The specific meaning of “dana” is giving, which is related to the quality of “caga” (in Pali), or generosity. The one involves doing, while the other involves being.
While this distinction is useful in its comprehensiveness, in actuality generosity and giving, being and doing, are intertwined and inextricable. Being is itself a kind of doing, as you cannot help but radiate certain qualities out into the world. And every doing – at each endlessly disappearing and regenerating instant of NOW – is a microscopic slice of being.
Giving and generosity can be expressive or restrained. For example, we might give to our child or someone else we love fondness and affection (expressive), and we might also give the holding of our temper or our hand in anger (restrained).
The essence of generosity is that we give outside the framework of a tight, reciprocal exchange. Yes, we may give the coffee guy $2.50 for a latte, and we may trade back rubs with our partner, but neither is particularly generous in its own right. On the other hand, tossing the change from $3 into the tip jar is indeed generous, as would be doing an extra great job on that back rub when it’s your turn.
While “dana” often means something fairly narrow and specific – alms for a monk or nun, or donation to a teacher – in the broadest sense, we are generous and giving whenever we be or do in the territory these words point to:
Donate, grant, award, bestow, make a gift of, bequeath Praise, acknowledge
Love, care, like
Forbear, restrain yourself for the sake of others
Let’s consider some concrete examples; you give whenever you:
Pat an arm in friendship, sympathy, or encouragement
Put money – or a banana or chocolate – in the donation bowl
Relax your position and open up to the viewpoint of another person
Offer anything out upon the internet or in a newsletter, etc.
Try to help someone
Wave someone ahead of you in line
Try to cheer someone up
Make a gift
Write a thank you note
Listen patiently when you’d rather be doing something else
Cultivate qualities in yourself that will benefit others
Change a diaper – at either end of the lifespan
Give some money to a homeless person
Express gratitude or appreciation
Volunteer your time
Tell somebody about something great
In particular, you are generous whenever you “give no man or woman cause to fear you” – in other words, when you live in a virtuous, moral way. In Buddhism, the Five Precepts are the common, practical guide to ethical conduct: do not kill, steal, lie, intoxicate yourself, or cause harm through your sexuality. Quoting Bhikkhu Bodhi, referring to the Anguttara Nikaya: “By [the meticulous observance of the Five Precepts], one gives fearlessness, love and benevolence to all beings. If one human being can give security and freedom from fear to others by his behavior, that is the highest form of dana one can give, not only to mankind, but to all living beings.
Last, perhaps as an antidote to the too-common practice of treating those closest to us the worst of all, the Buddha stressed the importance of honoring and caring for one’s parents, one’s spouse and children, and one’s employees and dependents. For example, in one sutta (discourse), offering hospitality to one’s relatives is one of the great auspicious deeds a layperson can perform.