Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Freedom of Giving

This talk was given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre on Sunday 18th March 2012.


There are many kinds of freedom: for instance political freedom - freedom from persecution and oppression, freedom to choose our political representatives; economic freedom- freedom from poverty; psychological freedom- freedom from debilitating conditions like depression, chronic anxiety or compulsive obsessions and so on. And then there is spiritual freedom. It is spiritual freedom that I want to talk about today - spiritual freedom and its relation to giving.

What is spiritual freedom? perhaps the most straightforward definition is that it is freedom from craving, ill-will and the delusion of ego-identity. We could also say it is freedom to give and to love. It might seem strange to assert that we are not free to give and to love, but that is in effect what Buddhism is saying. We may have the political freedom to give and to love, we may have the economic freedom to give and to love, we may have the psychological freedom to give and to love , but our giving and our loving is compromised by our lack of spiritual freedom. because we are enchanted by the ego delusion our giving and our loving is limited, restricted, diminished, confined, impoverished, stop and start.

Complete spiritual freedom is Enlightenment; liberation from all the mental poisons, liberation from states of mind such as craving, hatred, delusion, envy, pride and fear. Freedom from subjective limitations.

When we free ourselves from these states of mind, when we become completely free in the spiritual sense, then we are free to give and to love fully; there are no longer any barriers to a continuous flow of generosity and love. On the way to complete liberation we use the practices of metta and dana, kindness, friendliness and generosity, to gradually become more free, gradually dissolve the boundaries that restrict us.

All of our Buddhist practices are about freeing ourselves in this way. Buddhism is practical - there is a task and there is a set of tools with which to accomplish the task. We need only to understand the task and to use the tools.

The task is to free ourselves from the delusion of ego-identity and it's manifestations in neurotic craving, ill-will, pride, envy and fear or to put it more positively the task is to free ourselves so that we become embodiments of love and generosity.

In order to free your self in this way you need to be able to see how these mental poisons manifest in you. You have to become aware of the thoughts and emotions, which are proud or envious or anxious and so on. And you also need to be aware of the generous and kind thoughts and emotions that you experience.
You have to be aware of how the poisonous thoughts and emotions slip out through your speech and actions and aware of how you give expression to your more positive thoughts and emotions.

This level of awareness and self-knowledge is achieved partly by meditation, partly through study and reflection, partly through open communication with friends, partly through the positivity engendered by rituals and definitely by intensifying all of these by going on retreat regularly.

Sometimes people think that meditation must be the primary way of gaining greater awareness and self-knowledge and meditation is indeed very important . However it has to be balanced by other practices or it can itself become an exercise in subtle craving, where we are always in pursuit of some special experience. It is possible to do a lot of meditation and remain deluded or even increase our delusions, so it is important to touch earth with communication that challenges our habits and self-questioning that challenges our egotism. In my own experience it has been the practices of communication, confession and confiding – in other words spiritual friendship- which has frequently led to greater awareness and self-knowledge.

When we are trying to free ourselves – we are not just trying to free ourselves from negative states of mind like hatred, greed, pride or fear – we are also trying to free ourselves to be more loving and more giving, we are trying to free ourselves so that we become embodiments of love and generosity -the qualities of love and generosity flow spontaneously through us and from us.

So it is important then that we become aware of how these positive qualities manifest in our thoughts and emotions, in our speech and in our actions. As we become more aware of these positive qualities in us, we need to nurture and encourage them. We may, for instance , become aware of urges to give or to say a kind word, we may become aware of our generous acts or our friendly, encouraging speech. In all of these lie the seeds of our freedom and the more we can give these positive qualities and these positive actions space to flourish and multiply, the more free we will become.

How does this work? How do positive mental states and positive actions lead to greater freedom.

Negative mental states and unskilful actions have a limiting and isolating affect on us. The more greedy we are, for instance, the more we come to inhabit a narrow and narrowing world – becoming more isolated from others and more obsessed with our own security, comfort and gratification. On the other hand as we allow our generosity to flow unhindered we find ourselves connecting with others, experiencing more expansive mental states and in time, less anxiety about our security and comfort. So, the development of positive mental states and acting from those mental states leads to greater freedom because it leads us out of the dark cave of deluded self-obsession and out into the more open space of heart-connections with other people. It helps us to soften the defensive and protective boundaries we build around ourselves. This leads to greater freedom because it is accordance with the nature of reality. In reality our minds and hearts are not fixed and isolated entities to be defended and protected. Rather we are fluid processes needing the fresh air of kindness, generosity and wisdom to fulfil our full human potential, the potential to awaken from the sleep of delusion.

I have been speaking about this process of becoming free in terms of moving from greed to giving. We could equally speak about moving from anger and hatred to love and kindness. These unskilful mental states also have the effect of isolating us, leaving us in a narrow world where we sit like some disgruntled spider at the centre of a web of resentment and blame weaving stories of self-justification and righteous indignation.
As Shantideva says in the Bodhicaryavatara;
“Even friends shrink from him. He gives but is not honoured. In short, there is no sense in which someone prone to anger is well off.”

It is easy to see that when we are friendly, kind and loving we are naturally connected to other people and experience the security of friendship and positivity.

Lets come back to the theme of giving and how it leads to freedom in the sense of awakening.

We are probably all familiar with the word 'Dana ' , which means giving, the act of giving. There is another word which we may be less familiar with – this is 'caga' (chaaga) which means generosity – the quality of generosity or the quality of liberality as it is sometimes translated.

Caga is known as one of the noble treasures. For instance in one list of the five treasures there are saddha -faith, sila – ethics, suta – right knowledge, caga- generosity and panna- wisdom. In the Anguttara Nikaya there is a sutta where the Buddha is speaking to Migara's mother, whose name is Vasakha – he first tells her about four qualities she needs in order to be successful in the worldly life and then he goes on to say :

“ when a woman possesses four other qualities she is heading for victory in the other world ( in other words the spiritual world) . What four? Here a woman is accomplished in faith, virtue, generosity and wisdom.”
These are sraddha, sila, caga and prajna and are known as the treasures.

He later says the same thing to a man called Dighajana.

Dana is the practice of giving which leads to the mental state of caga and caga is the mental state of generosity which is expressed in acts of giving. Caga is the generous mind which leads to freedom – freedom from all clinging or attachment to 'me', or 'mine'- freedom from possessiveness and any sense of inner poverty. Sometimes caga is translated as relinquishment – it's the mind that is not holding on tightly to anything.

We can speak of generosity as a quality of the mind, but in a way that is not quite right. What we are aiming at through the practice of dana is not to become a generous person – a person who possesses the quality of generosity – what we are really aiming for is to become generosity.

We are not fixed centres of consciousness on to which we add qualities such as generosity, loving kindness and wisdom. We are fluid processes, ever changing, consciousness constantly in the process of being created. We are not so much creatures, we are more like the process of creating and what is being created is generosity, loving kindness and wisdom – these qualities become the nature of consciousness rather than attributes of consciousness.

By acting generously we modify our being – everything we do, say and think modifies us to some degree and those things we do most frequently or say most frequently or think most frequently – those things modify us the most.

We are shaped and moulded by the constancy and consistency of our actions, our speech and the stories we tell ourselves.

If we are frequently generous in action, in words and in thought we will be on the way to becoming embodiments of generosity – caga.

In order to be generous, in trying to be generous, we will inevitably encounter our attachments, our clinging, our insecurities and this is one of the great spiritual benefits of dana. In order to overcome or expand beyond the boundaries imposed on us by insecurity, attachment and clinging, we need to become more and more aware of how these mental states manifest in our lives and how they restrict our freedom.

Non-attachment is one of the 51 mental states mentioned in the Yogachara Abhidhamma – early Buddhist philosophy. Non-attachment (alobha) is a positive mental state. Alobha literally means non-greed.

Bhante says this about non-attachment in his book Know Your Mind :
“The traditional image for non-attachment is that of thistle down blown on the wind. One is serene, confident, balanced in oneself. One doesn't settle on or stick to things, because one is self-contained. One doesn't need to be appropriating things or people so as to feel fulfilled. one doesn't insist on keeping certain elements of experience to oneself, or maintaining certain patterns of experience that support a particular idea of oneself. One has the confidence and the wider vision to be free from being neurotically involved with things. As should be clear, generosity is intrinsic to this positive mental event. “ (Know your Mind, Sangharakshita, p.130)

The practice of generosity helps us to attain this state of being 'serene, confident, balanced' . The practice of generosity challenges our insecurities and attachments and in this way makes us aware of how we 'appropriate things or people so as to feel fulfilled'. For instance, if we feel the urge to respond to an appeal for donations, we may immediately become aware of our insecurity in relation to money and our attachment to money as something that helps us to feel secure. Or if there is an appeal for volunteers to help out with some event, we may immediately become aware of how attached we are to our spare time.
By becoming aware in this way we give ourselves a greater opportunity to become free from 'being neurotically involved with things' -as Bhante puts it.

In this short quote from Bhante about non-attachment he mentions confidence twice – one is 'serene, confident, balanced' and 'one has the confidence and wider vision to be free from being neurotically involved with things'.

Confidence is crucial to our ability to be generous. The English word confidence has it's roots in the Latin 'fides', which means trust or faith. It is trust or faith that enables us to be generous and to become embodiments of generosity. We usually use the Sanskrit word 'shraddha' or the Pali 'saddha' when we talk about faith in Buddhism. These words come from a root meaning 'to place the heart upon. The English word 'creed' from the Latin 'credo' has similar root -'to place the heart upon'. What does it mean to 'place the heart upon' ? When we speak of the heart in this way we are usually talking about our emotions, we are talking about what we love - placing the heart on something is a kind of falling in love. It is not an idea about something, it is a full-blooded response to something. Neil Young recorded a song entitled 'I believe in you' and it's obvious he is using the word 'believe' here in the sense of 'I love you' ' I think you're wonderful' – he is not saying I believe that you exist! So faith in the sense of placing the heart on something is much more like this – it is a response of love and moving towards a very strong, motivating, even at times overwhelming response and just like with falling in love it has the feeling of great richness and abundance, joy and delight.

When we talk about faith or confidence in Buddhism what is it that we have faith in? What are confident about? Or to put it another way what do we place our heart on, what do we fall in love with?
In a conceptual sense it is the nature of reality, it is the law of karma and in a more emotional sense it is the Buddha or perhaps out teachers or archetypal forms of the Buddha such as Amitabha or Ratnasambhava or Green Tara. But the point is that if we are to let go of attachments, of clinging neurotically to possessions or people, we need to have an inner sense of richness and abundance and this inner richness and abundance arises from our shraddha our confidence, trust or faith in something or someone far greater than our own limited ego sense. Without this heartfelt response to something higher, something that transcends us, something greater than us – without that it is not really possible or even desirable to try to let go of our attachments, because we will be letting go into an impoverished space.

It may be that to begin with we only have a vague intuition of something, a glimpse of something more to life, and that we have to take a leap – a leap of faith – into practising meditation and ethics and studying the Dharma and listening to talks and by doing this our confidence grows stronger because we start to see more clearly that the Dharma works and that there is more depth and profundity to it that we had ever realised.

For instance, if we reflect on our actions – of body , speech and mind – and reflect on the consequences of our actions, then in time we can gain greater trust and confidence in the law of karma. We will see that we can rely on it. We can feel secure that our actions do have consequences, that skilful actions have positive consequences and unskilful actions have negative consequences. And that can lead us to feel secure that by giving we ourselves will benefit greatly.

Whether our faith, our confidence in the Buddha and his teaching is a strong and immediate force in our lives or whether it is something we have to work at to develop over time, it is the source of the energy, emotion and passion which we need in order to feel an inner abundance, an inner wealth, and which will motivate us to practice a generosity of spirit in all our relationships both with ourselves and with others.

In this talk I have deliberately not tried to be very practical. I have not talked about what we can give, to whom we can give, or how to give. I want to leave it to you to work out what it all means in practical terms – what you could do. I will be content if some of you are inspired by the vision of dana and caga – the practice of giving and the quality of generosity.

In the little promotional paragraph for this talk which I wrote for the Cambridge Buddhist Centre website I said:
"Giving benefits the giver most and the greatest benefit is freedom. When we move outwards from our self-island in acts of generosity we touch the lives and hearts of others. The connections we make in this touching of lives and hearts form the basis of true security and free us from the need to build a citadel of self-protection. We can free ourselves from our sense of isolation and insecurity through the counter intuitive practice of dismantling the walls we hide behind."

I hope many of you have already started to dismantle those walls and are well on the way to experiencing the freedom of giving.