Greg Scharf and volunteer cook Donald Elniff enjoying cake dana at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre
Right now, I’m assisting my friend Greg Scharf teach a two week retreat at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre in New South Wales, Australia. And right about now, the annual three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, has just got under way. So I’ve been appreciating the synchronicity of these two events, knowing that as we meditate together in the hall here in Australia, on the other side of the world another hundred or so people are joining us in the “psychesphere,” if that’s a word!
I also realised that it’s now ten years since I sat my first three-month retreat at IMS. When I arrived at IMS for the first time in September 2003, walked under the portico inscribed with the word Metta, and pushed open the heavy old front door, I had no idea what I was stepping into. But those three months of intensive meditation practice have been the single most transformative event of my life to date, and now, ten years on, as I remember that time I’m filled with deep gratitude.
There’s something very poignant for me about being back at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, too, because it was the community here in the Blue Mountains that made it possible to attend the IMS three-month retreat. So today, I feel moved to acknowledge that connection by sharing the story of how that opportunity came to be.
I used to be one of the managers here at BMIMC, from 2000 – 2003, then I continued part time for a couple of years after that. Prior to taking on the manager’s position, I had been working as an architect in Melbourne, Victoria, and I gave up my job to come and live here at the centre. Back then, the role was part-time and it offered only a small stipend, so I suddenly had a lot less money than I was used to. I didn’t own a car, and I didn’t know anybody in New South Wales. But from the moment I arrived, people from the community whom I hardly knew were very generous. They brought me warm clothes. They took me out for meals. They drove me to town to do the shopping. They offered me free dental treatment. And they let me stay in their holiday cottage by the beach, to name just a very few examples.
In one way it was beautiful to be on the receiving end of so much generosity, but it also showed up a lot of my conditioning about being self-reliant and independent. I saw how I felt much more comfortable being the one offering generosity, than the one receiving it, because I had an unconscious belief that receiving things from others made me somehow inferior to them.
As I explored the Buddha’s teachings in more depth though, I started to recognise all of these beliefs as forms of Wrong View. I saw my attachment to being strong and self-reliant, and my fear of being dependent on or beholden to other people. Gradually, through bringing awareness to them, these views started to dissolve and I was able to accept what people offered me with genuine appreciation for their generosity.
But then, towards the end of my tenure as manager, it felt as if they really “upped the ante,” as they say, and my capacity to receive kindness got an even bigger workout. After three years of being the manager, I felt ready to do some longer-term meditation practice. Although I’d spent some time practising in Thailand, I didn’t feel ready to do a long retreat in Asia, and the only other place I knew of that offered longer retreats was the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. I looked on-line at their three-month retreat and it seemed very expensive by Australian standards. Back then, the Australian dollar was worth a lot less too, so by the time I’d added in the cost of the airfare and dana for the teachers, it just seemed financially impossible.
A few days later, I was having a cup of tea with someone from the BMIMC Management Committee and we started talking about the benefits of longer-term retreat practice. I mentioned my interest in doing the three-month retreat to him, but that it seemed impossible because of the cost. He thought for a moment, then suggested that we put something in the BMIMC newsletter to “see what might happen.” I felt a bit guilty about putting myself out there like that, but reluctantly agreed, because I didn’t really think anything would come of it.
I was wrong though. After the newsletter went out, donations started to arrive from people from the Blue Mountains, from Sydney, and beyond – including people I hadn’t even met. One woman from New Zealand sent a cheque with a note enclosed, saying that she had done the three-month retreat at IMS many years ago, and she wanted me to have the same opportunity.
It was quite overwhelming, and at first I noticed a sense of cringe whenever a donation came in. I’d think: “I’m not worthy. Those people need their money more than I do. I’m not good enough to practice at IMS anyway. What if I don’t make it through the retreat? I’ll have to give them their money back.” It was painful, but finally I recognised that meeting people’s generosity with that kind of cringing response was in some ways, quite disrespectful. It wasn’t acknowledging or honouring their generosity, and it felt wrong to meet their kindness with such inner stinginess. So I made the choice to NOT do that. If I was going to accept their donations, I decided to do it as consciously and graciously as possible. And to cut a long story short, eventually I was able to go to the United States and sit the three-month retreat at IMS in 2003.
But that wasn’t the end of my learning about generosity. While I was on retreat, I would think about how many people had sent money in for me to be there, and it was a huge motivation to keep practising. I thought about members of the Burmese community in Sydney, for example, who I knew were not wealthy, but had sent donations to help me do the retreat. Then at those times when I didn’t feel like getting up to do the first sitting in the morning, I’d go anyway, because it would have felt mean-spirited to not make the extra effort.
So the material generosity that they gave me translated into a different kind of support, a sort of spiritual support, that was perhaps even more powerful than the money they offered. At the end of each day on retreat, I wrote a thank-you card to one of the people on my donor list, and offered them whatever benefit might have come from that day of practice. Even now, I still feel like crying when I remember what it was like to receive all of their dana, on so many levels.
I wanted to share this story because it shows how generosity might start with offering money or gifts to someone, but it’s the openness of heart and openness of mind that makes it a truly transformative experience. And being able to appreciate what one receives is another facet of generosity which is often overlooked. The Buddha recognised this in one of his teachings from the Anguttara Nikaya, where he talked about what a rare quality appreciation is. He said: