Generosity: A Buddhist Perspective. An Interview with the late Topga Yulgyal Rinpoche. Conducted by Joseph M. Lynch

Joseph M. Lynch: Rinpoche, would you give a working definition of generosity within the parameters of Buddhism? Is it simply having an open mind towards everyone or is there more?

Topga Rinpoche: There are many faces of generosity. The generosity that is concerned with Buddhists and Buddhism is slightly different than what we might consider as generosity in the common every day sense of the word. The Bodhisattvas, having a mind which is prepared to help all sentient beings in any manner, give the term "generosity" a much deeper and more profound meaning, a limitless perspective.

However, when we talk about Bodhisattva-level generosity, that means you have to be selfless. Whatever is needed by any kind of being, we, possessing a Bodhisattva mind, should be ready to help. Also, cultivating the mind of a Bodhisattva, you already know how to be generous and you know who is in need, what is required and everything. I think it comes sort of automatically, and it is achieved at the first level of the ten bhumis, this real generosity. Then there are many ways of giving material help, but mainly giving teachings, "Turning the Wheel of Dharma," is the most practiced form of generosity.

JML: Is there a difference between giving money, giving work or something else? Do they have the same value or are they different?

Topga Rinpoche: First, we should frame our talk as it relates to the Bodhisattva level, because I think that this is the real necessity. Giving material things, as far as Bodhisattvas are concerned, is good. It is one of the ways of practicing generosity. But giving teachings, above all else, would be considered as the most important act of generosity.

Why, you may ask? Because teachings will reduce negativity. Desires, ambitions, and suffering will be limited when you know the causes for why you want this, or why you want that. Yes, Bodhisattvas would focus on the teachings; it is more important than anything else. On the other hand, they also cannot stand to see someone who is physically suffering and needy or almost dying of hunger or whatever else. They would give their lives, like Buddha has done so many times in his previous incarnations. He gave his body because it was needed. But normally Bodhisattvas give the teachings as the main theme for generosity.

JML: I have some very wealthy friends. They spend all their lives making money, but it is very difficult for them to give even a small amount because they are so attached to their wealth. What is a good initial mind training for people with such attachments?

Topga Rinpoche: This is a big problem. There is a frequently told story in Tibet. Once there were two brothers; one had ninety nine horses and the other brother had only one. So the poor one always thought, "Why doesn't my brother give me at least one horse, so my horse can have a little company." On the other hand, the rich brother thought, "If he would just give me his horse, I would then have one hundred! Why can't he just give me this one horse?!"

This is our human nature. But giving material things for good causes is wonderful, I think. But back to your question. They can begin by giving just a small thing. Why not? Yes, this is very important, even if you possess a lot of money; it isn't necessary to give 100,000 dollars. You can begin by giving just one dollar. It's fine; at least you've started with a good heart! And, being attached to your money, you won't feel bad about giving only a dollar.

JML: There are teachings that if you cannot give a piece of food with a good heart, give half. But many people have such deep attachment that they can't even do this. Is it then better that they just keep the piece of food altogether until they are able to give without attachment?

Topga Rinpoche: If you cannot give with a good heart, then it is better to keep it. Otherwise you'll regret it afterwards. Also, it won't bring any positive results according to the workings of karma. But I think in the West, and also in India, people are very generous, even though they may not be religious.

JML: Would you explain the difference between mundane and supramundane giving?

Topga Rinpoche: In regards to Dharma practitioners generating Bodhisattva mind, the way of thinking as it pertains to giving becomes a little bit different. But then I admire people who are so generous, like large corporations who give millions of dollars for social welfare programs without any self-interest. I know that from my own experience of working with Tibetan refugees in the early 1960's. We received a large number of donations from abroad and the vast majority of people who gave, didn't even ask for a reply! Maybe they are not Bodhisattvas but they have a good heart.

JML: So, then, supramundane generosity is to give without self and mundane giving is giving with attachment?

Topga Rinpoche: Right. But even if you give with attachment, you are starting something. Who among us is really selfless? That is a big question. Books say so many beautiful things, but nobody really goes by the books, right? And I don't think you should either. But you have to start something somewhere; just beginning is the most important step.

JML: Is there really any difference in giving to an individual or to the society or the Sangha?

Topga Rinpoche: Maybe it sounds a little too diplomatic, but as a practitioner, I would say the main point is to give whatever is needed, to whomever is in need.

JML: So you should give to the first person you see?

Topga Rinpoche: Sure, right... why not?!

JML: Often, Western students would like to make some kind of offering to an individual monk or nun. However, because of our past cultural upbringing, whereby we've been conditioned in making a single weekly offering to a church or a temple, e.g., on the Sabbath, we feel uncomfortable giving directly to an individual. Is there an appropriate way to do this?

Topga Rinpoche: It is good to think of the monk or nun receiving your offering as a representative of your tradition. If the Dharma is to flourish in the West, it is important that they receive your support. There is no reason to feel shy about doing something kind.

JML: Now, in the West, there is a big movement to supplement sitting meditation with some contribution to the community, such as working in a soup kitchen, hospice or an adult education center. People think that just saying, "I dedicate all the merits of this practice for the benefit of all sentient beings throughout time and space" is too abstract, and that it is important to make some tangible form of offering as well.

Topga Rinpoche: Traditionally, the monastery was the focal point for the Buddhist community. And today, because of this cultural and traditional background from which Asian Buddhist teachers come, they still follow this idea. However, now that Dharma centers and monasteries in the West have matured to the point where they are in a position to make a contribution to the society, they of course should.

For example, Shamar Rinpoche frequently gives the advice that we must do something for the people, not only through prayers and teachings, but something physical, different types of charity work. So, times are changing.

JML: Any final thoughts?

Topga Rinpoche: The main idea concerning generosity or any of the other paramitas is that self-attachment or desire should not be there. Then, everything you do will be so much better and purer.

Joseph M. Lynch is for six months of every year a student and volunteer librarian at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute. For the other six months he is both a travel writer and English instructor based in Seoul, Korea. The interview was conducted in January, 1995 at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute.

BUDDHISM TODAY, Vol.4, 1998. Copyright ©1998 Diamond Way Buddhist Centers USA