A Do-It-Yourself Approach to Happiness

This is the third in a 9 part series on learning to practise Buddhism.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9


Our Teacher John Hughes spent a lot of time teaching us how to give things.
Why would he bother to teach us how to give? Giving appears to be simple enough. We have been giving all sorts of things to others many times a day for most of our adult life. If we are a parent that is all about giving, as our children are dependent on us to use our skills and resources to support them. It seems like simple stuff.

We have a book in our library about giving called “Dana” which is the Pali word for generosity. The book is 778 pages long. That means there is a lot about giving we have not learned yet!

So this is not just information about what we could refer to as conventional giving. This about the Buddhist practice of giving. The practice of giving called “dana” in the Pali language is placed first in the order of things, as a foundation for the process of us becoming free from suffering.

Let us imagine ourselves to be a farmer for a moment. Suppose we have a large field in which we wish to sow our crop. What would happen if the soil in our field is of poor quality? It may lack nutrients, it may be dry, it may be too acidic, our good top soil may have blown away in the wind. If we were to sow our grain in that field, if we spent a lot of time ploughing and preparing the ground, removing the rocks and then planting our crop we will be very disappointed.

Due to the poor soil quality not many seeds we have planted will be able to grow. Or if they grow they could be stunted and weak. The plants that grow will struggle to establish themselves and some will die before they can be harvested. The poor soil cannot support the seeds that are sown to develop. The ones that do grow will not flourish into healthy plants.

Our minds can be likened to the soil in this story. The seeds we sow as a farmer represent the good seeds we sow through our practice and efforts we make to develop ourselves. The poor quality of the soil is like our minds lacking in generosity.

Lack of generosity shows itself as a dry mind, harsh, mean, closed narrow, stingy, jealous and unforgiving. Soil not able to support growth of any good seeds planted there.

Actually that poor quality soil of our mind allows the growth of weeds so the analogy is not perfect!

Generosity is nutrient for the mind, the rich, lush, fertile energy which supports and nourishes the growth of further goodness. The temperament of giving and forgiving, openness, cheerfulness, supporting, accepting, easing the way for the other person, lending a helping hand and nourishing.

Sooner or later for any practice to be effective in reducing our suffering we have to address the active ingredients in our mind that produce our suffering. We have seen from our earlier classes that the negative or unwholesome minds are the roots of all unhappiness. Now we have to introduce some powerful antidotes into our lives to reduce these unhappiness drivers and their resultants.

Whilst Buddhist texts explain our unwholesome minds as being 14 in number, the 14 can be distilled down to three root causes of all our unhappiness. These three are greed, hate and ignorance, with ignorance meaning not seeing the type of reality we call absolute reality or the way things really are.

“Viewed as the quality of generosity, giving has a particularly intimate connection to the entire movement of the Buddha’s path. For the goal of the path is the destruction of greed, hate and delusion and the cultivation of generosity directly debilitates greed and hate, while facilitating that pliancy of mind that allows for the eradication of delusion.” (Bodhi, 1990) 1

The Buddhist Path of reducing our craving and selfishness is how we can discover Nibbana, the highest and only absolutely secure happiness available. We therefore practice generosity with the purpose of removing greed, selfishness and craving.

At this stage we may not recognise very clearly how greed or craving is at the root of our unhappiness. One Member at our centre wrote about this in the following way for example:

“I remember when I was first told over twenty years ago that craving was the cause of my suffering I couldn’t believe it! I remember walking along in disbelief thinking “no way could craving be causing suffering”! I didn’t think I had much craving for a start so how could it be such a big deal?

The thing was I didn’t know my own mind. We can see the craving operating quite clearly when we watch the “monkey mind” in meditation. The “monkey mind” is our normal untrained mind. It can’t sit still for a moment. It chases after one sensation after another. After a few moments of watching the breath the mind gets caught up again thinking, daydreaming, worrying, being disturbed by noises, itches, restlessness and so on.

This is the craving. The mind is thirsty to experience all these things. It is not content to look at the breath. It grabs at one sensation after another because it is in a state of being unsatisfied. The nature of craving is it can’t find anything that will satisfy it. It is unsatisfiable”.

You can see how our craving makes it difficult for us to be happy. Instead of being content and happy with what we’ve got we incline towards being dissatisfied. So you see, we need find out about generosity, the minds natural antidote to the craving.

Consider this; most of us already give many things to others everyday of our lives. If we are already giving a lot why isn’t this generosity working to reduce our craving?

The act of giving itself makes the kamma for us to receive things in the future. How we give is the factor by which we can reduce our greed and craving.

Nina Van Gorkom writes in her essay Generosity: The Inward Dimension:

“The giving away of useful or pleasant things is an act of generosity. However, if we only pay attention to the outward deeds we do not know whether or not we are being sincerely generous. We should learn more about the mind which motivates our deeds. True generosity is difficult. While we are giving, our thoughts may not all be good and noble. Our motives for giving may not all be pure. We may give with selfish motives – expecting something in return, hoping to be liked by the receiver or our gift, wanting to be known as a generous person. We may notice that there are different thoughts at different moments, some truly generous, and others having different motives.” (Gorkom 1990)2

Often we are happy enough to give to others if certain conditions are met, such as the person is someone we like or know well, maybe we don’t particularly want the thing we are giving or we have enough for our self too, and the person thanks us afterwards, which we normally would expect.

If the receiver of our gift did not express thanks for the gift or if they did something with the gift we did not like, we may feel disappointed or resentful of their behaviour. This is giving with expectation of something in return. When we give in this way we are not really giving freely.

We could be giving because it is our duty, because it is our role in our family or because it is expected of us, because we were told to do it, because it is part of our job, because we want someone to do something for us in return, a quid pro quo, I’ll do this if you’ll do that, and so on. This is fine in the sense that most or maybe all these things do need to be done but probably, if you look, you’ll find you are not actually doing these things with the mind of true generosity.

While all this type of giving is going on, what is your mind doing? Is your mind just rushing to get the food on the table, is your mind tired and wanting to sit down for a cuppa, is your mind just mindlessly handing something to someone else, or is your mind really engaged mindfully in the act of giving with kindness, generosity and love in your heart?

There is a story in the Buddhist texts about a young boy named Priyadarshi. He knew about the Buddha and had great respect and love for him. One day, unexpectedly, he had an opportunity to meet the Buddha face to face. Immediately he wanted to make offerings to the Buddha and pay respect to the great man.

As he looked around for something to offer he realised he had nothing to give. He was not carrying anything to offer yet in his heart his wish to give something to the Buddha was so strong that he bent down and scooped up a handful of dirt from the ground. As the Buddha looked at him Priyadarshi offered the dirt with his heart filled with love, joy and respect.

As the Buddha blessed Priyadarshi he said that his offering would bring him to many lives of great wealth and good fortune because of the way it was offered. The offering was done with strong volition to give accompanied by heartfelt generosity, gratitude, and joy.

Buddha’s Teachings are practised with our body, speech and mind. Generosity as part of Buddha Dhamma practice is performed with body, speech and mind.

So you can see that the mind component of giving is the bit that offers us the possibility to reduce our stinginess and craving if we learn to do it correctly.

Give like you were giving to your child. Give like you were giving to your love. Give like you were receiving the gift. Give completely. Give freely. Once given it belongs completely to the other person. It is no longer your property.

If the person then damages or throws away what they received from you, it should not raise any pain or concern in your mind. If it does, maybe you still have an idea that it belongs to you. You have not given the object freely.

You give someone some chocolates. They put them away. You say to yourself. “They should have shared the chocolates with everyone”. In this case you have not offered the gift freely or completely. Your mind still identifies with the object you gave away, as if in some sense it still belongs to you.

You can see how having a generous heart is at the core of what it means to be kind to others. In generosity is the willingness to help others, the willingness to get up out of your chair quickly and happily when your help would be beneficial.

Generosity has the openness, flexibility and lightness to put our own needs down for a while and consider the needs of another, to be sensitive enough and patient enough to find out what the other person really needs to be well and happy.

Our teacher, Master John D. Hughes, on meeting students for the first time would often recommend they start their Buddhist practice by offering food, drinks and flowers to their parents, particularly their Mother. He would also encourage and arrange for us to make the most of any opportunity to make offerings to the Buddhist Monks or Nuns.

This introduces another aspect of generosity. The reason why John would suggest new students made these offerings to their parents in particular and also to monks or nuns is because there is something about the qualities of those recipients of the gift that make any offerings you do to them produce very great kammic benefits to the giver.

The Buddha said the kammic connection between a son or daughter and our parents; particularly our Mother is the strongest kammic connection of any type of relationship. Therefore a gift to our parents creates the greatest amount of good kamma compared to an equivalent gift to any other person.

The relative amount of good kamma produced by a suitable gift to our parent can be a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand or even more times that of the same gift to someone we have a weak kammic connection to. We would have to give the other person up to ten thousand or more equivalent gifts for the kamma made to be equal to one single offering of that item to your Mother, for example. According to the Buddha this is how the Law of Kamma works.

It is a similar case with regard to making offerings to beings whose minds are very pure. The kamma of such gifts is also greatly multiplied by the qualities of the receiver of the gift. Hence this is why when the small child Priyadarshi gave a handful of dirt to the Buddha the kammic result was so vast. Not only was the child’s mind having many good qualities, so too the Buddha’s mind was completely enlightened.

As laypersons we train to keep a minimum of five precepts. As our purity increases by us keeping our precepts well this too multiplies up the kammic results of our giving. It is said the keeping of each precept multiplies up the kammic results of a gift by a factor of tenfold.

This aspect of the Law of Kamma is why in one human life of say, 80 years, it is possible for us to create enough good causes to be born in a heaven birth which could last a million years or more.

Some Buddhist monks keep 227 rules of conduct. It is very rare to meet persons who have developed such extraordinary purity of mind and conduct. Again, any offerings we make to such persons bring great benefits to ourselves in the future.

It is important to know what the kammic returns of particular gifts are. If we know what gift produces what outcome, we can do many offerings of a particular item which we recognise is needed by us. For example, the kammic return of offering flowers brings ten blessings to the giver:

  1. Long Life
  2. Good Health
  3. Strength
  4. Beauty
  5. Wisdom
  6. Ease along the Buddha Dhamma Path
  7. Being born in beautiful environments
  8. Born with good skin, hair and beautiful to look at
  9. Always having a sweet smelling body
  10. Pleasant relationships with friends

It is easy to give such things as food and flowers to our parents and the merit of these type gifts are very important to our human life.

And for food offerings the Bojjhanga Sutta says as follows:

“In giving a meal, the donor gives five things to the recipient. Which five? He or she gives life, beauty, happiness, strength, and quick-wittedness.” 3

As a result the giver of the food has made the kamma to receive those five things back. Every day of our life we are using up our health, strength, long-life, beauty and alertness. We need to make many such food offerings to maintain our kammic stores of these things our lives really depend on.

We can still see many countries of the third world where their citizens are living with not enough basic foods to eat and with personal ownership of only a handful of possessions. So in terms of human history we live in exceptional times. The living conditions of the majority of persons living in many modern societies today are superior in many ways to that experienced by kings and queens in past times.

Many citizens living in wealthy Western societies have large stores of good kamma from our past to enable us to live in such good conditions. However we are at the same time consuming a lot of our good kamma or merit just to live our daily lives. We are very high merit consumers. This is a characteristic of our modern world; we consume a lot of resources to function effectively in our society.

Your life already has enormous opportunities to give to others regularly. When you have the right attitude to the countless generous actions you are already doing in your life, these actions will be transformed into much stronger causes for your happiness and well being. Turn the mundane, common place things you do many times everyday into the exact things you need to increase your happiness and wellbeing.

It’s a matter of remembering to not see your life as just getting things done, recognise that many of the things you are getting done are your acts of generosity to others. Change from looking at your life in the old habitual way of living.

When you turn on the heater or air conditioner offer the comfort or warmth to warm others when they are cold, cool air to cool others when they are hot.

When you pay the gas bill, electricity bill, the water bill, etc, offer the water you are paying for with the intention to increase the long life, strength, health, cleanliness, beauty, and alertness of the others in your home. That is what they actually receive from the water you are providing.

When you put flowers on the table offer them to everybody for their enjoyment and pleasure.

When you offer the clean environment you have created to others so that they always have good clean places to live in.

When paying tax, offer the tax you earned from your efforts to all persons living in your country. Recollect all the things that tax money goes toward such as education and education resources, health care and medicines, roads, transportation systems, law and order, peaceful government, our welfare systems, pensions, and so on. Having recollected those things offer them in your mind to all the persons living in your society.

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha taught:

‘Should a person perform good,
He should do it again and again;
He should find pleasure therein;
For blissful is the accumulation of good.’

‘Think not lightly of good, saying,
‘It will not come near to me’ –
Even by the falling of drops a water-jar is filled.
Likewise the wise man, gathering little by little,
Fills himself with good.’
(Trans. Buddharakita)4


  1. Bhikkhu Bodhi. Dana; The Practice of Giving. Introduction. (1990) Selected Essays by Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1995 Kandy, reproduced with permission of the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka
  2. Van Gorkom, Nina (1990). “Generosity: The inward dimension”, Included in Dana; The Practice of Giving. Selected Essays by Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1995 Kandy, reproduced with permission of the Buddhist Publication Society
  3. “Bhojana Sutta: A Meal” (AN 5.37), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 3 July 2010
  4. Translated by Buddharakita. The Dhammapada. Published by Sukhi Hotu Sdn Bhd, Malaysia, Chapter 9