Sila – morality; Nekkhama – Renunciation; Viriya – Effort; Panna – Wisdom; Khanti – Patience, tolerance; Sacca – Truth; Adhitthana – Strong Determination; Metta – Loving Kindness; Upekkha – Equnimity; Dana – Generosity, donation

Just reading back on the Sanskrit definitions from my Vipassana course.  Its dana that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.  Perhaps it was triggered by the course itself.  About half way through you realise there’s a reason everything’s free.  Accommodation, food, water, cleaning materials.  You get annoyed about something, and find yourself thinking…”I AM paying for….” and then you have to catch yourself.  No I’m not.  I’m living off the charity and generosity of others, and in that second you relinquish a huge part of your ego.

Where does this sense of I deserve this and that, and I’m owed this and that, and this isn’t good enough for me come from?  Its attachment.  Attachment to things, to people.  It’s part of our identity, our ego, how we see ourselves, and want to be presented to our peers.  Goenka made us laugh out loud when he said that despite us nodding our heads and feeling the resonance of everything he said regarding non-attachment, we’d leave the meditation hall and the first thing we’d think is “where are MY shoes???  Who’s taken MY shoes?  Some bastard’s taken MY shoes!”

It was a massively important lesson to me, to hand over all my belongings and valuables and be the recipient of charity for ten days.  I’ve worked in the charity sector for a long time, but it was always from the other side, and it felt like in that single moment, of identifying my own ego and its demands for things, for a certain standard of living, that I found a missing puzzle piece.

dana paramita – the perfection of giving – characterized by unattached and unconditional generosity, giving and letting go.

Having worked in the  sector for most of my adult life I’m fully aware of all the stigma that surrounds charity.  Giving freely doesn’t seem to be in our nature, or at least with all the ego and attachment we have, there’s very little space for it.  What came up painfully frequently in research was a general slant towards – I work fing hard for my money – so I’m blowed if I’m going to hand it over to some dread-locked hippy to get a bunch of Africans out of famine so they can just start another war with each other.

Then there’s the media, how much energy they put into broadcasting charity scandals, and how little into what good is being done all around the world.   Is it any wonder that so much of the fundraising and marketing you see has been on the defensive?  I’ve done the aggressive campaigny approach, arguing until I’m blue in the face and getting choked up in the face of staunch Conservatives.  And to what avail?  It was on the Vipassana course that I thought that if I resumed my career path in that field, then I would spend more time looking inwards.  With Sila, with khanti, with truth perhaps more good would come of it.

The Buddhist lady talked about this the other night when challenged about not making change.  Are these Buddhist values and practices merely a good coping mechanism?  How is sitting on a cushion and meditating going to change the world?

Her answer?  She told us a story…

3rd Century Indian King – Blood thirsty – killed lots of people  – and then after a battle he went and saw all the slaughter – the mangled bodies, all that death, and he was overcome by what he’d done.  And then he saw a monk.  So contained and at peace with himself, was this monk, that the King became a Buddhist – a Buddhist Emperor.  She turned the story back to the monk at the very end.  To that single monk, who never said a word…did he have any idea how many lives he saved by simply being?  It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

It made me think of more recent times – the Saffron Revolution in 2007.  How breathtakingly powerful a peaceful protest can be.

On a much smaller scale, I thought of my first shift in the Oxfam Bookshop, when I asked one of the volunteers why he, well, volunteered.  He was quite a few years younger than me, and had a contiguously sunny disposition.   “You obviously enjoy it!”  I said, and he, beaming back, told me he’d been volunteering for 4 years, and for him it was just nice to switch his mind off for a bit and serve others.

Such simplicity, such honesty – what a hero.  I’ve carried that with me ever since as a modern-day example of “dana paramita”.

Working in head office, behind that computer all day, I think I lost sight of that.  Or at least, I had to work so hard to remind myself that there was very little unconditional giving in me left…and I could feel it…every time a “sponsor me” form came round, I’d try to pretend I hadn’t seen it, or fob them off…after pay day, after pay day…yet standing behind the counter, participating in the most basic of transactions, “1.99 please” for a weathered paper-back someone kindly dropped by the front door a couple of weeks ago, and there’s this immediate sense of comradery, of good.  They’re happy.  They have a book, and the money’s going to a good cause.  I’m happy.  I managed to work the till without fucking it up, and yes…that £1.99 is going towards something good.  There’s something so enriching about that…its what separates the charity bookshops, from Waterstones and Borders….and perhaps, just perhaps, giving is in our nature after all, and that exercise of panna, of dana, of metta – is one of the reasons they’re still holding strong against this formidable recession.

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