Small things that benefit others.

Small things, literally, that benefit others.

Yesterday, Saturday the 30th, I ventured out here in Taipei to find the main temple and office building of the Taiwan-branch of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, which is the parent organization of, among many other monasteries, the City of 10,000 Buddhas in California. I have known some of the monastics in this organization for a number of years (see this post, for example). They had given me the address of their temple/office here in Taipei back in early June, and finally had time to pay their temple a visit.

On my way there, I walked through a very small but lovely little park along the side of a fairly busy street. I came across a small side path off of the main walking area that contains thousands of individually-placed oval-shaped rocks pointed upwards (see the photo above.)

For those who haven’t seen such a path before, it is designed for a person to walk over in socked- or bare-feet, and receive reflexology in doing so. Such paths are quite common in Chinese and Taiwanese cities, often in parks, and I have seen a number here already. However, I was very impressed with this one, not only because I was extremely happy to see it (it does wonders for aching and sore feet, as agonizingly painful as it can be), but I was also quite moved by the simple beauty of it even being there. There is no other purpose for all the effort and lovely design except to benefit others. A quiet and generous gift for passers-by.

This experience has been one of many that has helped shape some on-going reflections on the nature and practice of generosity. I have toyed in recent weeks with the idea about sharing a post describing many of the numerous and touching acts of generosity I’ve seen (and experienced) since being here in Taiwan. However, I can’t quite seem to pull it together, largely because, as a monk, I’ve been on the receiving end of many of them, and I’m not interested in talking about this from that perspective. Instead, this post has some general reflections gleaned from some of these recent experiences.

Though it may not be a very precise definition, lacking the overrated qualities of clarity and certainty, generosity may be thought of as anything that benefits others, either intentionally or unintentionally. One definition of generosity I came across says that it is “freedom from meanness or smallness of mind.” To me, this points out the possibility that anything we do that comes from a mind unfettered by smallness or self-centeredness can be considered generous, both to ourselves as well as to others. And, in turn, anything done by others that is also freed from the traps of self-infatuation is also generous. Seeing how such actions by others are generous is, in turn, being generous towards them by being grateful for what they have done….or by what they have not done, as the case may be.

Generosity, then, can be understood as having very little to do with giving some “thing,” but rather letting something go instead; letting go of a focus on ourselves, really. Everything can been seen as an act of, a product of, as well as a potential cause for, generosity. Patience, humility, kindness, gratitude, listening….these all can be deeply generous acts, largely by letting go of our need for self-protection or self-interest. Through this letting go, we often can see infinite opportunities to practice generosity to ourselves and to others all around us.

If this is the case, that being generous is more than what it is usually taken to be, then generosity is much more present, subtle, and achievable in our normal, everyday lives, especially once we begin to learn how to look for it. We can even begin to see what people don’t do as being generous: they don’t stand in my way walking down the street, they don’t interrupt, they don’t say harsh words, etc. And even the generosity of the stairs in supporting you, the cup for holding the water, the wind for cooling the body, the computer for doing what computers do, etc. (Though you can take such reflections to extremes and miss the point, I do not mean to be facetious here.)

According to Buddhism, when we are generous we actually give two gifts: one to “the receiver”, and one to ourselves. This second gift, according to the law of karma, is given when we are generous, and it ripens (i.e. gives back to us) in a future state of mind characterized by “non-regret,” which often includes calmness, gratitude, happiness, and/or a peaceful and focused mind.

Even empathetic feelings, identifying with others’ conditions or circumstances, can be seen as an act of generosity. I recently had a visceral experience of this. Riding a city bus in Taipei to class the other day, we stopped at a red light. I looked across the street and saw a man behind the wheel snoozing in a parked delivery truck. For some reason, I was deeply struck by a feeling of profound similarity and kinship with him. Though our circumstances are drastically different, he has a body that gets tired, and I have a body that gets tired; his body needs food, and so does mine; he wishes for happiness, and I wish for happiness; etc. This sounds a bit prosaic and simplistic now, but at the time I was deeply moved by the feelings engendered, and a strong desire arose to be “generous” to others, as fundamentally, there is no-difference between myself and anyone or any being (無差別 wúchābié, if you remember from another post.)

Though this desire still persists a few days later, I don’t quite trust it, as it was created through an experience seeing someone I did not know from Adam. If, or when, such an experience arises from seeing someone I know all too well, or a close family member, then I may be more trusting in such things, for I know it is not fed by naivety and imagination. Absent such an insight, a desire to be generous stemming from our inherent non-separation can be cultivated in the mind in practice.

Taiwan is a very generous society in general, with a tremendous amount of support for non-profit, religious, and relief efforts (for example, Taiwan gave more funds than any other country to Japan after the March 11th Tsunami.) And, as I mentioned before, monastics are often on the receiving end of very overt acts of generosity, many of which are quite spontaneous sometimes: offers of food, a meal, assistance, financial support, etc. For me personally, I never feel comfortable when people offer things to me as a monk, and I remind myself that it is the Dharma they are giving to, and it is the person giving who really receives a precious gift when they give in such a way.

To end this post, then, I would like to encourage myself, and others who have read this far, that, by just focusing on material giving as the defining quality of generosity, I think we may miss the pervasive and truly beautiful nature of giving that is all around us. My responsibility, our responsibility, as Master Sheng-yen has said, is to recognize our blessings, cherish our blessings, nurturing our blessings, and plant new seeds for future blessings, thereby learning how to be grateful for all things that allow this life, and this “experiment in truth,” to continue moving towards fulfillment and completion.

As always, thank you for reading and I hope you are well.