If you visit a Buddhist centre, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter the word dana. Maybe it will be written on a box in the entryway, or maybe it will come up at the end of a retreat, in the form of a reminder. It’s important. Dana is one of the six paramitas, or perfections, so it has a central place in the tradition—but more than that, it kind of makes the world go round.
Dana, simply put, is the practice of generosity, but there’s more to dana than what we usually imagine as being generous. Traditionally, dana has three (or maybe four) levels. The first is what is meant by the offering box in the entryway: the giving of resources. We most often hear it in the context of supporting the dharma, but really, dana is any kind of giving of what you have, so if you buy someone coffee or contribute to a campaign, that’s dana. If you give someone a ride to the airport, that’s also dana. A kind word, a smile, your time, your attention—all dana.
When we say there are three levels, this next one doesn’t appear, but I learned there were four levels—in that system, we arrive next at the level of protection. Protection is broad in its scope. It might mean shielding someone from immediate harm; it might take the form of action to prevent climate change. The first two levels are different shapes of renunciation—the first involves giving something away directly, while the second is about being willing to give something up in service of saving someone, or something, else. Maybe it’s your physical safety, or your life. Or maybe, as with climate change, it’s the convenience of the lifestyle you currently enjoy. Protection can be a hard, precisely because you may not see the fruits of your generosity in real time. Protection, unless you’re pulling someone away from an oncoming bus, often involves an act of faith.
The third level of generosity is fearlessness. This is where it gets interesting. If you were asked to list different types of generosity, you’d come up with the first two on your own, but fearlessness? Probably not. It makes sense, though, if we understand that behind this list is the teaching that it’s sequential—you can’t practice protection, for example, if you aren’t already practicing that first simple level of material giving. You can’t jump the line—one builds on the next.
When we give away what we think is ours, we start to relax our fear of losing it; when we take up the practice of protection, we lose some of our fear of losing ourselves. Fearlessness, then, becomes just another word for nothing left to lose. In this framework, fearlessness isn’t something we choose or even imitate—it’s something we cultivate through basic acts of generosity, of offering, of loosening our grasp on those things we feel, at least at first, we can’t do without. We give the gift of our own fearless action, and we also give the gift of demonstrating that fearlessness is possible in a world where it too often feels like an impossible goal.
All this leads to the gift of the dharma itself. It isn’t very helpful, perhaps, to try to nail down what that looks like. It’s pretty big. But there are some takeaways. One is that, in the same way protection follows giving, and fearlessness follows protection, there is a straight line between fearlessness and the dharma. That’s worth investigating. Another is that when we look at teachers, those entrusted with sharing and transmitting and embodying the dharma, we can ask, “Are they generous?” Do they give their time? Do they risk something for the benefit of others? Can we see in them—maybe not all the time, but at least sometimes—a fearlessness that looks like generosity? If you’re looking for a teacher, this isn’t a bad starting point.
There’s a more important takeaway, though, one that doesn’t require that kind of discernment: give. If you’re on this path, however you frame that, then giving is not optional. Smile at a stranger. Sit with someone who is struggling. Share what you can.
Just start there. Everything starts from there.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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