To become a Buddha, we must engage in the practice of the six perfections of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. What makes these practices a ‘perfection’ of giving, etc., is we engage in them with a motivation of becoming a Buddha for the sake of all beings. While we can certainly practice all six of the perfections in the context of family life (subjects of future articles…), probably the one we practice the most is giving. Virtually everything we do as a parent is giving in one form or another. This is actually very fortunate, because whatever we give we create the cause to receive in the future. So if we give abundantly and wisely, we will have ample resources in the future with which we can help others and also continue on with our spiritual trainings.
In general, we say there are four different types of giving: giving material things, giving protection, giving love and giving Dharma (or wisdom). I will discuss each in turn.
Giving material things. When you think about it, we give our family everything. We provide them with a home, food, clothing, toys, computers, phones, TVs, vacations, etc. Most of the time, we ‘provide’ these things without even the slightest thought of ‘giving them.’ We just do them, but we don’t use the opportunity of providing these things to train ourselves in the ‘mind of giving.’ This is a waste. It is very difficult to engage in spiritual practices if our basic needs are not met. Why are our basic needs currently met? Because in the past, we ‘gave’ to others what they needed to survive and thrive. We should not just live in our home, we should mentally ‘give’ our home to our family. We should think, “I am giving my family a home so that I will always have a home in which I can continue with my bodhisattva training.” We can think the same with food, clothing, etc. It is very important that we never impute ‘mine’ on any of these things. When we think “my home” for example, the mental thought of possession functions to burn up the merit of having a home. If instead we think, “I am giving this home to my family”, then instead of burning up our merit, we are accumulating new merit, or virtuous karma. One way or the other, we will still live in the same home, but the karmic consequences of the two different mental attitudes is enormous.
Giving protection. Especially when our kids are little, we are constantly protecting them from all sorts of dangers. Each one of my five kids would probably be dead several times over if as parents we hadn’t intervened to save them. One of our main responsibilities as parents is to provide our children with a safe environment in which they can explore and grow. If a child does not feel safe, they do not grow. We protect them physically and emotionally all the time. We can think, “I am protecting my kids now so that in the future I will always be protected when I engage in my bodhisattva path.” We need this. If in the future we are not protected, we will not be able to continue with our spiritual training. There is a difference, however, between “giving protection” and “being protective.” It all comes down to their capacity. If they are incapable of dealing with something in life, then of course we should protect them from it. But if they are capable of dealing with it, then we are doing them a disservice by “being protective.” Our job is to equip and train our children to be able to deal with any challenge in life. If we are “being protective” we rob them of their opportunity to grow in capacity, and thus leave them ill prepared when they are forced to confront reality on their own.
Giving love. Some parents make the mistake of thinking it is enough to give material things to their kids. While welcome, material things alone have little meaning to our kids. What they really want is our love. They want to feel loved, feel supported, feel appreciated, feel like we are there for them when they need us, feel like we are a confident hand that will help them grow, and they want to feel we enjoy being with them. Few parents take the time to really be with their kids, and even when they do, their heart usually isn’t really in it, so the so-called ‘quality time’ isn’t that quality of time at all. If we are a grump or we project that we would rather be doing something else or that we are too busy for our children, then even if we are with them, they will not feel our love. Giving a dead leaf with genuine love and excitement can bring far more joy than just trying to buy them off with even the most expensive toys. There are three types of love we can give our children. Affectionate love is feeling genuinely delighted to see or think of our kids. Cherishing love is when we really consider them and their happiness to be important, a real priority in our lives. And wishing love is actively working to help them find their own true happiness (from within). Even if we have nothing material we can give our children, we can always give these three types of love. It’s free! Their childhood does not last long and we only get one shot at this, so we must try make every moment with them count.
Giving wisdom. This is without a doubt the most important thing we can give our children, because with wisdom they will be able to find their own happiness. Wisdom is a special type of intelligence that always knows to do the right things. Our children can carry the wisdom we transmit to them throughout their whole life, and in all situations. It sets up habits of behavior and view that will carry with them throughout their life and indeed into their future lives. There is no greater gift we can give than wisdom. There are really two ways we can give our children wisdom: directly through our words and indirectly through our family culture. The former is effective, the latter is golden! For giving wisdom directly with our words, the secret is to have a handy toolkit of key wisdom phrases that we give again and again in a variety of different contexts as the way to solve their daily problems. Simple examples include, “a job worth doing is a job worth doing well,” or “you can do anything with enough practice” or “doing such and such creates the cause for XYZ.” I will do a future article on the key phrases we use with our kids. Frequent repetition of the same phrases but directly applied as the solution to their daily problems is what enables the wisdom to stick with them in the future. My Grandma was the queen of this, and she passed several key wisdom phrases on to my father, who then repeated them to me, and now I find myself repeating them to my children. Such is the power of wisdom. But it is really through the osmosis of our family culture that we can transmit the most wisdom to our children. Culture, in this context, means “how things are done or thought about” in a given grouping of people. Culture operates in the background without people really being aware of it. It is simply part of the fabric of their lives, and they assimilate it without even being aware of it. If our family simply operates on the basis of wisdom, our kids will acquire that wisdom deeply within their own minds. For example, if we never lie, if we always take bugs out instead of swat them, if we talk to each other with respect, if we assume our responsibilities, if we do what we need to do before what we want to do, etc. All of these things are part of our family culture. Some families have destructive cultures, such as always considering oneself the victim of the world, without choice in how to respond, or one that always blames others, or puts onself first over everyone else, or one that resolves disputes with violence, fear and intimidation. All of these are part of one’s family culture. We should really take the time to identify the culture of our own family and make sure that we make modifications if necessary. It will be these family cultural norms and values that will be the real legacy we leave within our kids that will shape their whole lives.
In addition to giving these four things, we also need to work on improving the scope of the motivation with which we give. When we start, in order to establish the mental habit of “giving”, it is OK to think, “everything I give I create the cause to receive in the future. Since I want these things, I better give them now.” As our scope improves, we can start to think, “giving is one of the main causes of obtaining a precious human life in the future, so I better give now while I can.” Further, when we give we create the cause to “lack nothing.” Lacking nothing is not a physical thing, but a state of mind, whose nature is that of contentment. Paradoxically, when we attain liberation (which we do by letting go of everything) our experience becomes one of simultaneously having everything and lacking nothing. As bodhisattvas, we think I need to give so that I can receive in the future. Why do I want to have abundance in the future? So that I can give even more! A Buddha, finally, is able to give everything to all living beings all of the time. They expereince the entire universe as emanated by them as their gift to all beings. They are able to emanate countless emanations in infinite forms, each performing the function of leading all beings to enlightenment. Other might not experience the objects of their life in this way, but that is only because we haven’t given them enough wisdom yet!
Your turn: Describe the different types of giving you practice in the context of your family life.