Dana: Meaning of Giving

by Rev. Ken Yamada

In these tough times, giving to others is more important than ever. Buddhism teaches “dana” or charity—helping others. Today, wearing a mask to prevent the Covid-19 virus from spreading may be considered “dana,” because we’re helping to protect others. Yet, people don’t wear masks, thinking first about themselves and personal freedom. 

These self-centered thoughts are natural. Everyone tends to think in “conditional” terms, meaning we’ll do something depending on the conditions. Usually that means “What’s in it for me?”  Even when trying to “do the right thing,” that selfish feeling still is deep down inside. It’s hard to be charitable “unconditionally.”

For example, while driving, then stopping at a crosswalk for a pedestrian, if the person doesn’t acknowledge me, I sometimes think, “Hey, where’s my thank you wave?” Even for a little act of kindness, I want to be acknowledged.

Especially in our society, it’s important to get a return on investment, to make every dollar count, to get something for your money. That’s how we’re taught to think and that’s the capitalist way.

This makes sense and we’d have a tough time if we thought otherwise. But this attitude tends to seep into other aspects of life, even when trying to help others, which sometimes makes us think we’re giving up too much, or maybe expending energy on something that doesn’t much affect me or is unnecessary to my personal happiness.

Consequently, we don’t give of ourselves, we abandon responsibility, lose patience with people, sever relationships, and retreat into thoughts of self-righteousness—all for what we believe are good reasons.

At its root, the Buddha understood this way of thinking as self-centered. Judging the world by how it affects me, and whether it benefits or hurts me. This view is one-sided and blind to the value and connection to the world around us. This narrow view, which the Buddha called “ignorance,” ultimately causes us suffering.

This ignorant view is unable to see how our lives are created by innumerable causes and conditions, which flow together beyond any power of my own. “I” live because I was somehow born on this earth, which was created through infinite karmic conditions, fed and nurtured by a world filled by life created by a power beyond myself.

To paraphrase the thoughts of Shinshu thinker Daiei Kaneko, we see ourselves as “I” and see other people as “others.” We think “I” is most important, but there is no “I” without “others.” To see oneself in “others” is to truly see who “I” am.

To feel a sense of this truth, try a simple mental exercise which I heard about based on Naikan mental health therapy, which sprung from Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. From your birth to age five, think of all the people who helped you live during that time. For starters, there are doctors, nurses, diaper washers, baby food makers, diary farmers, clothing makers, nannies, babysitters, toy makers and teachers. Of course, parents, and probably most importantly, your mother, who changed your diaper an estimated 3,500 to 5,000 times!

We have been receiving all along. All of these causes, conditions and karmic connections have given us life, yet it’s so easy to get lost in the belief that what “I” think is the most important. Great spiritual awakening lies in flipping our perception from this self-centered view, to the view that encompasses all of life as One.

In catching a glimpse of this truth, our thinking begins to change, our perception starts to turn, and rather than ask, “What’s in it for me,” we start to wonder, “What can I do to help this world? What can I do in appreciation of all the people and things in this world that have given me life?”

At this point, I believe that we truly begin to practice “dana” (pronounced “Donna,” like the girl’s name), the act of charity and giving. We stop asking, “What will I get for my money and efforts?” or “What’s in it for me?” Rather, in our small way, we humbly try to express our appreciation and gratitude through our words, actions and offerings, for the great compassion that has filled our lives all along, This is the meaning of “dana,” the bodhisattva practice of giving, which springs inwardly within us.

This holiday season and beyond, let us try to help others, knowing that we’ve been given the gift of life. We all need to work towards the greater good of preventing the spread of Covid-19. That means sacrificing some of our personal desires like getting together with friends, visiting family and doing many of the things we want but shouldn’t.  Wear a mask, practice social distancing, stay within your family “bubble.” Support your local businesses, and even, tip a little more. Think of these sacrifices as a form of dana, a way of giving that goes beyond our selves. After all, Life (with a capital “L”) means we’re all in this together.


-Rev. Yamada is editor at Shinshu Center of America