of what it means to be generous – of being a selfless helper and doing good – and losing sight of what this principle is really about. It’s about experiencing our interconnectedness in a way that knows no boundaries or hierarchies. Where there is interconnectedness, abundance flows freely in all directions, including back to myself.
Let me tell you my story of when I first started to see things in this new way. For reasons that I still don’t entirely understand, I’ve always felt uncomfortable accepting spontaneous gifts, especially if it’s money. One time when I was at a restaurant with a friend, she picked up the check and offered to pay for me. My immediate impulse was to protest, not out of politeness, but because deep down inside it didn’t seem right. I can afford to pay for it, I heard myself think. It’s not necessary. And since I knew that this person didn’t have a lot of money, it seemed like an unnecessary sacrifice on her part. Out of concern for her, I felt it was better for her to keep that money to herself, and not spend it on me for something I didn’t really need. This was my way of being generous and caring toward her.
My friend didn’t insist, but gently said, “Would you please allow me to give this to you as a gift?” That’s when it suddenly hit me on the head. Her gesture had little to do with how much money either of us had, or whether her offer was necessary. She wanted to honor me with a gift, pure and simple. In my foolish concern over her financial situation, I had lost sight of what she was really trying to do. I had been rebuffing the gift and blocking off her act of generosity. That was pretty self-centered of me!
I then started noticing other ways that I seemed to close myself off from others. One was my reluctance to ask people for help, especially if I thought they would have to go out of their way for me. It’s because I don’t want to impose, I’d say to myself. If I can do it myself, isn’t it better if I just take care of it on my own?
It’s not about giving from a place of power and strength, but sharing our wholeness and humanity (flaws and all) and openly accepting whatever comes back.
Maybe this is a Western way of thinking, but I’ve heard many people say they don’t like asking for help. Somehow we feel we need to be independent, self-sufficient, strong, and capable of taking care of ourselves. Yes, of course, it’s good to be all those things. But when do we start to cross the boundary into isolating ourselves from the love and personal connection that others want to give to us?
I saw this very clearly the time I needed emergency surgery and was hospitalized for a week. There I was for days, lying in bed while doctors, nurses, family, and friends all hovered around for the sole purpose of taking care of me. I was the center of their universe. For the first couple of days, I felt pretty uncomfortable with the attention and hubbub. But given the circumstances, I really had no choice but to surrender to the situation!
Once I stopped fighting with the idea, I was amazed and humbled by how willingly people gave their time and energy to me. I had a steady stream of visitors, many of whom brought me books and music to entertain me while bedridden. Phone calls and flowers arrived from people who were too far away. My need for help continued well after I had returned home. Once I was home, I was surprised to find one friend, whom I hadn’t counted among my closest ones, called and offered to be my servant for an entire day – to run errands, shop, and cook for me.
I felt cared for, supported, and loved by many people from all different parts of my life. They didn’t want anything in return from me. The best thing I could do was to accept their gifts wholeheartedly and graciously. That’s really all they wanted. And actually, I was giving them something by doing this. By allowing myself to be open and vulnerable to them, I was giving them my trust.
I admit I still have a hard time with this idea of giving and receiving so freely and openly. It will be a lifetime learning process for me. Thomas Merton understood how challenging this is when he said, “it takes more courage than we imagine to be perfectly simple with other men.”
But at least I see more clearly now what that ultimate ideal I’m aiming for looks like. A true generous spirit is one that’s willing to give herself over completely to another person. It’s a willingness to share all of herself, especially her weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and flaws. It’s not about giving from a place of power and strength, but sharing our wholeness and humanity (flaws and all) and openly accepting whatever comes back. This, I think, is the real vision behind the lessons the Buddha gave us on generosity.