Lam Rim on the Road: Reflections on the Perfection of GenerosityDec 04, 2021
Dharma teachings sometimes happen in mysterious ways, masquerading as everyday occurrences or through the behavior of unlikely characters. Several years ago, while working with marginalized populations, a patient taught me a treasured lesson. I was caught off guard when they handed me a package, neatly wrapped in holiday paper, and said: “Thank you for everything. I really appreciate you.” Their psychiatric instability made our work challenging. At times, they were agitated and demanding, either because of psychotic symptoms or intoxication. I often felt helpless after our sessions and wondered whether the treatment was at all beneficial. On some occasions, their volatility triggered a flutter of fear, as my nervous system remembered the unpredictable violence I witnessed in childhood – the result of my uncle’s psychotic mind. Homeless and living mostly on the streets for the past 30 years, my patient’s generosity touched my heart in a profound way. Despite having so little, they wanted to share something with me. Though it was hospital policy not to accept gifts from patients, there was no way I was refusing this one. I opened it later that evening and was surprised yet again by how thoughtful the items were. Our interactions were having a positive impact after all.
Generosity is the first of the Six Perfections. The purpose of practicing these virtues is to actualize the desire for enlightenment and develop Bodhicitta. According to Geshe Rabten’s The Essential Nectar: Meditations on the Buddhist Path, the Perfection of Giving is listed first because it is the easiest to practice. I believe there is more to it than that. The practice of generosity has the power to soften a hardened heart, and it stems naturally from feelings of love, gratitude, and compassion. As the first Perfection, it becomes the network of roots supporting the cultivation of the other five.
According to Buddhist teachings, generosity is divided into three types: the giving of Dharma, the giving of safety, and material giving. As with all actions, intention matters. If one gives with a pure wish to benefit others, without expecting something in return, then one is practicing the Perfection of Generosity. It is not so much what one gives, but the mental attitude with which the offering is presented.
Between the service project and the bountiful offerings I have received throughout my travels, the Perfection of Generosity has been on mind. My reflections started when I was packing up my apartment in May. As I sorted through my belongings, I realized that many of them had been gifts, and I wondered what I had done to receive such kindness. This thinking continued over the next 5 months traveling across the Mediterranean. Numerous individuals opened their homes, gave me a warm, safe place to sleep, fed me hearty meals, lent me their washing machines to do laundry, showed me around their respective towns and cities, and so much more. While I have known a few of these people for years, many I had only just met. Family of friends taking me in as though I were their family too –it was truly astounding. Based on the teachings of karma, specifically that actions can ripen as experiences similar to the cause (e.g., how people treat you), I must have been generous in previous lives. I have also practiced generosity in my current incarnation.
My sense is that material giving includes offering intangible things like time, attentive listening, and presence. When I left Ithaca this summer, one of my new friends thanked me for spreading my joy. Similarly, my dear friends recently thanked me for “helping with the kids” after hosting me at their home in the Catskills for a week. These were both instances in which I had received so much kindness and care from my friends that I started to wonder whether I had been doing too much taking. I knew they were giving with pure motivation, and that they were not expecting anything in return, but I still felt I should be offering something. Through their comments, I realize that even when I’m not giving material goods or contributing financially, there is still reciprocity. Sometimes, what I bring to the table is the quality of my presence, the emotional attitude that I convey. These subtle virtues must be the reason my patient wished to express appreciation.
Am I practicing the Perfection of Generosity when it doesn’t feel like I’m giving? When the expression of kindness doesn’t stem from the intention of helping sentient beings, but is simply a reflection of an inner state of joy? Helping take care of my friends’ young children is a pleasure – I love seeing them happy, and I have fun playing with them. The delight I shared in Ithaca was the natural result of my own contentment; being there with my friends brought me much pleasure.
The other side of giving is receiving, which can be difficult for some. My original intention in becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner was to “help people with mental illness”. Seeing the suffering of my uncle with schizophrenia and what it did to my family inspired my career path. Over time, my motivation became clouded by stress and compassion fatigue. Truthfully, the part of me that was overly accommodating, people-pleasing, afraid to disappoint others, and had difficulty expressing my needs drove a lot of my “generosity.” This tainted the giving and after a decade working with marginalized populations, I was completely drained. I needed to walk away and practice receptivity. I needed to allow myself to receive help from others. As my sense of self-worth expands to a healthy level, as I take time for my own needs and allow myself to accept care from others, I purify my motivation to give.
It is worth examining what might prevent skillful acts of giving. Fear-based clinging is an obvious cause. Since embarking on a nomadic lifestyle and taking a significant pay-cut, I have noticed more grasping when it comes to money. There is an underlying fear, though subtle, that pesters – will I have enough? When my financial situation was more stable, I was quick to offer monetary donations to meaningful causes. Now that the cash flow is precarious, especially with current economic changes and inflation, there is hesitation. To be honest, it took several weeks before I made my donation to the Tsum Valley Rachen Nunnery Service Project. I waited until I felt fully ready to give – when my intention was clear and attachment was not a defilement in my mind.
Last year, the CSP community raised $20,000 for the Dorjee Zong Nunnery in remote Zanskar, a region in the Himalayas in Northern India. The Tibetan Nuns Project recently sent word that construction on the expansion project of the nunnery and purchase of a school bus to facilitate the education of young nuns is almost complete. Our contribution was made more meaningful given that all the fundraising took place during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the entire planet was in crisis.
Seeing tangible fruits of these virtuous actions provides inspiration for the current Tsum Valley Rachen Nunnery Service Project. We have a unique opportunity to practice generosity with the intention of helping the sangha in a hidden, auspicious valley in Nepal. I’ve been reflecting on the karmic impact of material giving to support the giving of Dharma. Along these lines, I have been contemplating the heaviness of the virtuous karmic seeds that will be planted in spirit of this project. It has all the right conditions to make it a momentous offering, especially if we give with pure motivation to benefit sentient beings while remembering teachings on karma and emptiness.
When someone extends generosity towards us, the desire to reciprocate arises naturally. In response to feeling loved, we wish to express love. But what about giving to people we’ve never met before? How do we generate a sentiment of gratitude to inspire kindness in this case? My hope is that we all feel moved to contribute to this project – whether through a financial donation, by offering goods or services on the CSP Service Project Marketplace, or by volunteering a needed talent.
As I witness the interdependence involved in the service project, and the way the volunteers freely offer their time and skills to support the manifestation of Geshe Tenzin Zopa’s vision, I recognize many of the Lam Rim teachings. Returning to the story about my patient, their gift was so much more than material items wrapped in holiday paper. Their profound generosity – giving when they had essentially nothing of their own – touched my heart deeply. Remembering their kindness brings me joy and inspires me to be generous. Imagine for a moment the immense power of this project – the impact on countless sentient beings for an immeasurable length of time – as the Tsum Valley Sangha is supported in their ability to preserve the teachings and spread the wisdom of Dharma to everyone they encounter. That is the kind of ripple effect I want to be part of.
To learn more about the Tsum Valley Rachen Nunnery Service Project, or to donate: https://www.gradualpath.com/rachennunnery
Erica Saccente After 15 years in NYC, Erica decided to pursue a lifelong dream to live abroad. Letting go of the fear of disappointing others, she is following the call of her own heart. As she continues to work remotely as a contemplative psychiatric nurse practitioner, she will practice the art of surrender - having trust, listening to her intuition, and embracing a path of uncertainty. She will express her reflections of the Lam Rim through her love of writing and photography. Join her on the journey!
On Instagram: @butterflyez