In Buddhism, giving is a big deal. It’s one of the six (or ten) paramitas, or perfections; in my own tradition of Soto Zen, it’s one of the four approaches that a bodhisattva internalizes to do their work in the world (and a bodhisattva is basically defined by an attitude of generosity already). The traditional term for giving is dana, but many of us probably encounter that in terms of donations—a dana box at the entrance of the dharma center, or a request for dana when a teacher visits. That’s an important part of giving, but really, it has no limit.
In the Jataka tales, which chronicle the Buddha’s lives before he was a buddha, we hear incredible stories of offering; in one, he even feeds himself to a starving tigress so she can feed her young. And the image of a bodhisattva is of someone who dedicates every ounce of energy, over countless lifetimes, to liberate all beings. The message, over and over, is to give without limit.
Recently I was engaged in a conversation about this ideal of giving completely, and the question that arose, for lots of people, was this: How much is too much? One person told a story of getting very involved in a charity organization and donating so much that it put her at financial risk. Others talked about resources like time and energy—there’s no limit to how much others might benefit from our time or our energy, but we benefit from them as well. It can feel as if we’re giving away more than we can afford.
I don’t think there’s a simple answer here, no easy metric for determining how much is too much. On one hand, there are beautiful, poetic teachings that even just making an offering of a flower on a rock in the woods is more than enough, a complete act of giving. We should pay attention to that. And there’s also the reality around us, that no matter how much we give, there is still a need—through that lens, it can never be enough.
One of the first books I ever read by Thich Nhat Hanh included a letter to a young father who loved his child but felt he was losing all his time to parenting. Thich Nhat Hanh told the father to move beyond his idea of “my time” versus “my child’s time”—he said, it’s all your time.
This is an important piece of the puzzle. It feels counterintuitive, but we can’t truly offer something that we think of as “mine.” I recall a friend handing me a book from his bookshelf, one he was sure I would really love, and saying, “Here—this is really yours.” All real giving—that is, giving without an agenda, giving that isn’t secretly transactional—has that same quality. This isn’t really mine.
We can practice that. We can look around and notice what we think should be someone else’s and make it so. We can notice what we think is ours and ask ourselves why. We can get better at changing that narrative.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story, either. I’ve heard people say that spiritual energy is infinite, and maybe that’s true, but energy-energy isn’t. Money isn’t. Time isn’t. And after more than a year of pandemic life, people are acutely aware of how close they are to a dangerous edge, in any or all of those categories. Burnout is real, and for many, it’s imminent—or already reality. Part of the suffering of that is the knowledge that you can’t give as much as you want to, or as much as you used, or as much as you think you’re supposed to.
Like almost everything in this practice, I think we end up at a conclusion that is really simple, and also really, really hard: just don’t delude yourself. When you’re in a position to give, don’t convince yourself that you aren’t, out of greed or self-protection. When you’re not in that position—when giving puts you at risk—don’t convince yourself that you have no limits, in search of a spiritual ideal.
Maybe, navigating between these two, things shift, and you find you have ways of giving you didn’t know about. Maybe there’s a flower in the woods you can offer on a rock. Try that. Maybe, in this moment, that’s enough.
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 Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.