‘Dana’ – The Economy of the Heart

Dr. Stephen Fulder


Dana,  in the Pali language of ancient Buddhism, means generosity or giving. It is a crucial human quality which is of  great significance and importance in Buddhist spiritual practice. It is a corner stone of practice in the East. When young Thais first  enter monasteries to become monks, they are generally not started off with  meditation instructions. Instead they usually spend much time in serving and giving to others. It is seen as an essential purification of the inner landscape, a reduction in self-importance, and so  a powerful force for success in subsequent meditation practices.


Dana is not just about money. It is the process of giving self to others. It is about opening the heart to listen to and feel what the other needs, and giving accordingly. It may be  money, but it may be food or teachings, it may be giving attention or respect, often gifts worth far more than money. It may be the gift of giving your time to another, whether a mother who devotes herself completely to her child, night and day, when it is convenient or when it is not, or a carer helping a patient. It can be quite subtle. For example we have a tendency to put those  close to us under pressure, criticise them  or put them down. Dana may be the gift of space and freedom to others to be themselves, the gift of our friendliness and sympathy instead of our negativity. There is a story in the ancient Jewish texts about this. It is asked why of all the people only Noah was saved from the flood. The answer is that all died in the flood because they thought primarily of themselves. Noah was the only one that not only had the generosity to want to feed all the animals but the wisdom to understand what each animal needed.


But dana is of course often about money, food or gifts, and this is extremely strong in Buddhism. You can go to a monastery or meditation centre in Burma, stay for a year, and no-one will ask you for money. The local  people maintain the monks with dana of food, one of the main practices in traditional Buddhist communities. The monks give in turn the dana of teachings, healing and pastoral care. Behind this is the principle that spiritual teachings are the birthright of all of us. They cannot be bought and sold. Their value is beyond money. Give to Caesar what is Caesars, in the consumer marketplace all can be  bought and sold, except this. Leave the spiritual life out of the field of bargaining. No-one is going to make a profit out of your spiritual thirst.  Some of us may wish that all spiritual teachings were as pure and clean  around the issue of money. Spiritual teachers that drain their students of money should learn the principle of dana.


There is a lot more to it than moral integrity. Dana is a movement in the soul, in the atmosphere and in the community that is felt as ease, sweetness and lack of pressure. It is emphasised again and again that dana is an aid to seeing the world in terms of being rather than having. And as this movement is the basis of spiritual realization, dana is a direct aid to awakening. It creates joy and release while  the constant tendency to want more, to be unsatisfied with what we have, creates suffering. As the Dalai Lama once said: ‘It is so much more joyful to give to others than give to yourself because there are more of them’.


For these reasons, dana has now become the operating principle in the Vipassana Insight Meditation) retreats run by Amutat Tovana in Israel. Just as the course  gave dana to you, in terms of teachings, accommodation, care and support, so you can give dana to the course. At the end of the retreats there are two boxes, one for the course expenses and one for the teacher. You will be invited to donate and the dana system will be explained. And the rest is up to you. The trust and ease this generates in the retreats is deep and palpable. It is described as an alternative economy, the economy of the heart, in which everyone gives according to their means and their heart, rather than according to a fixed price. It has had the surprising result that many young people, students, or those in the army, now join the retreats, and the average age of participants is going down, whereas in other places where there is a fixed charge for residential accommodation, the average age goes up, as only those established financially can afford it. Does it work? It just about works. The courses more or less cover themselves. The Amuta finds the problem is often one of educating people to this different economy. Coming from a life in which everyone is busy trying the get the most out of each other, some people are confused: it is strange, almost too good to be true: ‘There must be a catch!’ There is no catch. It is dana.


But dana goes deeper than all that. In the dharma or teachings of the Buddha, dana is clearly  experienced as an operating principle of the universe itself. The sun gives to the tree, the tree gives its leaves to the earth, the earth gives its nutrients to the tree. The whole of existence is one great ecology in which all things give to all other things, and take from all other things, in which everything, all life, is  a web of total interrelationships. Nothing is held back. We cannot imagine the tree saying to itself, I want to hold on to my leaves and not let them drop to the earth, I want more of them. We consume and in the end are consumed. Money is an example or a symbol, or an icon of this. Its nature is circulation, exchange, flow, like water. It passes from one to another making things happen on the way. But in the end no-one can take it with them and it must be given away whether you like it or not. The dana principle is a  life perspective rather than a self-perspective. The insecure human self often does not see this flow of giving and is under the painful illusion that  he can hold on, grasp at things, accumulate things. This is a stopping of  the flow of life, a kind of death. The Greek myth of King Midas illustrates this. King Midas was obsessed by gold. He prayed to the Gods that all things that he touched should turn to gold. The Gods granted his wish, but of course everything he touched became dead gold, including his own daughters.


Practicing dana, therefore,  is not just the practice of giving. It is the uncovering and realizing with total clarity and conviction, an essential truth of life. As we know it in our being we live it. And living in the flow of dana is a joyful awakening.