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Far-reaching generosity and ethical conduct

The first two of the six perfections are generosity and ethical conduct. Part of a series of teachings on The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, a lamrim text by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, the first Panchen Lama.

  • The far-reaching practice of generosity is not just ordinary giving
  • Cultivating the three types of generosity
  • Looking at the mind of attachment that makes giving difficult
  • The three kinds of ethical conduct
  • The four doors through which we create transgessions of our precepts and the antidotes to these

Easy Path 48: Generosity and ethical conduct (download)

While imagining the guru Buddha on the crown of your head, make requests for the sake of all mother sentient beings:

May I quickly attain complete and perfect Buddhahood. For that purpose, may I correctly train in the three kinds of generosity: 

One, giving the Dharma by explaining the perfect teaching as well as I can to all sentient beings deprived of the teaching, without taking into consideration personal gain, honor, reputation, and the like. 

Two, giving fearlessness by protecting frightened sentient beings from the harm inflicted by humans, nonhumans, the elements, and so forth. 

Three, giving materially by providing whatever is appropriate to poor and deprived sentient beings, overcoming miserliness, hope for reward, and for maturation effects. 

In brief, for the sake of all mother sentient beings, may I quickly attain complete and perfect Buddhahood. For that purpose, may I give my body, belongings, and virtues to all sentient beings without stinginess. Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so. 

In response to requesting the guru Buddha, five-colored light and nectar stream from all parts of his body into you through the crown of your head. The light and nectar absorb into your body and mind, and, because there is a Buddha on the crown of all the sentient beings around you, the light and nectar also absorbs into their bodies and minds. The light and nectar purify all negativities and obscurations accumulated since beginningless time, and it especially purifies all illnesses, spirit interferences, negativities, and obscurations that interfere with correctly training in the practice of the three kinds of generosity. 

Your body becomes translucent, the nature of light. All your good qualities, lifespan, merit, and so forth expand and increase. Think in particular that a superior realization of correct training in the practice of the three kinds of generosity has arisen in your mindstream and in the mindstreams of others. The practice of generosity consists of developing the intention to give, so really feel that you have that strong, very pure intention, without expecting or wanting anything in return, and think that this is the case for all the sentient beings around you as well.

Path of generosity

As the text said, the practice of generosity is the wish to give. It doesn’t mean that we have to be able to fulfill the needs of each and every sentient being. That isn’t possible, but having the wish to give and the wish to do so is possible. Developing that wish enables us to be generous when the situation is in front of us and we’re able to. 

Here we’re talking about the bodhisattvas’ practice of generosity, far-reaching generosity, the perfection of generosity. That isn’t just plain old giving, but it’s giving that has two special conditions. One is that it’s motivated by bodhicitta, which is the aspiration to attain full awakening for the benefit of all beings. Second, it is sealed by some awareness of the emptiness of ourselves as the person who is giving, the emptiness of the recipient, and the emptiness of the act of giving of the gift itself—that all these things exist dependent on one another and therefore, they lack independent or inherent existence. So, these two factors—the bodhicitta motivation and the wisdom realizing emptiness, the ultimate nature—when those are combined with giving, then it becomes the perfection of giving or the far-reaching practice of giving.

In regular life, giving is something appreciated by all people and even animals, whether people are religious or not religious, or secular, or whatever faith they belong to. Everybody you talk to says giving and sharing—generosity, in other words—is a good practice. We all say that generosity is good, but, actually, being generous is another thing. Sometimes we have a lot of ifs, ands, and buts coming in with our practice of generosity, as mentioned in the verse that I recited here. For example, expecting something in return, e.g., we do something nice for somebody else and then they better be nice back to us, otherwise we’re not going to help them ever again. We expect a thank you. 

We expect maybe a good reputation out of it; if you’re a spiritual practitioner and you’re trying to accumulate merit for a good rebirth, but you are eagerly awaiting the result of your action of generosity in a future life as if there will be some kind of reward for you. Here, we’re talking about generosity without all those kinds of strings attached. It’s a free action of giving, and that’s much harder to do, isn’t it? Because, bottom line, people really should say “Thank you,” don’t you think? I mean, if they don’t say “Thank you,” they are so ungrateful. We never want to help them again if they don’t even say “Thank you.” So, you can see where our buttons get pushed.

How to practice giving materially

Let’s look at those three kinds of generosity again. In the text that I read, it started with the generosity of the Dharma and then the generosity of fearlessness and then the generosity of material aid. But, I’m going to do it in the reverse order now because material things—belongings or money or whatever—those things are the easiest things to give.

Clearly, if we gave everything away, we couldn’t survive. So, being generous doesn’t mean that we give everything away, but what we want to do is mentally dedicate everything to others. That really helps us, because if we think, “Okay, I’ve mentally given everything to others,” then when somebody comes and asks us for something, it’s easier to give it because we’ve already mentally given it. If you hesitate at that point, then you see there is a string attached. “I didn’t really give it.” Also, mentally giving everything to others, even though we don’t physically do it, is very helpful because then when we do use those given things, we think, “I’m using stuff that actually belongs to other people; therefore, I need to use it conscientiously and not waste it.” 

So, anything we use, instead of putting the word my on it, if we put the word theirs or yours or even ours on it, then it changes our relationship to the object. We aren’t so possessive of it, so it becomes easier to share, easier to give, and also, we’re more aware of the need to use it properly because, hopefully, we respect other people’s belongings. If we borrow something from someone else, we try to take exceptionally good care of it, even better care than we take of something that belongs to ourselves. Of course, not everyone is like that. They may think, “If I use something that belongs to somebody else, I can just do whatever I want because it’s not mine, and if it breaks—too bad.” 

But many of us feel the opposite, “Oh, if it doesn’t belong to me then I really have to be careful and use it wisely.” So, using our possessions with that kind of attitude is very helpful because then we don’t waste things, and especially in your family,  or in the monastery, or in your workplace, if you think these things belong to the group, then we feel, “They are not mine to do with what I want to. They belong to the group, so I have a responsibility to take care of them well and use them correctly.”

This can relate to our relationship with the environment and caring for the natural world. Instead of thinking, “Oh, nature is mine to exploit, and I have no responsibility for what happens,” think instead, “This belongs to others.” Maybe I have a little bit of ownership, but I’m only one person, and there are countless other sentient beings that this world belongs to, so I have to take care of it because it isn’t mine to misuse or abuse. It’s the property of others. I have to be careful in driving and not drive excessively, only when I need to and then carpool when I can, because that influences the environment that belongs to others. I need to recycle. I need to reuse things. I can’t have this attitude of just wasting stuff and not caring about it, because it affects the world which does not belong to me. It belongs to everybody. Are you ever aware of feeling like that when you get in the car and start driving? Or do we just get in the car and think, “Okay, I feel like going somewhere. Let’s go,” without thinking of the pollution that’s coming about because of it.

So, giving materially is the first type of generosity. It’s important, when we give materially, that we give only what is beneficial. We don’t give weapons. We don’t give poison. We don’t give drugs and alcohol. It’s not just generosity; it’s the generosity of certain types of things that are going to be beneficial for other beings. That’s quite important; otherwise, you could be bank-rolling Al-Qaeda and see yourself as a very generous person. That is not going to work; I’m sorry.

Sometimes in the Dharma, they talk of the higher level bodhisattvas giving their body. This is a practice that is actually done only when you’re ready to do it. When you read these stories of the great bodhisattvas who cut off their limbs or give their eyes, or whatever, don’t freak out and think, “Oh, I don’t have to do that when I’m still very attached to my body.” No. We do that practice when we’re ready to, when it’s comfortable, and when we can see that actually there is nothing about this body that’s ours. There is nothing particularly wonderful in this body that is worth being attached to, and we’re going to have to give up this body sometime or another anyway. When you have that kind of awareness then it becomes easier, and we can give the body. But not beforehand.

With possessions, we give what we’re able to, and, again, we do so without expecting anything in return or wanting something in return or counting what the person gives back to us, or counting how many times they tell people we’re so wonderful and generous. Just feel that the action of giving is the reward itself. It’s just plain delight in giving. It’s not giving to receive. It’s just giving. When we can give with that kind of attitude, then our heart is really quite open and quite free, isn’t it? When we have expectations, then giving isn’t quite as much fun. 

Make sure that the things you give are used in ways that create virtue and not used in nonvirtue virtuous ways. I think it’s wise when you’re giving to charities to make sure the charities are legal charities and that the funds that you give are used correctly. I think that’s just being responsible as a donor. Sometimes giving material things can be quite difficult. We like to think of ourselves as very generous, and we can imagine being generous. And imagining is good because it’s one step in the right direction. But often, when the rubber hits the road, the hand stays back here. 

I think I’ll tell you my maroon cashmere sweater story because it’s a good example of this. Well, I must say, before I even tell you that story, that when I was living in India many years ago, I didn’t have a whole lot of money. In fact, I had like $50 to my name and no ticket back to the West, so I was quite poor. When I would walk to the market to buy my groceries, I would pass these beggars. I knew all the beggars because they lived in the community. We all saw each other. They would ask for 25 paise, which in those days, was maybe a penny or two pennies, but I couldn’t bring myself to give that much because the mind was saying, “If I give, then I won’t have.” Do any of you have that mind that says, “If I give, then I won’t have?” We find it hard to clean out our basement or our closets because if I give something away then I won’t have it. 

I remember when I was living in Seattle and everybody had the assignment to clean out either one closet or one chest of drawers—not even the whole house, but just one area. Clean it out. Take out everything you don’t need anymore, and take it to the charity of your choice. Then the next week we met, and it was amazing. Some people didn’t even do the assignment. One lady, she was so funny, said, “I cleaned out this drawer, and I found this T-shirt from when I went to Mexico ten years ago, and I had totally forgotten I had it, but once I saw it, it reminded me of the trip, and I couldn’t bring myself to give it away.” 

This is such a good window into how our mind works. We’ve totally forgotten we have something. We don’t even care about it. If somebody stole it, we wouldn’t even notice it was gone, but once we see it, the attachment comes back in full force. Even though we haven’t used it in the last ten years, we can’t bear to separate from it. Do you have that situation? Bryan was telling me about cleaning out his old house a few weeks ago, and there was a pack rat in it, and then he said, “But I was a pack rat, too.” So, it was pack rat meets pack rat. And I imagine many of us are like that.

So, to go back to my maroon cashmere sweater story: if you’re a nun and you wear maroon, you come to see that maroon is not the color of choice at the department stores every year. In fact, you usually have to wait periods of several years in between getting something you need because, for many years, maroon is nowhere to be seen. I was in Japan, and some people there gave me a maroon cashmere sweater. It wasn’t just a maroon sweater, which is always nice and useful, but it was cashmere, so it was soft. I really liked that sweater, and I wore it a lot, and it was really comfy.

And then sometime around 1995, I went to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics to teach, and I was traveling with the translator, Igor. We arrived in Kiev, Ukraine in the morning, and we were going to take the train to Donetsk that evening. So, we had all day to spend in Kiev, and we didn’t know what to do. He said, “Let me call my friend, Sasha, and we’ll spend the day with her.” So, he called Sasha, and we went over to see her. She was in her early 20s in those days, I would say, and she didn’t have very much. Of course, Ukraine didn’t have very much in those days; it was right after the Soviets left. But we were guests, and so she treated us royally. She had saved some chocolate for a special occasion, and she took it out and gave it to us, and other different special goodies that she had been saving. 

We spent a very nice day with her, and then in the evening we were taking public transport into the city to the train station, and the idea popped into my head that I should give Sasha my maroon cashmere sweater. As soon as that idea came into my mind, another part of my mind said, “No way.” And then there began this little dialog: “Well, Sasha’s the same size as you. Give her the sweater. No! Sasha could really use it, she doesn’t have very much. That doesn’t matter—you need it too. Sasha just got done treating you so nicely. It would be nice to reciprocate her kindness. Absolutely not! You are keeping this sweater.” 

The whole way to the train station, Sasha and Igor are chatting, and I’m having a civil war going on inside of me. We were near the station, and my mind is still arguing: “Chodron, give Sasha the sweater. No! It’s in the suitcase. Well, you can take it out. No, you can’t. You’re in the middle of a subway. You can’t take out the sweater. Well, take it out when you get to the station. No, you don’t want to do that in public. Then do it when you get on the train. No, because then the train will start to move, and Sasha will have to jump off it, and she’ll get killed in the process.” [laughter]

So, we arrived at the station, and sasha goes off and buys us some sweet bread. There’s more of her generosity. And I’m thinking, “Chodron, just give her the sweater already.” And I couldn’t bring myself to give her the sweater. Finally, we got on the train. She gave us the sweet bread so that we wouldn’t be hungry while traveling on the train, and I just thought, “Okay, I’ve got to do it.” I reached into the suitcase, pulled out the sweater, and handed it to Sasha. Her face lit up, and I thought, “What took me so long?” Just watching her face light up like that was worth a hundred sweaters. And she managed to get off the train without killing herself and then we went on to Donetsk. 

Then the next week, we came back and the weather had changed. It was a lot warmer, but Sasha met us at the train station in the morning wearing the cashmere sweater. It was just so sweet. It was such a good lesson for me. It brought me so much pleasure to give her the sweater, yet why did I have to fight with myself to do that? I should have been like the guys on the train who were very generous and sharing.

On the way back, we were sharing a compartment with two men, and I was sick. I had a cold or something, and I woke up in the morning and wasn’t feeling too well. The train’s still going. The two people we were traveling with had breakfast—Vodka. That’s how they started out the day, with some vodka. They said, “Oh, you’re not feeling well. Here, have some vodka.” [laughter] They were so generous. There was no expectation of anything in return, no civil war inside themselves over whether I would appreciate it or not. They were just very free and generous with their vodka. They were actually rather offended that I didn’t accept their offer. I tried to tell them, “I don’t drink vodka. I’m a nun,” and this and that, and they replied, “Oh, that doesn’t matter here, especially as you’re sick. Vodka is good for you.” [laughter] So, their generosity was of the wrong object, but that is the way we should take delight in giving. [laughter] That’s material giving—giving whatever we can.

Generosity of fearlessness and the Dharma

The second kind of giving is the giving of fearlessness. This means helping people, protecting people who are in dangerous situations, freeing people who are trapped, or accompanying lonely travelers. This is the kind of generosity that is going on in Nepal right now. The generosity of fearlessness is protecting people from danger, getting them out of dangerous situations, rescuing them, making sure that they’re cared for, and so on. So, actually, the help with the earthquake is an incredible example of people helping other people, and an example of the generosity of fearlessness.

The third kind of generosity is the generosity of Dharma. This is giving the Dharma, sharing the Dharma. They say that the generosity of the Dharma is the highest gift. Of all the different things that we can give, sharing the Dharma teachings is the best, because when you share the Dharma teachings, you’re giving people the tools and the knowledge to use to create good karma and to free themselves from cyclic existence. That knowledge, those tools, in the long-term are worth much more than any kind of material aid or even giving fearlessness. 

Not everybody can give teachings, but we can say our prayers out loud, do our practices, our mantras, and our recitations out loud. Then the animals and insects around us can hear it. In fact, our three kitties are complaining tonight because we’re having the teachings here and they want to attend, but they’re not allowed in this building because some people have some allergies to kitties. We usually have the teachings in the other building, and we make sure the kitties come because that way they get some good imprints on their mindstream, which will help them in future lives.

We can also counsel people using the Dharma. That’s also generosity of the Dharma. Sometimes friends come to you, and they’re having some problem, and you can help them by sharing the Dharma. You don’t have to use a lot of Sanskrit or Tibetan or Pali words to do that because so much of the Dharma is just plain old common sense, and if you share that, people can hear it and it can very often really help them with whatever difficulties they have. That is also sharing the Dharma. In Asia, there’s the tradition of making donations so that Buddhist books can be given away for free distribution. That’s also generosity of the Dharma. Sharing the Dharma with other people is considered that kind of generosity.

Practicing generosity with the other perfections

When we are practicing generosity, it’s very important to include the other perfections with it and to practice ethical conduct at the same time we’re practicing generosity. This means giving in a respectful way. It’s also giving only what people can use to create virtue—really maintaining our ethical discipline. It also means giving things that belong to us that we obtained through correct livelihood—not giving stolen goods or things that we receive by deceiving other people. And then it’s also practicing fortitude when we practice generosity, because sometimes when we give, other people are not so grateful, and we may get angry at them. “Look what I did for you, and then you’re treating me like this!” So, if we do that, we’re actually destroying all of our merit from giving. It’s very important not to get angry when we’re practicing generosity. 

And it’s important to practice joyous effort and have a happy mind when we’re giving. It’s important to have the correct motivation and focus on the correct motivation of giving with generosity, and giving with bodhicitta, or at least with love and compassion. Also, it’s important that giving is combined with wisdom seeing that all the elements in the action of giving are interdependent. In that way giving becomes very whole. You have a lot of other virtuous activities incorporated into one act of giving.

It’s not so important what you give or how much you give, but the motivation with which you give. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t give if you have things to give. You just visualize or generate the motivation for it. 

There is a story that Tibetans love about this man who went to an initiation, and in the initiation, the lama is always saying, “Visualize this. Imagine this. Imagine that. I’m coming, and I’m pouring nectar, giving you holy water. Or imagine that the deity’s coming and filling you up with nectar or imagine this, that, and the other thing.” It’s a lot of imagining things. So, the man did all of this, and he was very grateful, and then there is the custom afterwards to make an offering to the teacher. Different people were going and offering different things. This man got to the teacher, and he said, “Thank you very much. You really taught me all about visualizing and imagination, and I followed just what you told us to do, and so now I am also imagining and visualizing giving you an offering.” He didn’t give anything; he just imagined and visualized it. While we do want to imagine and visualize things that we don’t have to give, that doesn’t mean that we just happily hold on to everything ourselves and constantly rely on visualizing.

Audience: Sometimes if I see a person who is homeless or whatever, and they are asking for money, there is a part of me that thinks, “Oh, just give it to them, what they do with it is their karma,” or else I’ll look at it and think, “Oh well, this person is giving me an opportunity to be generous.” But another part of me thinks, “Well, there is always that chance they collect the money to use for drugs or alcohol, so should I give it?” How do I know my generosity is used in a virtuous way or a non virtuous way?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): When you’re not sure how somebody is going to use your gift—like giving an unhoused person something—what do you do? I prefer to give food because everybody can use food. So, if you were walking or working in an area where there tends to be unhoused people, carry granola bars or carry fruit, and then give that, because everybody needs to eat. It’s true. Somebody may sell the food, or trade it for drugs, but that’s less likely than if you give money. That’s what I tend to do.

Audience: Is there also the giving of time?

VTC: Yes, there is also the giving of time and the giving of service. It’s not explicitly mentioned here, but it does come in other situations, and that also is very important, because offering service means offering our time and helping people do things that they need help doing. If somebody’s moving, you can go over and help them. If somebody needs help cleaning stuff out, or if somebody is doing some kind of virtuous project and they need help, you can offer service. All these ways of offering service through offering our time is also a practice of generosity, one that’s quite important. 

Audience: I want to give a lot more, but have limited resources. What is the best way to create the causes to have more to give?

VTC: The best way to create causes to have more to give is to be generous because generosity is the karmic cause that creates the result of wealth. By giving, you’re creating the karma to receive. If you can’t give as much as you wish, then you visualize it and you imagine giving more.

Audience: I want the other person’s acceptance. Can you comment on that?

VTC: Well, for you to give, the other person has to accept. Of course, we can’t control people accepting or not accepting, but in general, people do. Although I remember one time when I did not accept a gift, and my teacher was there and he scolded me for not accepting it. Sometimes the question comes up, if somebody gives you something but you know that they’re going to suffer afterwards because they don’t have very much and they really need it, do you accept it or not? Because if you don’t accept it, they aren’t able to create the karma of giving, and also their feelings may be hurt. But if you do accept it, then they’re giving beyond their means, and you don’t want them to suffer because of that. 

In that situation, what I often do is accept the gift, and then I say, “Okay, I accept your gift.” So, you create the merit of giving, and I also want to create the merit of giving, so “I’m offering it back to you. Please accept it.” And they usually accept it. Whereas if I say, “No, no, no, no, no. Don’t give it to me. Don’t give it to me,” then they push and push, and they feel hurt if I don’t accept it. But if I really accept it and then I give it back, then it kind of works because actually I’m quite sincere in wanting to give it. I want them to have it.

Audience: What about when people give you stuff and you don’t want it, and you don’t like it? [laughter]

VTC: If people give you stuff and you don’t want it and you don’t like it, then you give it to somebody else.Yes, you accept it because the thing that’s most important is their care and affection for you because very often it isn’t the gift that’s so important. People want you to know that they care about you, and that’s why they give you a gift. So, you accept that and you let them know that you received the gift of their care and affection. And then once it becomes yours, you can do what you please with it. There’s no obligation to keep it. In fact, my teacher always taught us very well not to expect anything when we give, because he would usually turn around and give our gifts away to other people, and so you just learn to be fine with that.

Audience: Is giving directly to someone a stronger action than, say, sending a donation?

VTC: If you have the chance to put the gift in somebody else’s hands personally, that’s much better to do. Atisha always taught that, in terms of making offerings on the altar, instead of having somebody else do it for you, do it yourself because you’re doing it with your own hands. It’s better that way. So, if you can do it with your own hands, it’s very good. If you can’t, then make a donation. In any case, you’re giving the donation with your own hands unless you tell somebody else to do it.

Audience: What about if we have things that we do not need, and we are not sure if the other person needs it, but we think it would be useful. Is this still considered generosity? 

VTC: The idea is to give because you have a heart for giving. And if you want to give it to somebody, give it to them, and if they can’t use it or they don’t like it, they can give it away to somebody else. But if you give because you want to give, that’s generosity. If you give because you think, “I can’t stand this, and I hope somebody else will take it off my hands,” then it’s not total giving. It’s kind of like a garbage disposal. [laughter]

Audience: Can you share the story about the donut?

VTC: Yes, here’s my donut story. I had gone to my first Buddhist course in the summer of ‘75, and I came back to Los Angeles very enthusiastic about practicing and learning more of the Dharma. One evening I went out to get some donuts for myself and my friend. This is in LA, so there was a guy sitting in the parking lot with his head tipped forward on his chest, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to give him a donut. I’m going to be a bodhisattva and give this guy a donut.” So, I went over and I gave him the donut, and he took it and squeezed it and crumbled it, and all the crumbs fell on the ground. And I’ve always thought, “Wow, that was some teaching.” I’m still pondering that because I think it had some kind of special meaning, like maybe don’t try and be goody-two-shoes bodhisattva. Or maybe it was just to give and not care about what happens after you give. It belongs to the other person and they do what they want. I wasn’t angry at him for crumbling the donut, even though I didn’t have very much money, and I was rather proud of myself for sacrificing so much to give him something. [laughter]

Audience: Can you talk about how we slowly build up our tenacity of generosity to know we’re giving enough, or if we’re giving too much?

VTC: So, you’re talking about how to measure how much to give?

Audience: Yes, it seems to me to be a balance a little bit. It’s like going outside your comfort zone to give, but then also recognizing that you’re giving more than you can. Is there a guide for dealing with that?

VTC: Whenever I get in that kind of confused state inside myself, I realize that it’s usually miserliness working. It’s not prudence working and telling us, “Gee, I shouldn’t give that much because then it would be detrimental.” It’s usually some kind of miserliness. What I try to go by is when the heart wants to give, give. I’ve never had the thought of giving everything away because that would be kind of difficult to do all at one-shot. What am I going to do? Would I say, “Bring a bunch of boxes, and I’ll put all the stuff in my room in these boxes and give it to you”? No. It’s not that. It’s just when the feeling comes to give, so often I’m trapped by miserliness, so then when that feeling comes, I encourage myself just to give.

Audience: This question comes as a householder: do you spend the mortgage money, or do you give away the children’s college fund, that kind of thing?

VTC: Well, of course, you try and be practical, don’t you? But I don’t think the thought is going to come up of, “I’m going to give away the mortgage money.” If it’s something that belongs to you and to someone else, then you have to consult with the other person if you think it’s going to be something that’s going to disturb their mind if you give because they have part ownership in it. But I don’t think too much of the idea comes of thinking, “I’m going to give away my child’s education right now.” It’s usually, “I was going to give $100, but I can give $200.” And you’re not going to suffer from it. 

Maybe you don’t get as many lattes at Starbucks. You have to cut back on your lattes for a month or something. But it’s very interesting; keep track of how much money you spend on drinks. It’s quite amazing! At Starbucks, and here and there—how much money comes, comes, goes, goes. I don’t think people usually think, “I’m going to give everything away, including the money to feed my children.” I don’t think that’s what comes into people’s minds. What usually comes is, “Well, if I give it then I won’t be able to have that latte. Or I really wanted to go to Hawaii this winter, and I won’t be able to stay as long in Hawaii if I give.” But maybe I’m wrong.

Audience: I feel guilty that I am not able to give as much as I could.

VTC: That’s ridiculous! It’s silly to feel guilty, because the generosity is not in the amount. The generosity is in the motivation. If you have a good motivation then you give what you can. You imagine skies full of beautiful things that you’re giving even though you don’t have them. That creates virtue as well. But guilt certainly isn’t conducive to creating merit. King Ashoka in a previous life offered, I think, sand to the Buddha, imagining that it was gold, and so he was born as the rich King Ashoka in a future life. It’s really the mind, the motivation, that’s the most important thing. We can easily see that somebody can give $20,000, but their motivation is to get their name on a plaque somewhere, or to get recognition, or to get to sit in the front row of some special activity. And somebody else may give $10 but with the really sincere motivation to benefit others. The motivation is really the crucial point.

Audience: It also attracts beings. This was my mother’s story of one of her relatives, a person who offered every day to a hungry ghost and then the hungry ghost came and asked him, ”Please hurry, hurry.” And he says, “Why why?” “Because we don’t want to miss another offering from this yogi so and so, and he was offering from a little shell that talks of his bodhicitta. He used his tears, too, to benefit so many hungry ghosts. This is a bodhisattva practice, so, I’ll think about that too.

VTC: Yes, yes. 

Ethical conduct and the six perfections

So then The Easy Path says:

Next, for the practice of ethical discipline, while meditating with the guru Buddha on your head, reflect for the sake of all mother sentient beings, may I quickly attain complete and perfect Buddhahood. For that purpose, may I: 

Abandon negative actions. In other words, give up misdeeds that conflict with whatever precepts I have taken, such as the precepts to abstain from the ten nonvirtues. 

Act virtuously.  In other words, may I generate in my mind the six perfections— generosity and so forth and the excellent virtue of ethical conduct and so on that I have yet to generate, and may the good qualities that I already have be enhanced.

Practice the ethical conduct of benefitting sentient beings. May I lead all sentient beings to the excellent virtue of ethical conduct and so forth and establish them in the path of progress and liberation. Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so.

This is talking about the three kinds of ethical conduct. The first one is abandoning negative actions. The second one is acting virtuously or wholesomely, and the third is the ethical conduct of benefitting sentient beings. So, in the context of the bodhisattva, practice these other three kinds of ethical conduct.

Actually, the definition of ethical conduct is an attitude abstaining from causing harm to others. So again, it’s a mental attitude. Just as generosity is the intention to give, ethical conduct is the intention to abstain from harming others. Ethics evolves from generosity because when we aren’t attached to our possessions then we aren’t so greedy, and we don’t do so many negative actions to procure and protect our possessions. Whereas when we don’t practice generosity, then there tends to be more greed in the mind, more possessiveness or miserliness in the mind, and that makes it easier to create non virtue by stealing other people’s stuff or by lying in order to get things, embezzling, extortion, all that kind of stuff—all the things we do to get stuff.

You see how it fits in? We can see this with what goes on in the world with many CEOs and politicians and so forth: even though they have a lot, the mind is quite greedy, and then it becomes very easy to get involved in all sorts of harmful actions and not have very good ethical conduct, because of the greed, wanting to get more money or reputation or whatever it is. When you see that, you can see why generosity is practiced first and why that becomes an aid to actually keeping good ethical conduct. 

Just another little thing about generosity here is that you can really see how it’s the intention to give and not the amount of the gift. If you live in a developing country, very often people there are very poor and actually very generous people, whereas people in this country, we have much more, but it’s often very difficult for us to give. 

I remember very clearly living in India and being invited to the home of a Tibetan nun and her sister. They were both elderly. It was a mud and stone hut, and they used to have these big cans for ghee, melted butter, and so the slats of the roof were cut-up ghee cans. They invited me there for tea. The floor was a dirt floor. They had a kerosene stove, which you had to pump up. It was not so healthy, but they didn’t have to worry because there was so much ventilation in the room that they weren’t going to die from the smoke inhalation. So, I remember them inviting me for tea and then giving me kapse, which is this Tibetan fried bread, which, again, is a big treat for them, that they shared with me. They didn’t have very much, and they just shared it very freely. It was very much a situation of just, “Yeah, of course. This is what you do.” 

And then I remember going back to the U.S. after that and staying with some friends, and as we drove in the car to go out to dinner, we stopped on the way at a drugstore. These were the days when you had to have your photographs developed, and they wanted to pick up some photographs of theirs. As we’re driving in the car to do all of this, they were telling me how much they were struggling financially, and I was thinking that’s it’s like this very strange experience because the people who had nothing gave so easily, and the people who had so much were seeing themselves as poor. It was a very good teaching that, actually, poverty is a state of mind. It’s not the state of your wallet. Similarly, generosity is the state of your mind. It’s not how much you give.

Transgression of precepts

Let’s come back to ethical conduct. The first one is abandoning acting negatively, so whatever level of precepts you have—the five lay precepts or monastic precepts, bodhisattva precepts, or tantric precepts—keep them the best that you can and abandon those negativities. They say that there are usually four doors by which we create transgression of our precepts

The first one is ignorance – not knowing what to practice and abandon, not knowing what our precepts are. The second is carelessness. This is not caring even though we may know, but we just believe, “Whatever. I don’t care if I create virtue or non virtue. I’m just going to do what’s convenient.” 

The third is lack of respect for ethical discipline. This one is more not caring if you create virtue or non virtue; it’s just not respecting the functioning of karma and the law of karma and its effects in our life. The fourth door is having very strong afflictions, so our afflictions overwhelm our mind and make us act in destructive ways even though we don’t particularly want to, but our mind is out of control. 

Three forms of ethical conduct

We try to counteract those afflictions by first learning what our precepts are, and second, by developing conscientiousness, or maybe diligence, really caring about the precepts. Maybe mindfulness would be better—mindfulness and introspective awareness so that you’re really looking at your mind and how you’re acting, whether you’re creating virtue or not, so that would oppose the carelessness. And then third is conscientiousness, which is the mind that really respects ethical conduct that would oppose the lack of respect. Fourth is learning the antidotes to the various afflictions that would oppose having strong afflictions that overwhelm our mind. If we pay attention to those four, then we’re going to be able to abandon harmful actions. That’s the first type of ethical conduct.

The second type of ethical conduct is acting virtuously. That means doing our practice while practicing all six far-reaching practices, creating virtue whenever we can through generosity or fortitude or whatever we happen to be doing. It is really having that intention to create merit. 

The third kind of ethical conduct is working to benefit sentient beings. So, this can be through the four ways of gathering followers. There can be various ways to help different kinds of sentient beings. You may remember when we were going through the bodhisattva precepts, that the last group of them had to do with benefitting sentient beings; for example, we benefit the sick, benefit the needy, help people who are distressed, help people who have any kind of need for service or time, or help with good projects. Keeping those kinds of precepts of benefitting sentient beings is also a form of ethical conduct. Those are the three forms of ethical conduct. 

Questions & Answers

Audience: The second and third ones seem similar because what to abandon could be a lack of respect.

VTC: Of the four doors, the first one is carelessness. You may know the ten destructive actions, but you overlook them in your daily life. So, you aren’t really mindful about them. You don’t pay attention. You’re spaced out. And then the third one is a lack of respect for ethical conduct. That’s more like thinking, “Oh, all this talk of virtue and nonvirtue: who cares about that?”

Audience: As a monastic, when we are receiving things due to generosity, it is a result of our previous positive karma which we now expended.

VTC: That’s true because we have so much in our life, and so every time we’re receiving—I mean we’re eating food, we’re using resources and all that came to us because of generosity that we created in previous times. When we receive something, that good karma has now brought its results, and it’s no longer there. That’s why it’s important to use whatever we receive to create virtue so that we’re not just eating up our good karma during our life through our own selfishness, “I want, I want, I want, and gimme, gimme,” without creating any virtue ourselves to be able to receive in the future. And when we don’t get what we want, instead of yelling and screaming and blaming, we remember, “Well, I didn’t create the cause.” If we don’t get a physical thing we wanted, why not? “Well, why didn’t I? There were times in my life when I wasn’t generous, when I was greedy or when I was miserly,” or something like that. And so that relates, that ripens, in our not having what we want or need in our life.

Audience: Is rejoicing in ethical conduct included in the far-reaching practices?

VTC: Is rejoicing at other’s ethical conduct or generosity included? Yes. Rejoicing in general is a way of creating virtue, so it would probably be specifically the second kind of ethical conduct—the ethical conduct of creating virtue. But whenever you rejoice at somebody else’s good deeds, you create the merit as if you had done them yourself. So, it is very good to rejoice at other people’s good deeds. Similarly, if we rejoice at their bad deeds, we create the negativity as if we had done it ourselves.

This is good to think about during the next week. Maybe try practicing generosity. Do you remember once, a few years ago, we did this, and I asked everybody to bring in something that they really liked and were really attached to, and I didn’t tell you until we all got together, and then we had to give it away. [laughter] Do you remember that? Do you remember what it was that you gave away? Isn’t that interesting? We remember exactly what we gave away that day because it was something we were attached to. Do you think about it now? Do you regret having to give that away now?

Audience: Sometimes. [laughter]

VTC: Oh! It’s an interesting thing to watch how our mind makes a big deal at one time and maybe not at another time, and then comes back and makes a big deal about it again. But be careful—you don’t want to be a hungry ghost craving for those ruby-colored water bowls. You made a really big deal about it! [laughter]

Audience: He just pointed to me that I have them. [laughter] When I was cleaning out the house I had objects that were probably not wanted anymore, but I got some objects like a big ceramic drum, a really nice drum. I don’t really want it anymore.

VTC: This is some of the difficulty we have when we sell things. It’s because we have something that we think is a real treasure, and somebody else comes along and says, “What is this piece of junk?” We want to sell it to somebody who’s really going to appreciate it or at least give it away to somebody who’s really going to appreciate it. It’s better to give it to Goodwill. Somebody who appreciates it will come along.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.