25. To practice generosity
If, wishing to attain awakening, / I need to give even my body up,
Then doesn’t it go also without saying / that this applies to mere external stuff?
Without hope for reward or benefit / to generously give away a gift:
This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
verse 25 audio above
Note: The whole translation to date (verses 1-26) is now posted as a pdf file under “The 37 practices translation” at the top of this page.
Entering the home stretch: With verse 25, Tokme Zangpo introduces the six paramitas, the heart of action bodhicitta. These are the transcending actions we engage in that propel our boat, the precious human existence, to the shore of full awakening. The first five of these actions–generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyful effort, and meditation — are also ordinary virtues through which we benefit ourselves and others.
When we apply the sixth transcending action, the wisdom that realizes emptiness, to the first five paramitas, that is what makes these virtues transcending actions that also directly help us awaken. This wisdom is the same as ultimate bodhicitta, the nature of mind, which we have already studied in 23-24.
In Transforming the Heart, Geshe Jampa Tegchok points out that verse 25 also begins the third and final section of the 37 practices, which he calls the bodhisattva trainings. As enumerated in the textual outline in Dilgo Khyentse’s The Heart of Compassion (pages 39-42, a handy resource not to be forgotten!), these are: the six paramitas (verses 25-30), the four instructions taught in the sutras (verses 31-34), how to abandon the negative emotions (35), how to benefit others through mindfulness and vigilance (36), and dedicating the merit (37).
So we are in the home stretch of our journey through the 37 practices of a bodhisattva as taught by the 14th-century Tibetan monk Togme Zangpo. But as we have discussed in class, all 37 practices are continuous practices. The only way to travel the path all the way to the end and arrive at the shore of full awakening is to bring each component of the path to full fruition, from the preliminary practices through the development of love and compassion (relative bodhicitta) through realization of the nature of mind (ultimate bodhicitta) through the practices we are embarking on now, the bodhisattva trainings. We must thus engage in all the practices simultaneously and never lose sight of any of them, going back again and again to refresh our understanding of each verse (this is where memorization comes in really handy).
From the commentaries: Dilgo Khyentse begins his commentary by noting, “Generosity is the natural expression of a bodhisattva’s altruistic mind, free from attachment.” This is an important point! Once we truly and directly realize the emptiness of all phenomena (verses 22-24), we become an authentic, official bodhisattva, as opposed to our current (also excellent) state of aspiration and training. That point on the path is clearly defined in the Buddhist literature: the path to awakening is divided into five sub-paths (aka the five paths), and when we reach the third path, the path of seeing, i.e., when we directly realize emptiness through our own experience, that is where the first of the ten bodhisattva bhumis, or levels of development, begins. (For more on this, read chapters 18 and 19 in Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation.)
An authentic bodhisattva with a deep understanding of emptiness can give away his or her own body without hesitation to help another being, as the verse says we must eventually be able to do in order to be fully awake. There are many stories of such sacrifices, such as the Buddha’s previous lifetime in which he gave his own body to feed a starving tigress, so she could feed her cubs. (Ken McLeod begins his commentary with this story.)
Because at our level of training we have not yet directly realized emptiness and understood its full implications, we are instructed not to consider making such a sacrifice, because we couldn’t give away our body — or, most likely, even endure a minor injury — without attachment and anguish. (This could perhaps be a litmus test, in case we wonder how awakened we are.)
Even now, though, according to Geshe Jampa Tegchok, we can practice “giving our body” by using it to serve others. How hard even that is sometimes, when we would much rather be doing something else!
The three types of generosity: We can also freely practice the three types of generosity that will not only benefit others but also help lead us to direct realization of emptiness when integrated with transcendent wisdom: 1) giving material things (what the verse encourages us to do as bodhisattvas in training); 2) giving freedom from fear, which is traditionally defined as saving lives, and can also be interpreted as caring for and supporting those who are in distress of any kind; and 3) giving the dharma.
With regard to giving the dharma, proselytizing is of course discouraged in Buddhism, but Geshe Jampa Tegchok suggests we can help non-Buddhists open up their perspective, when needed, without using Buddhist words and terminology, and we can also recite prayers and mantras for them and for animals and other beings.
When we do share or teach the dharma, Geshe Jampa Tegchok emphasizes the importance of doing this in a completely genuine way, without the taint of worldly motivations (this will be further addressed in verse 26): “We must take care not to wish for money, appreciation, or reputation in return for teaching the dharma.”
“Never hope for anything in return for an act of generosity,” Dilgo Khyentse instructs us, per line 3 of the verse; nor, he says, should we engage in generosity with the idea of karmic rewards in future lifetimes. “Generosity is complete in itself; there is no need for any other reward than having made others happy.” Or, as embedded in our own culture in the words of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)
Generosity and emptiness: What does it mean to integrate the paramita of generosity with the paramita of wisdom, so that it becomes a direct cause of awakening? Dilgo Khyentse explains, “Transcendent generosity is generosity that is free from the three limiting concepts [aka, the three spheres, aka triplicity], that is, attachment to there being any substantial reality of a person giving, a recipient, and an act of giving.” Or, as he also says, reflecting the verses on ultimate bodhicitta, “Recognizing all possessions to be like dreams or magical illusions, give them away as offerings or as charity without holding back.”
Pema Chodron expressed the same idea in these words: “Generosity is to give with no hope of return, letting go of any fixation; without an idea of yourself as a generous person, the act of generosity as a noble thing, these kinds of frozen ideas . . . So you’re working with the grasping mind. Outwardly, it looks no different from outer generosity, but you let it stretch you, opening the heart and mind wider and wider.”
And Ken McLeod offers a way to make material generosity an intentional daily practice and to integrate it with wisdom on the spot: “Once a day, give something you own to someone else. You may give a paper clip or a flower, but the object has to be physical and it has to be yours . . . . Do not make a big deal of it . . . . Do not tell anyone that you are doing this practice . . . . Every day, when you give your object, open to the whole experience and ask, ‘Who gives?’ Do not answer the question. do not think about it. Just ask the question.”
The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.
Next practice: Verse 26: to guard moral discipline
The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)