Give ’til It Hurts

Generosity doesn’t come easily to me.  In fact, one of the hard truths that I’ve learned as a result of Buddhist practice is that there’s a lot of selfishness inside of me.  I’m not sure why that is.

Maybe it’s the result of being the oldest of 5 kids; constantly forced to share my possessions growing up. Perhaps, I heard “We’ll get your school clothes later, Alex. We have to take care of the little ones first,” a few too many times as a child.

Or maybe I’ve developed some weird connections over the years between having stuff and feeling safe/ secure.  I don’t know. I just know that before I started this practice my default mode was, “I have my stuff.  You have your stuff. Please, don’t ask me for anything, and I won’t ask you for anything.”

Thankfully, Buddhism has largely set me straight in this respect. While the selfish tendencies are still there, I’ve learned to recognize them for the hollow, karmic noise that they are, and do the opposite of what they tell me. My life is happier and more peaceful as a result.

That being said, it’s not always an easy road. Like everything in life, the path of generosity occasionally ends in disappointment. Case in point, I recently had a close friend ask me for  money.

The amount isn’t important, but suffice it to say that if you dropped this much money in the street, you’d move very quickly to pick it up. But I’ve known this person for a long time, so I gave her what she asked for.

Later, I found out that she lied about her reason for wanting the cash.

I’ve spent the past few days processing how I feel about this. Frankly, I’m sad, and more than a little hurt.

Generosity isn’t real if there are strings attached. And I fully acknowledge that once the exchange happened, what she did with all those dollars stopped being my concern. But there’s a trust that was broken.

She told me one thing. She did another. How can I trust her again?

As I often do when life perplexes me, I looked to the Dharma for answers. In doing so, I stumbled upon a story in the Jataka Tales, which are parables about the Buddha’s previous incarnations. One of the stories goes like this:

Buddha is walking through the forest when he sees a mother tigress in the distance. She is so hungry that she’s about to eat her cubs in order to survive. The Buddha is horrified by her suffering, and what’s about to happen as a result.

For a moment, he ponders finding some other animal for her to eat. But he decides against this as that would only create suffering for the poor animal that he feeds to the tigress. Running out of time, he chooses to be completely selfless, and willingly feeds himself to her.

The tigress eats the Buddha, her health is restored, and her cubs are saved.

Sadly, I have not reached this level of attainment. If I see a hungry tigress tomorrow, I will wish her well, chant Nembutsu on her behalf, and quickly walk in the other direction. That being said, the general tone of the story speaks to my situation.

In a world filled with abject suffering, I saw what I thought was an opportunity to help, so I took it. In the end, my actions were based on a lie. But I assume my friend is receiving some enjoyment from the money I gave her.

So I’m left weighing my disappointment against her happiness; my chance to conquer selfishness against her dishonesty. Will I give her money again in the future? I don’t know.

But for the time being I’ll just be grateful that I could be the Buddha to her Tigress.

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