Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest men, announced in June 2006 that he is giving 85% of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help the foundation pursue its longstanding goal of curing the globe's most fatal diseases and improving American education. This is a $31 billion gift, certainly one of the largest acts of generosity in world history.
Two thoughts came to mind when we heard this news. First, we recalled something Bill Gates, chairman of the Microsoft Corporation, said three years ago. It came near the end of an interview with by Bill Moyers on the PBS series Now. Moyers and Gates were discussing his philanthrophic activities, and Gates recounted a litany of reasons why some people think addressing global health problems is a good idea. Some use economic arguments. If we cure something like malaria in an African country, say, then that country's Gross National Product will be higher (and presumably they will buy more things). Some use security arguments; "If we don't cure these diseases, the instability in these countries will be bad." Others use the neighborhood arguments; "Somebody could get on a plane from one of these places and you might get sick."
None of these arguments, Gates said matter-of-factly, is the right one. "The right argument is this mother's child is sick. And that child's life is no less valuable than the life of anyone else. And the world has plenty of resources to go solve these problems."
We have never forgotten that statement. On the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website, they restate it as the "two simple values that lie at the core of the foundation's work": (1) "All lives — no matter where they are being led — have equal value." (2) "To whom much has been given, much is expected."
The second thought that came to mind when we heard of Warren Buffett's gift is that generosity is for everyone. If this is how we honor and express human value, than any act of kindness counts in the bigger picture. We can all be kind. We can all be generous. This is one of the key teachings of all the world's religions. "You can share even if you have a little," according to a Lungundan (East African) proverb.
So we decided to look into our databases of quotes collected from our reading and see what teachers of our times and earlier ones have said about the spiritual practice of generosity. We encourage you to take them to heart, as we have, and to share them with others.
- Wendy Lustbader, a mental health counselor, writes in Counting on Kindness: "The words 'genius' and 'generous' come from the Latin root 'genere' meaning 'to beget.' To have a genius for life is to possess the ability to generate warmth and well-being in others. Largess literally enlarges our lives."
- In Simple Truths, Kent Nerburn states: "Giving is a miracle that can transform the heaviest of hearts. Two people, who moments before lived in separate worlds of private concerns, suddenly meet each other over a simple act of sharing. The world expands, a moment of goodness is created, and something new comes into being where before there was nothing. . . . But true giving is not an economic exchange; it is a generative act. It does not subtract from what we have; it multiples the effect we can have in the world."
- Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes in Lovingkindness: "The Buddha said that no true spiritual life is possible without a generous heart. . . . Generosity allies itself with an inner feeling of abundance — the feeling that we have enough to share."
- Jose Hobday in Simple Living explains how generosity is viewed in the Native American community: "We used to say you could tell if a person was an authentic native whether or not she had a red heart. A red heart had to do with whether the heart had blood from being massaged by good works, especially sharing."
- Catholic and Celtic scholar John O'Donohue observes in Eternal Echoes: "A generous heart is never lonesome. A generous heart has luck. The lonesomeness of contemporary life is partly due to the failure of generosity. Increasingly we complete with each other for the goods, for image, and status."
- In The Knowing Heart, Sufi sheikh Kabir Helminski states: "The Prophet Muhammad said, 'the best of my people will enter paradise not because of their achievements, but because of the Mercy of God and their being satisfied with little for themselves and their extreme generosity toward others.' "
- Matthew Fox in Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh writes: "Generosity is about giving without a guaranteed return — it is about the 'giveaway.' I believe that the true moral path of the twenty-first century will be very different from the path of the modern era because it will be marked by generosity."
- Anglican Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu writes in God Has a Dream: "Like humility, generosity comes from seeing that everything we have and everything we accomplish comes from God's grace and God's love for us. In the African understanding of ubuntu, our humility and generosity also come from realizing that we could not be alive, nor could we accomplish anything, without the support, love, and generosity of all the people who have helped us to become the people we are today. Certainly it is from experiencing this generosity of God and the generosity of those in our life that we learn gratitude and to be generous to others."
- In Contact with God, Anthony de Mello states: "Those who expect God to be generous with them must be generous with their fellows. 'Give,' says Jesus, 'and gifts will be given you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured out into your lap; for whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt out to you in return. (Luke 6:38) If you are tight-fisted and calculating with the poor, the needy, with those who ask you for help and service, how can you expect God to be generous with you?"
- In Beyond Belief, her examination of the Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagels describes the long tradition of generosity in Christianity: "Tertullian, a Christian spokesman of the second century, writes that, unlike members of other clubs and societies that collected dues and fees to pay for feasts, members of the Christian 'family' contributed money voluntarily to a common fund to support orphans abandoned in the streets and garbage dumps. Christian groups brought food, medicine, and companionship to prisoners forced to work in mines, banished to prison islands, or held in jail. Christians even bought coffins and dug graves to bury the poor and criminals, whose corpses would otherwise lie unburied beyond the city gates. . . such generosity, which ordinarily could be expected only from one's own family, attracted crowds of newcomers to Christian groups, despite the risks."
- Christian author Tony Campolo in Spiritual Perspectives on America's Role as a Superpower points out how far many of us are from being generous. He notes: "Americans do not realize that the wealth we have gained since the middle of the twentieth century has slowly made us into a very selfish people. We know that after World War II we helped rebuild Europe under the Marshall Plan, and we still think that the same kind of generosity marks our present-day foreign policy. That is not the case. Of the twenty-two industrial nations of the world, the United States is dead last on per-capita giving to the poor peoples of the world. By way of comparison, let me point out that on a per-capita-basis, for every dollar that America gives to the world, the people of Norway give seventy."
- Margaret Guenther in At Home in the World states: "Jesus' standard of generosity is not the world's standard. 'Just give a cup of cold water in my name,' he instructs. So little and so simple as to be scarcely noticed! Like the widow's mite it is nevertheless a high standard. It demands that we live in awareness of the thirst all around us."
- Catholic priest Edward Hays in Prayer Notes to a Friend suggests: "Make extravagant generosity your greatest vice and become God-like."
- Editor Rebecca Laird in The Heart of Henri Nouwen quotes from this Catholic contemplative's book Sabbatical Journey: "I think that generosity has many levels. We have to think generously, speak generously, and act generously. Thinking well of others and speaking well of others is the basis for generous giving. It means that we relate to others as part of our 'gen' or 'kin' and treat them as family. Generosity cannot come from guilt or pity. It has to come from hearts that are fearless and free and are willing to share abundantly all that is given to us."
- Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, quoted in The Faces of Buddhism in America, says: "To cultivate generosity directly is another fundamental part of living a spiritual life. Like the training precepts and like our inner meditations, generosity can actually be practiced. With practice, its spirit forms our actions, and our hearts will grow stronger and lighter. It can lead to new levels of letting go and great happiness."
- Buddhist Christina Feldman in Heart of Wisdom, Mind of Calm observes: "Generosity lies at the heart of spiritual practice. Extending generosity to ourselves and others gladdens our heart, is a direct way of healing division, and brings joy."
- In Love Dharma, Geri Larkin states: "The Buddha taught, over and over, that generosity is the first door we walk through if we are serious about our spiritual work. Without generosity enlightenment is flat-out impossible. We're too self-centered. Unless our relationships are bathed in generosity they don't have a chance. At the other extreme, generosity can buttress a faltering relationship, giving other paramitas time to work their magic. It fuels the little extras, the surprise moments that keep us fresh and interesting."
- In Hooked! edited by Stephanie Kaza, Buddhist writer Joseph Goldstein looks at the relationship between generosity and consumerism. "The practice of generosity can serve as a corrective to addictive consumerism. Generosity enacts the quality of nongreed; it is a willingness to share, to let go. It may be giving of time, energy, resources, love, and even in rare cases, one's own life for the benefit and welfare of others. Generosity weakens the tendency of attachment and grasping and is intimately connected with the feeling of lovingkindness. People who experience the power and joy of generosity will also experience its effect on consuming. The cultivation of generosity offers a very strong antidote to the wanting mind and would be a powerful corrective if taken up in a widespread way across our culture."
- Ringu Tulku, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, in Path to Buddhahood states: "According to the Buddha, if we are rich in this life, it is because we've been generous in previous lives. If we want to be rich in the future, we must learn to give now."
- Catherine Ingram, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, writes in Passionate Presence: "The Buddha spoke about three kinds of giving: beggarly giving, friendly giving and kingly giving. Beggarly giving is when we give the least of what we have. We give what we don't really need, what we would never miss, what we might have otherwise thrown away. Friendly giving is when we give what we use and like — not our very best — but what we can afford and might appreciate having as a gift ourselves. Kingly giving is of a different order altogether. It is when we give the very best of what we have, when we give more than we keep for ourselves, when we give more than we can afford, when we give with no expectation of reciprocity. In awakened awareness we give because the joy of generosity far exceeds the paltry satisfaction of hoarding or displaying wealth. We give because this very life is a gift itself and wants to be completely used up, wants to spread perfume around everyone it meets."
- Donald Altman in Living Kindness writes about Jewish concepts of generosity: "In Judaism, the concept of giving is essential through what is known as tzedakah, or charity. Actually, the roots of the word stand for justice, righteousness, or fairness. It was in the twelfth century that the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides compiled his 'eight levels of charity' as a kind of guide to enlightened living. The levels, starting from the lowest to highest, are as follows:
l. Giving unwillingly.
2. Giving willingly but giving less than you could.
3. Giving only after being asked.
4. Giving without being asked.
5. Giving to a recipient you do not know, but who knows you.
6. Giving to a recipient you know, but who does not know you.
7. Giving when both parties are anonymous to each other.
8. Giving that enables self-reliance."
- Rami Shapiro in Hasidic Tales observes: "Acts of generosity are essential to the spiritual life, reflecting as they do an awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings. Judaism sets a minimum standard for giving: ten percent of your earnings. But the Hasid, the compassionate disciple of God, goes beyond the letter of the law."
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Celebrating Life notes: "Happiness is not made by what we own. It is what we share."
- Dean Brackley in The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times writes: "The great challenges of our time — poverty, the environment, war — should inspire humility, but also creativity and bold action. They cry out for large-minded generosity — that is, the magnanimity that springs from wholesome self-esteem. Without humility, we elbow others aside. But without magnanimity, we bury our talent in a napkin."
- In Celebrating Silence, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of The Art of Living Foundation, says: "Poor people fight for food. Rich people share their food. Richer are those who share power. Richer still are those who share fame. Richest of all are those who share themselves. A person's wealth is measured by his ability to share and not by what he hoards."
- Joseph Bruchac in Our Stories Remember states: "The potlatch ceremonies found among many of the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest have been referred to as "fighting with wealth" by anthropologists who describe them as ceremonies in which a prominent figure tries to outdo a rival by either giving away or destroying vast amounts of personal possessions. . . . It could be said that while the accumulation of personal wealth is a desirable social norm in mainstream American culture, just the opposite is true in American Indian cultures. . . . At its best, a potlatch was a way to redistribute material wealth rather than leaving it in the hands of a few."
- Buddhist teacher Norman Fischer writes in Taking Our Places: "The practice of generosity is a good way to counteract whatever tendency to stealing we might have. To practice generosity is to make a conscious effort to give away whatever we can — money, time, food, feeling — as a way of realizing that generosity is perfectly safe and it's even a relief to give things away."
- In Running the Spiritual Path, Roger Joslin recommends a simple practice for when you are exercising: "Running with alms involves carrying a few dollars with you on the run with the intention of giving it away. Holding money in your pocket, expecting to offer it to another, serves as a reminder to give of yourself."
- Franz Metcalf in Just Add Buddha states: "When someone asks you for a favor, just say 'yes' without hesitating and without thinking. Don't make any room for equivocation or evaluation. Say yes and think later. . . . It's a wonderful practice to do every now and then. With repetition, you'll break down the tension between giving and paying that taints ordinary giving. You'll slowly approach the freedom of pure giving."