My Buddhist tradition is rich with accounts of bewildering acts of generosity and compassion. There is the story, for example, of one of Buddha Sakyamuni’s previous incarnations feeding himself to a hungry tigress and her cubs in an act of complete, selfless surrender. And there is the graphically memorable account of the yogi Asanga, after 12 years of solitary retreat in which he felt he’d made little progress, removing maggots from the festering leg of an injured street dog with his tongue in an effort to protect both the dog and the maggots from harm. These anecdotes of what enlightened generosity can look like are both inspiring and overwhelming. We are forced to face the realization that our mundane attachments are keeping us from even simple acts of generosity, let alone the heroic selflessness displayed by the precious bodhisattvas (saints) of the past and the embodiments of our presently living, breathing teachers.
Yet the act of bringing the light of awareness to our own limitations seems to be an impetus to transform them, and on a recent pilgrimage to Northern India, my understanding of generosity was further tested to the core by the legions of beggars of all shapes and sizes who I encountered. Though I have traveled extensively in regions where striking poverty (to the eyes of a conditioned Western/industrialized mind) is commonplace, including China and Latin America, neither these experiences nor the warnings of friends who had traveled in India before were enough to prepare me for this harsh snapshot of impoverished humanity:
a legless boy chasing me up the stairs of a street tunnel on his calloused hands, pleading for a rupee…a young mother, beaming with a certain grace and beauty from within her sari, despite being caked with dirt and sweat, calling in a melodic Hindi over and over again for some milk, gesturing to her mouth and pointing at her baby…a three-year old girl, hardly visible through her matted hair and dusty face, flipping, twisting and dancing in the crux of a bustling intersection as her brother beats a small drum, hoping it worth at least a rupee or two to a bemused, but charmed, tourist…
The vignettes could go on, of course, for pages and pages. For a spiritual practitioner of any stripe there is no clearer text, no more powerful teaching, on the shortcomings of samsara, or our entangled, ego-bound existence, than these glimpses of suffering.
Developing generosity is an unmistakable aspect of the spiritual process in nearly every tradition. Within Buddhism, generosity represents one of the six paramitas, or perfections. As such, it becomes a major focus of our practice both on and off the cushion. The great masters emphasize the crucial importance of perfecting this virtue within our mindstream in order to completely benefit ourselves and others.
Yet the heart of our spiritual practice takes place where the clarity of doctrine meets the shady, jumbled samsaric place our minds make of the world, such as in the scenarios described above from my own experience. Held captive in the world of theory, the whole concept of generosity can become a sterile, scholarly “bubble” of dogma as asynchronous as a thumped Bible unless we make it the heart of our practice and transform it into a practice of the heart. In other words, how do we face the overwhelming sufferings such as those I encountered in India without succumbing to a sense of hopelessness and futility?
Each of my fellow travelers on the journey to India, much like Prince Siddhartha himself, who escaped the carefully orchestrated shelters of his existence to honestly encounter the four sufferings, was forced to transform what might have been a vague or conceptual understanding of suffering, and confront it at our core. And there is one of the beauties of expanding awareness on the spiritual path: rather than letting the suffering of self and others be an impetus for escapism or hedonism, in the magical alchemy of authentic practice, we respond to suffering with generosity, patience and ethics and so on, and it becomes a fuel for arousing compassion in action (bodhicitta).
It was fascinating to watch how this alchemy operated in the reactions of my fellow travelers to this challenge. Each faced this test in his or her own noble, reasoned way, with skill and, in some cases, true heart-bone courage. Many, for example, began each day with a set amount of coins or small bills set aside for beggars. When that quota was up, they were done for the day. That was a balanced way of appeasing their own karmic conscience while not unreasonably draining their own livelihood.
Others resolved to only give to the most desperate and needy cases: lepers missing limbs, sick children, families, etc. or those that seemed to especially stir something up in them, pull their heart-strings so to speak.
And yet others did not give to beggars at all. Instead, they made a conscious, intentional donation to an organization that they knew would benefit the social welfare of humanity and, at least in a global karmic sense, help ease the suffering of the bedraggled beggars who accosted them.
Still others of us never quite developed a systematic approach, and every journey out into the streets was guaranteed to bring about a battle at the core of our hearts. More than once I saw tears bubbling in the eyes of a friend as she stood otherwise stoically resisting the desperate clamor of a beggar tugging at her virtual or literal pockets.
Each of these approaches was a practical and skillful way of handling a difficult crucible of generosity, especially for a practitioner who understands its paramount importance. Yet on the other hand, each of these approaches is also an inadequate, dualistic conceptualization. I in no way fault my fellow pilgrims and their bodhisattva hearts. May their noble and skillful efforts be the seeds of complete enlightenment for all sentient beings. But who but an enlightened being possessing a wisdom eye could truly see into the essence of each beggar’s contextual suffering, determining the most needy? Don’t each of these approaches, in their way, imply an attachment, a judgmental conceptualization not in the spirit of what the great scholar/master Gampopa says should be an “unattached mind”?
On the surface, encountering beggars seems like an opportunity to develop the first type of generosity outlined in Buddhism: the giving of material wealth. Yet how inadequate and impotent we feel if we focus on the limits of the material world! After all, I could save every cent I earn for the next 20 years, take a plane to India with the intent of giving it all away, and hardly travel four blocks before all my hard-earned resources were exhausted.
In How to Expand Love, His Holiness the Dalai Lama advises us to “train from the depths of the heart in an attitude of generosity such that you are not seeking any reward or result for yourself.” He provides a beautifully pith and powerful practice for undergoing such training; you simply imagine a collection of impoverished sentient beings in front of you (real photos from trips such as mine might make effective cues) and then visualize all the items these beings need manifesting and you providing them.
In his book Infinite Life, Robert Thurman suggests a similar but even more exhaustive version of this visualization practice. The practice begins like this:
… let joy well up in your heart like a diamond light. Visualize it radiating outward in all directions, refracting outward in all directions, refracting through the prism of the world into rainbow light rays. These beams of happiness and true knowledge—laser-like yet almost liquid, flowing gently and brilliantly—permeate the environment and penetrate the minds of all sensitive beings.
As this practice continues, you go on to visualize yourself, in extremely specific and circumstantial detail, bringing ALL THREE types of generosity to limitless hosts of beings in your mind’s eye, using your “well of bliss energy” as a source of energy and inspiration: The alchemy of transforming despair into compassionate action!
Either of these simple practices—the simple one offered by His Holiness or the more complex, dynamic one suggested by Robert Thurman–could be done in virtually any setting (at a stoplight, in line at Starbucks, halftime at your son’s soccer game) or the object of a formal session. Either way, they are both powerful, elegant, and exhaustive visualization meditations on generosity that empower the practitioner with a sense of palpable means to transform the mundane world. Like many practices with the vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, they draw on the mind’s boundless reach of imagination when seen from the point of view of the ultimate wisdom of emptiness. Yet unlike a traditional scriptural practice, they encourage an incredible amount of improvised, realistic, imaginative detail based on the practitioner’s knowledge of the world and its sufferings.
These visualizations make a wonderful supplement to whatever other practice or system of generosity (within whatever religious tradition!) we have developed in confronting the extreme poverty of certain settings, the streets of Delhi simply representing my own personal example. Yet a recent ad in The Economist cites a growing cynicism among Indians regarding the beggars of Delhi. Some point out the fact that many of them reap the daily equivalent of a working Indian wage-earner through begging, seeing this as justification to withhold all generosity and, in fact, eradicate them from the streets!
If there is one thing we know for sure as spiritual practitioners, it’s that sweeping our sufferings “under the rug” of ignorance is a very temporary solution. By doing so, we are actually denying ourselves the opportunity to expand our awareness and realization through the practice of generosity and the other perfections. Like Prince Siddhartha, we must walk the streets with our eyes wide open, looking into every dark alley for opportunities to radiate our own heart-light of generosity and healing.
Dalai Lama, His Holiness the. How to Expand Love: Widening the Circle of Loving Relationships. Trans. Jeffrey Hopkins. New York: Atria Books, 2005.
“Delhi’s Beggars: Street Life.” The Economist 16 June 2007.
sGAM.PO.PA. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Trans. Herbert V. Gunther. Boston: Shambhala, 1971.
Thurman, Robert. Infinite Life: Awakening to Bliss Within. New York: Riverhead Books, 2004.
All photos by Paula Koch copyright 2007; image of Chenrezig source unknown.