“…incalculable, immeasurable”: The Blessings of Gift Economy

Once the Buddha was living at his most beloved monastery, a park given to the monastic community (saṅgha) by a passionate donor and community leader named Anāthapiṇḍika, outside the city of Sāvatthī. His two senior disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna, at that time were about 490 miles away, “wandering in the Southern Hills” with their own groups of students, and were invited for a meal to the home of a lay woman named Veḷukaṇṭakī, also known as “Nanda’s mother” (AN 7.53).

After the meal they asked her how she knew they were in town, and she told them that the previous morning she had been singing a prayer called “The Way to the Beyond” (Parāyana, Snp 5.18-19), and a spirit world king named Vessavaṇa had appeared before her, praised her, and told her the saṅgha was about to arrive. She immediately sent the invitation to a meal offering, and started preparing a donation. While she was doing this, the Buddha, hundreds of miles away in Sāvatthī, saw what she was doing with his power of clairvoyance, and praised it to his own monastics (AN 6.37), saying that the extent of merit (puñña) or blessing that arises from a gift like this is “not easy to grasp,” comparing it to the amount of water in the ocean.

Three Pāli texts (linked above) weave together to tell this ancient miracle story. Together they form a teaching on the power of faith, generosity, and the act of giving (dāna). Ever-consistent in his emphasis on the cultivation of wholesome states, the Buddha doesn’t just praise the donor but uses the moment to give a teaching on how the heart-mind state of the giver and recipient both are important if a donation is to truly be of full benefit.

It’s not just because Veḷukaṇṭakī is giving a generous gift that the Buddha is so pleased. It’s because she’s actually quite a powerful practitioner herself, and her heart is thus free from the hindrances—lingering worry and doubt, for instance—that often haunt well-intentioned donors to even very good causes. After telling the story of being visited by the deity Vessavaṇa, which already impresses Sāriputta and Moggallāna, she tells them about her further attainments without a hint of ego or pride, radiating a confidence we rarely see, even in very accomplished practitioners now.

She does this in the form of a list of things that are increasingly “incredible and amazing,” a stock formula the Buddha and other senior monastics also use when narrating their own accomplishments. The list starts with her having profound equanimity even as she saw her son unjustly executed by the government, and her dead husband reborn in the not-entirely-positive spirit realm of the yakkhas (ruled by the same deity Vessavaṇa)!

She then casually relates her impeccably faithful marriage (“even in thought,” the text tells us), ethical purity (since she became a lay follower she’s never broken a precept), and her meditative skills, including easy access to the 4 meditative absorptions (jhāna). All of that is well within many lay people’s practice, though few lay people in the texts are as perfected as she is in these areas, but her “incredible and amazing” list goes on to admit that she’s also quite awakened, having eliminated the lower five (of ten) fetters. This reveals her very high level of liberation, which is that of a “non-returner,” destined to be reborn only once more, in a heaven realm, and attain full awakening there. This makes her one of the most accomplished laypeople in the Pāli Canon, who even after attaining the third of four stages of liberation doesn’t ordain as a monastic, as is the norm, but remains a powerful and generous lay supporter. This is partly why she’s the model for fully perfected generosity here.

The Buddha, telling his community the story of her support of Sāriputta and Moggallāna, uses it to teach them a list of six factors that make a gift incalculably powerful. Three are qualities of the donor and three of the recipient:

And which are the three factors of the donor? There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified. These are the three factors of the donor.

And which are the three factors of the recipients? There is the case where the recipients are free of passion or are practicing for the subduing of passion; free of aversion or practicing for the subduing of aversion; and free of delusion or practicing for the subduing of delusion. These are the three factors of the recipients.

(AN 6.37, tr. Ṭhanissāro)

Basically, the donor’s practice is to be happy before, during, and after giving, but the detail that their mind should be “bright & clear” while in the moment of giving is important. The emotions of gladness and gratification before and after are pretty straight-forward, but why specifically mental brightness during the giving?

Giving challenges our deepest layers of trauma and painful habit. It requires us to let go of some resources we might otherwise just keep for our own use, resources that could be turned into life sustenance, or entertainment, or invested in service of a future personal or familial need. But like all of the foundations of the Path, especially the other great pillar of training, ethical action (sīla), giving is not just a basic training and a tool to ensure the funding of the monastic order, but a discipline and healing inquiry that matures into the fully formed qualities of liberation. Letting go is what it’s all about, after all, and renunciation—the cultivation of letting go—is the cornerstone of right intention, the second aspect of the Eightfold Path. The practice of donating (wholesome letting go of wealth, you might call it, or voluntary, joyful redistribution) to support valued teachers and practitioners has at least a double result: it helps free the donor from the trauma symptoms of greed and scarcity-mind, and sustains the recipient in their practice.

Recipients must practice to be deserving of such a wholesome gift, and the set of factors in this list that describes the qualities of the recipient makes clear that their core quality is dedication to the Path. It’s important that attainment of a particular stage of liberation or maturity in practice is not what makes the recipient deserving. That would put the responsibility for assessing a practitioner’s attainments in the hands of the lay donor, which would be inappropriate (and impossible). The deserving quality is simply persistence and dedication to the goal of liberation. Clarity of intention, in other words, specifically in terms of dedication to practice.

The donor cultivates clarity of intention in order to give in a way that cultivates freedom from grasping, and the recipient cultivates clarity of intention toward practice in order to be a worthy recipient of the gift. Both giving and receiving become liberation practices, and both giver and receiver, when the gift has these six factors, experience the incalculable merit and blessings that results from such a gift. As the Buddha said in the Dhammapada, “The gift of dhamma exceeds all other gifts.” (Dhp 354) Veḷukaṇṭakī knew this, and her joy in supporting the Saṅgha was fully interwoven with her own wisdom and profound attainment.

I wrote this post as part of a fundraising appeal for retreat scholarships. You can read more about the retreat scholarship program here, or click this link to give. Thank you for your generosity!

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Text about gift of Dhamma over image of Buddha radiating light

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