The custom of gift-giving is one that is missing in the United States, even as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. Why? Gift-giving in other cultures does not stem from a capitalistic commercialism, but rather from the spiritual interaction between a gift giver and a recipient. It has less to do with what you give, and more to do with how you give and to whom you give. It is a practice of cultivating a generosity of spirit that includes rightful action to a community.
In Buddhist philosophy, dana was the spiritual practice of giving that helped to reduce the imperfection of greed in a person and improve their karmic score. Hindus give dana and have very elaborate rituals over what type of gifts will produce what type of karmic benefits. Give a gift of sesame seed to a temple and you get a karmic bonus of fertility. Beyond giving a gift, the recipient also has certain obligations. They must respect the act of the giving as a sacred act, just as the recipient offers it in that same attitude. If the gift is not respected, it is said to lead to the downfall of both the giver and the recipient. Also, giving certain types of gifts actually boomerang on you karmically, rather than raising your karmic score.
It is also suggested that you should not give gifts to people who are not in your spiritual lineage. Some traditions say certain people can only receive gifts. I’ve even heard of other teachings where women must always give, but never take. In Hindu gift-giving one should try to seek out Brahmins to gift as the act is considered “rightful giving” and reaps many spiritual benefits, unlike giving to someone who uses the gift but returns no spiritual teachings to a community. Obviously, I’m not here to argue over whether these traditions are correct or not. I am just suggesting that the act of giving is intrinsic to spiritual wealth, but it comes with some responsibilities. It also has to do with why so many people land into debt.
There are supposedly five stages in the Buddist practice of dana. In the conditional giving stage, you give something because you expect something in return. That is not considered bad, but merely somewhat ignorant. You are expected to do this practice until you can give without expecting anything in return. In America, this amounts to our ideal of “earning one’s wage” or even a fair business transaction. It is tied into our beliefs about integrity and work. We expect that everything we work at will yield some result. However, that’s just not realistic. There are plenty of hard workers that never get the fruits of their labor, for various reasons. I am not about to dump more on them to suggest that they have bad karma either. There are plenty of people who give of their time and efforts working for companies that destroy our environment, steal from people with usurious interest rates, and generally have unethical business practices. And, they make a fortune at it while they’re doing it. I’m not going to suggest they are due bad karma either for doing it. For one thing, this type of teaching has no effect on people who willfully sow bad seeds and it does nothing to help those that have sown good seed, but failed to reap a harvest. Thus, for me at least, gift-giving is not about bettering my karmic odds at all.
Maybe I’m a Miser
I admit that I have no patience for a consumerist Christmas, whether it is giving out tons of presents or sending out Christmas cards. The earth is not going to jump up and down for joy because several forests were decimated over the practice of giving out Christmas cards. I don’t like the unspoken obligation that stems from our puritanical roots that when you get a gift, you’re supposed to give one in return. For one thing, some families have no understanding that the annual Christmas-giving frenzy is a horror for single individuals, with or without children. One family of four (a couple and two children) can give one present of high worth to one individual, but the expectation is that that individual should give back four presents of similar worth each because “the kids are too little to give.” This is despite the economic inequality of that family earning twice as much as the individual that is now responsible for four “gifts” of similar value. In a commercial and “equitable” way of looking at things, the gift recipient is a miser for not giving gifts to everyone on Christmas of similar worth. In a spiritual sense, the GIVER is the one committing a sin against the sacred act of gift-giving. Regardless, that gift-giving act then becomes something that puts both people in debt. The kindest thing one can do then is to opt out of this madness.
Do I know what the proper way is to give a gift or receive one? I really don’t think our American culture has an inkling about that. It is something we need to learn from Asian or other similar gift-giving cultures. I know that I have plenty to learn in this area. For one, I have learned over the years that it is not proper to give for altruistic reasons alone. One MUST consider how the gift will be used and who is getting it. I suppose that’s rather judgmental of me, but I consider a gift given to a stranger of far more value than one given to someone who will feel obligated to return something to me. I consider my time at work a gift and that means that sometimes I don’t give as freely in some projects that I consider will produce a negative community result or uphold ideals that will bring down the company or harm others – despite them being framed in altruistic terms. On the other hand, sometimes I give way more than is expected because I know it will be of benefit to others, even when it is framed in commercial terms. In this respect, I do not believe giving one’s life in a fruitless war is appropriate gift-giving unless it is to defend a nation’s peoples. Similarly, some people who work in companies that are unethical are there to plant good seeds in a field full of thorns. You really can’t tell the wheat from the tares until it’s time for the harvest. You might think that an individual or company that gives lots of money to a specific cause is generous and altruistic, but later you find out that they are trying to “greenwash” themselves to fool buyers into trusting their brand. They may give with the right hand a little and take back way more with the left hand – causing tremendous damage to the community all for the sake of hidden greed.
For instance, the IMF has been accused of giving loans to struggling countries only to later use those loans to bankrupt and take over an area. This trickles down to farmers losing needed credit to farm their lands and losing a heritage that might have been in their family for generations. The bank takes the lands and it is not even worked or harvested. It is used to amass wealth and control territory and gain political power by buying politicians. That same land may end up being “gifted” to people in support of the corrupt political system as a thank you for their support. This is a prime example of gift-giving at its worst and the giver and the recipient land both in debt. Ultimately, I think that if we figure out the proper attitude towards gift-giving we may be able to heal what is wrong with our capitalistic system. After all, how many experts have said for years that we are headed for a “gift economy”? Yet, we still have no idea what the proper way is to give and take in a responsible fashion that does not harm others and creates abundance for the community.
How a Person of Integrity Gives a Gift
These five are a person of integrity’s gifts. Which five? A person of integrity gives a gift with a sense of conviction. A person of integrity gives a gift attentively. A person of integrity gives a gift in season. A person of integrity gives a gift with an empathetic heart. A person of integrity gives a gift without adversely affecting himself or others. – http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.148.than.html
*This is the first part in a series I am going to be doing on gift-giving and the gift economy.