Dana (Sanskrit and Pali) means “generosity” or “giving.” In Buddhism, it also refers to the practice of cultivating generosity. Ultimately, the practice culminates in one of the Six Perfections, the Perfection of Giving, which can be characterized by unattached and unconditional generosity, giving and letting go. The following excerpts are from an inspiring essay on generosity, “No Strings Attached: The Buddha’s Culture of Generosity,” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
“It’s well known that dana lies at the beginning of Buddhist practice. Dana, quite literally, has kept the Dhamma alive. If it weren’t for the Indian tradition of giving to mendicants, the Buddha would never have had the opportunity to explore and find the path to Awakening. The monastic sangha wouldn’t have had the time and opportunity to follow his way. Dana is the first teaching in the graduated discourse: the list of topics the Buddha used to lead listeners step-by-step to an appreciation of the four noble truths, and often from there to their own first taste of Awakening. When stating the basic principles of karma, he would begin with the statement, ‘There is what is given.'”
“[The] Buddha, in his introduction to the teaching on karma, began by saying that there is what is given… Giving does give results both now and on into the future, and it is the result of the donor’s free choice. However, …the Buddha took the principle of freedom one step further. When asked where a gift should be given, he stated simply, “Wherever the mind feels inspired.” In other words—aside from repaying one’s debt to one’s parents—there is no obligation to give. This means that the choice to give is an act of true freedom, and thus the perfect place to start the path to total release.”
“On retreats, dana could be discussed in a general way, in the context of the many Dhamma talks given on how best to integrate Dhamma practice in daily life. At the end of the retreat, a basket could be left out for donations, with a note that the teacher hasn’t been paid to teach the retreat. That’s all. No appeals for mercy. No flashcards. Sensitive retreatants will be able to put two and two together, and will feel glad, inspired, and gratified that they were trusted to do the math for themselves.”
“No Strings Attached: The Buddha’s Culture of Generosity,” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, November 22, 2009.