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BUDDHIST IN THE TRENCHES
By Sarah Shifferd
How beautiful can life be? We hardly dare imagine it.” – Charles Eisenstein
I’ve never believed in money. Even though my parents explained the basics of modern economics to me over and over while I was growing up, I wasn’t convinced. Don’t get me wrong. I understood that the vast majority of people believed the economy followed certain rules; I understood our society ran on this obviously artificial system. However, that understanding didn’t make me believe. I told my parents, “Money isn’t real.”
But I lived in a society where most people believed money was real, so sometime in my early twenties, I tucked my discomfort away in a corner of my mind. It surfaced only occasionally: when as a musician, I (politely) refused money for solo concerts or simply left the building before anyone could find me to pay me. I gave cello lessons at a reduced cost that occasionally became zero. The best payment was helping someone discover and learn. Money was entirely irrelevant.
Paying others was strange for me, too. I felt a large disconnect between the price of a concert ticket and the absolute magic that transpired in the performance, between checks I wrote for Feldenkrais lessons and the deeply transformational process that Feldenkrais is. No amount of money could adequately “pay” for that.
I don’t know if my money aversion had anything to do with my decision to become a Buddhist nun, but I did become one for a little while. I suppose I found a glimpse of my solution in Puerto Rico, when the enthusiasm of those around me expressed itself in offerings of food, sacred art, and yes, money.
In the end, I didn’t realize my solution on my own. I had to be told. One spring evening in 2011, a man named Charles Eisenstein came to my city and spoke about his new book, Sacred Economics. I was skeptical going in. After all, I’d heard many explanations about many economic systems and I steadfastly remained a non-believer. But I rode the bus downtown and packed myself into a crowded pew at the Unitarian Church.
After lengthy announcements and introductions, Charles Eisenstein came to the podium. I held back tears as he articulated my lifelong feelings about money. He gently spoke the words I had never been able find: our current economic system, the exchange economy, creates separation and scarcity. It strips the Earth of its resources and devastates its beings, including us humans. The expectation of eternal growth and debt at the root of our economic system is impossible to sustain. This system was artificially created and maintained, and therefore, it can be changed. In fact, it was collapsing and evolving all around us.
The alternative is the gift economy. Where the exchange economy runs on the need to constantly acquire more, the gift economy is fueled by trust and gratitude and generosity. Where the exchange economy creates separation, the gift economy promotes togetherness, a sense of belonging, participation, and respect for all.
The gift economy is part of ancient cultures and modern internet culture. That’s right. It’s open source software and pay-what-you-want music downloads. It’s the crowdsourcing of Kickstarter and Wikipedia. In the physical world, it’s the generosity of Panera Bread and the alternative ecosystem of Burning Man. It’s “by donation” events and the tiny book trade libraries sprouting up in yards all over my neighborhood.
In the gift economy, I offer whatever I have or do, be it a product or a service. I make my offering as a gift, with no expectation of reward or “payment.” Once someone receives my gift, they are free to give to me in return if they like. They give whatever leaves them with a sense of balance and completion in our interaction. I’ve received cash, bodywork, and food. To others, I have given my writing services, knowledge of music, and yes, food. It’s not technically a this-for-that trade. We give to each other out of appreciation, the wish to support each other.
It might sound crazy, but it works. I know, because I started operating my freelance editing business in the gift economy model. And here’s what I love about it (and why I’m writing about it in this Buddhist magazine)…
I get to practice letting go.
In the gift economy, we let go of expectations and hopes and fears and judgment. If we’re not entirely there with those lofty ideals, we’re practicing non-attachment all the time, dissolving our limitations every day.
I get to practice generosity.
Remember the last time you gave something to someone? Remember the pleasure your gift gave to another being? Remember how that felt? The mind of generosity is open and expansive and full of joy. Working in the gift economy, that blissful mind is a daily reality.
Even when I do contract work at a set rate, I consider it a gift. That simple label – “gift” – is like a nuclear bomb on the usual workplace delusions. Self-cherishing simply evaporates. Every moment on the job is a source of freedom and happiness.
I also get to practice accepting the generosity of others, which hasn’t always been easy for me. But somehow, without the trappings of the exchange economy, it’s simple.
The truth is, people are good and they are kind. They want to give back, to express their appreciation for the work of others. They love practicing generosity, too. Allowing them to do so in their own way, as they are best able, creates a tremendous sense of community, of positive participation in each other’s lives. The actual exchange isn’t money or material things; it’s warmth and gratitude, kindness and love. Who could ask for anything more?
Sarah Shifferd is a freelance writer, editor and movie subtitler. She lives in the often bizarre and continually enlightening world of Portland, Oregon, U.S.
Sharon Salzberg’s “Generosity’s Perfection” is available on Shambhala Sun.
“Normally, worldly business people think that the best way to invest is by doing business. But that is only certain when you make a profit. Until then, it’s uncertain. My own feeling is the most reliable investment is to offer money to monasteries and offer charity to sentient beings. This way, even though the result of the investment, the income, doesn’t appear right now, it is 100% certain that it will be received in the near future.
“The result of karma is that not only do you receive the income back, but the result manifests in various forms, various instances of happiness. The karmic result is so much more than the profit you would get from business. The result of karma is expandable, not just in one lifetime, but hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, and can also expand up to enlightenment.
“This way, there is no loss at all. In the case of business, there is uncertainty until you actually make a profit. I feel this way, investing by making charity or offerings, is more satisfying. Then, not only do you get the result of whatever you achieve, but others get the benefit also. This is something to think about.”
Lama Zopa Rinpoche is the spiritual director of the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an organization dedicated to preserving Mahayana Buddhism through offering the Buddha’s authentic teachings and to facilitating reflection, meditation, practice and the opportunity to actualize and directly experience the Buddha’s teachings. Sign up to receive news and updates.
“How do you reconcile the tension between making the Dharma truly accessible to all and covering the high operating costs of retreats? That tension brings up a scarcity mindset. From there it’s unlikely that everyone’s needs will be met. So what would happen if we trusted in the spirit of generosity instead?” asked Fabienne Pradelle, director of Vajrapani Institute in California.
With the upcoming retreat “Kopan West: Buddhism 101, A Course on the Gradual Path to Enlightenment with Andy Wistreich,” Vajrapani decided to experiment with connecting generosity to helping students deepen their lam-rim practice. Kopan West starts on November 22 and is being sponsored by past retreatants and benefactors and is offered to anyone who participates.
Lam-rim, or stages of the path, study and meditation is central to the experience of FPMT students, both beginners and long-time practioners. The recent advice from FPMT spiritual director Lama Zopa Rinpoche emphasizes gaining actual realizations of lam-rim through meditation and retreat. Like the November courses offered at Kopan Monastery in Nepal, Kopan West students receive instruction in lam-rim teachings. Andy Wistreich, who’s leading this year’s retreat, is a senior student of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche and has led many retreats with students of all levels around the world.
“With Kopan West, someone else has paid for you to be on retreat, someone you don’t even know. How inspiring is that!” Fabienne told Mandala. “Would you want to donate forward to the next person? That’s completely up to you. Will this mindset of generosity be sustainable? How long will the chain last? We don’t know. But we believe in the power of generosity that exists in each and everyone of us.”
Fabienne and the team at Vajrapani have been inspired to try this experiment in generosity in part by Nipun Metha, who’s become an well known advocate in California’s Bay Area for radical generosity. Fabienne recommended a video of Nipun Metha, describing some of the work he’s been involved with, to further explain the thinking behind offering Kopan West as a “pay it forward” retreat.
“Truly amazing things can happen when we let go of the scarcity mindset and look at the world with a spirit of generosity,” Fabienne said.
Visit Vajrapani Institute’s website for more on the course and retreats they offer.
Mandala brings you news of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and of activities, teachings and events from over 160 FPMT centers, projects and services around the globe. If you have news you would like to share, please let us know.
TEACHINGS AND ADVICE: A Teacher Tells Us Why
In regard to generosity, we often hear about giving. What does Buddhism have to say about receiving?
Answered by Don Handrick:
It does seem that in Buddhist teachings we hear about receiving somewhat less frequently in comparison to how often the topic of giving is discussed. In spite of that, the topic of receiving is actually emphasized in several places in our practice of the stages of the path to enlightenment. Perhaps the most important meditations on receiving that we can do initially are encompassed in the foundational topics of the stages of the path: devoting yourself to a spiritual guide and appreciating this opportune human rebirth.
As part of the subject of devoting ourselves to a spiritual guide, one of the primary meditations that we undertake is developing respect for our gurus by recollecting their kindness1, exemplified by the teachings, initiations, personal advice and material support they provide us, as well as the less tangible and yet quite essential blessings and inspiration that we receive from these invaluable guides. Without all these benefits that we obtain through their incredible kindness, it is impossible to achieve any positive qualities, for as Lama Tsongkhapa says, “The foundation of all good qualities is the kind and perfect pure Guru.” Being grateful for the immense benevolence of our gurus, we are inspired to practice in accordance with the spiritual direction that we receive from them and thereby accomplish all the realizations of the path.
Within the other foundational topic of contemplating our precious human rebirth2, there is not only an acknowledgement of the richness and opportunity that we have received in this life but also a great emphasis placed upon appreciating the causes of attaining such a rebirth. By first thinking about the eight freedoms and ten endowments that make this human life so favorable, we come to appreciate the richness of this life that we have obtained and seek to take its essence by making it most beneficial. In addition though, we must examine how difficult it is to receive such an opportune life, recognizing its rarity especially in terms of the many causes and conditions that produced it. We can clearly see some additional ways that we contemplate receiving within two of these causes that are essential to receiving a precious human rebirth.
First, in order to receive merely a higher rebirth such as that of a god or a human being, the main cause is our practice of morality, for it is only through a virtuous action that we can obtain the ripened result of a human existence. By abandoning non-virtue and practicing virtuous deeds in relation to other sentient beings, we in turn are able to receive this fortunate rebirth. In addition, there is another cause that is mentioned in this context – the practice of generosity – and it is cited specifically as the cause of our receiving wealth in this human life that we currently possess. In accord with the teachings on karma, we must discern that all the material resources that we have received in this life have arisen through the force of our having engaged in giving to others in the past. And in the light of how we need to take the essence of this human life and all the resources that we do own, it is crucial then that we determine to utilize them in constructive and meaningful ways. How sad it would be if we simply wasted all that we received through these causes by not using this life well!
Besides being mentioned within these two foundational meditations, another important topic in the stages of the path wherein we focus on the various kindnesses that we have received is the instruction on developing the mind of enlightenment. In the sevenfold cause-and-effect instruction for cultivating bodhichitta3, we are encouraged to first see all sentient beings as having been our mothers, upheld within the view that we have had infinite lives and thus every sentient being has actually performed that function not just once but on numerous occasions. The significance of seeing them as one’s mother is that we receive so much benefit from the vast kindness of sentient beings when they have played that role in all our lives. Maternal kindness is seen in so many ways: our mother carries us in her wombs through gestation, dealing with much discomfort and difficulty; after we are born, our mother tends to us when we are completely incapable of caring for ourselves and in need of her protection and support; and throughout our infancy and childhood, our mother often continues to be the primary provider of all that we need to assure our healthy growth, physically and mentally.
When we recognize the incredible kindness of mother sentient beings in this way, we naturally generate a sincere wish to repay that kindness, particularly through bringing them to the happiness they seek and freeing them from every form of suffering. Cultivating love and compassion for beings within an appreciation for their kindness towards us, we come to the conclusion that the best possible way to take personal responsibility and to make good on all that we have received from them is to become a buddha for their sake. In this way we reciprocate by providing the best possible repayment for the immeasurable kindness we have received from all sentient beings throughout countless lifetimes by dedicating ourselves to accomplishing their welfare.
In summary, while it is important that we acknowledge and appreciate the many things that we have received in myriad ways, these stages of the path teachings remind us that it would be quite unfortunate if we don’t receive things with a spirit of gratefulness along with an understanding of where they come from and how all that we receive can contribute to our ability to use this life purposefully. With continual mindful awareness of the sincere wish to benefit others, we can come to the conclusion that, while it is generally true that “it’s better to give than to receive,” without skillfully and thankfully receiving we can never accomplish our own enlightenment and give others the bliss and happiness that they seek.
There are many ways to express generosity:
慷慨 generøsitet vrijgevigheid suuremeelsus kagandahang-loob hào phóng 寛大な générosité generosità Großzügigkeit щедрость generosidade kemurahan generositet gavmildhet Generozitatea
Express generosity with your own International Merit Box kit, translated into eleven different languages–click here for the list
Generosity in Action Worldwide
The International Merit Box Project was created in order to cultivate generosity as part of a daily practice, as well as foster an international spirit of harmony and cohesion amongst the FPMT community. The Project began in 2001, and every year offerings are collected from FPMT students, centers and projects worldwide. To date, almost US$1,000,000 in Merit Box offerings have been disbursed through grants to eligible Dharma projects and initiatives.
The project is a tangible example of generosity and community in action: FPMT students all over the globe practicing together in order to benefit those working for same our mission.
By growing the number of participants, we hope to also widen the number of projects benefitting from these kind donations. We invite you to consider starting the practice yourself! Merit Boxes are offered freely through the Foundation Store.
Submitting Your Merit Box Offerings
Merit Box practitioners keep a Merit Box handy so they can place offerings in it throughout the year. Just think, one’s spare change can help build a new stupa, retreat cabin or translate a Dharma text! International Merit Box Project donations will be collected beginning on Lama Tsongkhapa Day each year (December 5th in 2015), and continuously until March 31, 2016. You can also support the International Merit Box Project now by making a one-time or monthly recurring donation!
Applying for a Merit Box Grant
Merit Box grants are intended for centers, projects, services, study groups and initiatives that further the Mission of FPMT. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to request a grant application after November 1, 2015. Applications are due March 31, 2016. Lama Zopa Rinpoche is involved in the application review and approval process, which takes place in April. Disbursements are made starting in May of each year.
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ASK A LAMA
Gyume Khensur (Lobsang Tenzin) Rinpoche spoke to students at Maitripa Institute in Portland, Oregon in late 2006. One of the students, frustrated by how the term “merit” seemed to be loosely thrown around in Buddhist circles, asked Rinpoche the following question …
Question: What exactly is meant by the term “merit”? For example, if I practice the merit of generosity, is it considered merit because it lessens my karmic tendency toward greed, or does it actually change the conditions of my life in some way?
Answer: Merit, in general, means everything which is virtuous. And you can have all kinds of virtue. When we talk about the result of happiness in our life, you can have all kinds of happiness or well-being. For example, when we talk about being very affluent in one’s material resources, when we look at what is the specific meritorious cause for that, it is the virtue of generosity. Again, when we talk about generosity, that doesn’t mean that we have to have something to give. Generosity is a wish to give – that is generosity. The more we empower, enhance this mind, wishing to give, wanting to give, that is the merit of generosity. But on the other hand, it doesn’t mean you think, “Oh, generosity is just my wish to give, but I’m not actually physically going to give anything.” The mind has to be applicable. …
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