Dana, or generosity, has been said to be the basic Buddhist virtue from which all other virtues (paramitas) arise. It refers not so much to actual giving, but to generating a feeling of wanting to give; then allowing that feeling to be expressed through the gift. Dana can be expressed many ways, including time, labor, attention, money, material items, intentions, and metta prayers.
Unlike some Western ideas of giving, where one expects something back in return, Dana is energy freed from the constraints of selfishness. As expressed by Roshi Bernie Glassman:
“Shakyamuni Buddha and his monks and nuns based their survival—day-to-day food, clothing and shelter—on the layperson’s giving practice, dana. Today in our Western Buddhist world, we give generously to our own places of practice. We help support the center or temple, the teacher, and the sangha, and in return we get retreats, scheduled meditation, teachings, and a Buddhist community…Regardless of our resources, I think our generosity should benefit ourselves and our family, our dharma center or temple, and the world. This will really expand our hearts and practice from self-concern to Self-concern, and serve all beings.”
—Tricycle Magazine Spring, 2010 p. 55
With its attention on the motivation of the giver, Buddhist dana practice works to disarm selfish tendencies and unleash compassionate energy, allowing our hearts to expand and connect with others.