The Gift of Giving: What Is Your True Intention?

During this seasonal time of giving, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Buddhist practice of dana, which means “generosity” or “letting go.”

As a practice, dana is not only something we’re asked to do consciously, on a regular basis, it’s also considered one of the main “qualities of heart” – or paramis  – that the Buddha urged us to cultivate as a way to discover more joy, freedom, and ease in our lives.

What this means is that: it’s not necessarily what we give that’s important, but our intention for the giving itself – because our awareness of this is exactly what can help nurture and expand this quality in our own hearts.

One of my favorite stories about this comes from an offering of dana I received many years ago from a student at the end of a residential retreat he attended with me.

During our retreat, he’d discovered this gift inside a huge old tree. Apparently, finding it had meant so much to him and had seemed so precious, that it was truly a difficult practice – to let it go and give it to me, instead of keeping it for himself.

Yet, he felt strongly that he should do this, and that I would understand.

This particular offering, which he left anonymously, happened to be a four-foot long snake skin, which I found coiled up in the bottom of the dana basket – or, the place where students traditionally leave teachers monetary or other gifts after attending a retreat.

Just recently, at the end of another residential retreat, this same student approached me rather sheepishly, confessed that he’d done this, and told me he’d wondered for a long time if I’d somehow been offended.

What he didn’t know was – I was so happy to finally know who had left it, and to let him know that I had absolutely loved his gift!

So much so that I had kept it on the shelves above my desk for years, to remind me how this practice has the power to radically transform us if we allow it ourselves to truly let go, just as the snake lets go of its old skin over and over, and becomes new again.

So, paradoxically, his unusual gift of dana was actually an excellent metaphor for the act of dana itself!

His confession was also truly a gift to me, because it enabled me to relieve him of his doubt, and to let him know that yes, I did understand, and that I greatly appreciated his intention.

As an interesting side note, at a daylong retreat a few months later, I felt inspired to bring this student’s gift back to him, and we both felt incredibly joyful about this.

At the end of that retreat, I saw him standing in a line of students waiting to say goodbye to me, and he seemed to be holding something. When it was finally his turn, he approached me slowly, smiling, and opened his hands to reveal … yet another snake skin! He’d found it hanging on a tree he’d been sitting underneath, during lunch.

Instantly, we both burst out laughing at the serendipity of this new finding … and it felt just perfect.  

In the teachings, the Buddha tells us that whenever we give, we should feel joy three times: before, during, and after.

And if we think about this, when we’re truly offering something from our hearts – even if it’s just a smile, a hug, or a listening ear – there is joy in the anticipation of giving, there is joy in the actual giving, and finally, there is joy in the remembering.

So, along with contemplating our “intention” for giving, we might also consider another great question, which is: what do I want to remember?

Even if our gift is not well-received (as you might imagine a snake skin may not have been!) we can ask ourselves: can I feel joy when remembering my intention?

At the same time, we might also try to remember the good intention of others, even when what they’re offering us might be something we’d rather not receive.

With joy, and kind wishes for Happy Holidays and a wonderful 2024! ~ Shell