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Excerpted from Pay Attention, For Goodness Sake by Sylvia Boorstein. Copyright 2002 by Sylvia Boorstein. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.

"What mattered was that in the moment of impulsive, generous thought, I absolutely knew that the only thing I needed was freedom."

  Sylvia Boorstein, Pay Attention, For Goodness Sake, Part 4

One Robe, One Bowl

At Spirit Rock Meditation Center there is a basket on the table in the entrance foyer of the Community Meditation Hall with a card that says dana on it. When newcomers arrive for a class, they probably figure out--especially if they are familiar with collection plates at churches--that the people stopping to put money into the basket are making some gesture of voluntary support. Dana is the Pali word for "generosity," and at Spirit Rock we teach it as a practice.

My ability to be generous varies--as does everyone's--with how comfortable I feel. Generosity depends on not feeling needy. I'd learned, before my first formal Mindfulness retreat, that the money I would be asked to pay for the retreat would be the cost of room and board at the retreat center and that, in keeping with the tradition in Asia, there was no established fee for the teachings. I liked the explanation given for the tradition: "Since these teachings are priceless, it's not possible to charge for them." I knew that retreatants, eager to express their gratitude and also aware that the teachers needed to support themselves, left gifts of money at the end of retreats.

I finished that retreat so inspired and happy about the possibility of freedom from suffering and so hopeful that practice might provide that for me that I thought, "This is priceless. I should give everything I have." Then I thought, "That can't be right. It doesn't make sense. I'm a householder. I have a family to care for." In the end, I made my dana offering a practice, as I do now, of deciding, given my current circumstances, on a responsible expression of my gratitude. The gift decision, though, was not what mattered. What mattered was that in the moment of impulsive, generous thought, I absolutely knew that the only thing I needed was freedom.

Not long after that, still in the early years of my practice, a group of Burmese monks were guest teachers for a week at a retreat at which I was a student in southern California. They were housed in one of the cottages at the edge of the retreat center. One morning after breakfast, the retreat manager announced, "The monks are leaving this morning. If you want to, you can stand outside their cottage as a gesture of respect as they leave."

I stood silently with the other retreatants and watched the monks walk out single file from their cottage, each one carrying his begging bowl in a string bag. I realized that whatever they were wearing, whatever they were carrying, and whatever was in the two suitcases on top of the minibus they were traveling in constituted all of their worldly goods. Watching the monks seemed to me a visual representation of the truth that not-needing--not needing more, not needing other--is the end of suffering. I thought, "They have everything they need."

At home these days, I keep a copy of a small book of poetry by the Zen monk Ryokan, One Robe, One Bowl, not on the bookshelf but someplace where I see it often--on the kitchen counter, or propped up on the piano next to the music. The title reminds me of the image of the monks. When my mind becomes cluttered, and therefore tense, with desires--with things I think I need or ways in which I think things need to be in order for me to be happy--I remember that the clutter itself is the cause of my suffering, and I think, "What is it that I really need?" When I see clearly enough, I can be generous toward myself. I can give away the clutter.

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