This book argues that donation (dana) is one of the central practices in early Buddhism for, without it, Buddhism would not have survived and flourished in the many centuries of its development and expansion. Early Buddhist donation draws on older Vedic beliefs and practices, especially those involving funeral ceremonies and the ritual transfiguration of the ancestors (pitrs). Buddhist relationship between donors and renunciants developed quickly into a complex web that involves material life and the views about how to attend to it. Questions of how to properly acquire and use wealth, how to properly give and receive individual and communal gifts, how to think about using and transferring merit, and what constitutes proper food, robes, lodging, and medicine are central to the "dana contract."
The Dana system reflects the changing dynamics of life in northern India as wealth and leisure time increase, and as newly powerful groups of people look around for alternative religions affiliation. Buddhist dana's great success is due to the early and continuing use of accommodation with other faiths as a foundational value, thus allowing the tradition to adapt to changing circumstances.
Ellison Banks Findly is Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Trinity College, where she teaches courses on Vedic culture, Hinduism, Buddhism, Indian art, and Sanskrit Language. He has published over thirty articles on Vedic, Mughal, an early Buddhist studies, and among her books are From the Courts of India: Indian Art in the Worcester Museum and Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India. She has edited a number of collections, including Women, Religion, and Social Change, an Asian Art and Culture volume on "Indian Textiles and Trade," and Women's Buddhism, Buddhism's Women. Professor findly is currently working on Borderline Beings; Plant Lives in Indian Traditions.
Our experience of the world is of interdependence. In that we are mindful of things in our experience, we notice that they appear in our field of knowing through the five senses and as various components of the five aggregates. Investigation of these things brings us to see that they are not isolated elements but related to one another in manifold reverberations of cause and condition. A tree depends on soil, soil depends on organic matter, organic matter depends on carbon, and so forth, in waves of infinite regress. Coming to see experience as the result of causes and conditions is part of vipassana or insight.
Those who are interested in the Buddhist pathway, but who are still some distance from awakened being, often need the guidance of the teaching, of Dhamma, to turn them toward greater insight. Dhamma provides structure through which trustworthy views of experience can be developed. Danadhamma, or the teaching on dana, donation, is one such guide; through it the practitioner is provided a structure by which she or he comes, daily, to the moment of contact between those staying at home and those who have chosen to go forth, and sees that they are mutually dependent one on the other. This very elementary teaching which is the teaching on giving has the power to bring laypeople and renunciants alike to the realization that interdependence is not just a mark of nature or of the body, but of human social life. Renunciants are said to live upanissaya 'depending on' the resources given to them by householders in Dhamma depending on renunciants whose presence at the household door models the equanimity, anonymity, and humility of a life without possession, and whose teachings give guidance for following contract which, if followed in confidence, can give rise to authentic experience of, and insight into, interdependence.
The teachings on Dana also provide evidence that one of the central postures of the early Buddhist community toward being in the world is one of accommodation. In that the survival of the community depends on having enough food, clothing, lodging, and medicine, the practice of dana allows the interaction which provides these resources to be flexible and adaptable, and suited in every case to the particular needs and circumastances of the individual lay-renunciant transaction. The charge to give teachings, for example, only in the local language and not in Chandas or meter, that is, in Vedic dialect, is indicative of a desire to meet potential followers at their own starting point. And the teaching which lets donors wish the "blessings" of al long life on a monk who sneezes and who then must respond in kind, not only appeases donor sensibilities, but also helps to break renunciant attachment to monastic custom and habit.
The experience of interdependence and the practice of accommodation are rich benefits of dana practice, a doctrine set up, in part, as an exchange: householders give according to the teachings on donation called danadhamma, and renunciants return householders' offerings with a gift of teaching called dhammadana. While the benefits of giving an getting dana and Dhamma are immense, it is the ritual form of this exchange itself which continues to have its own power to teach and to transform.
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