Give What You Can

May 9, 2024

Shambhavi discusses a retreat in India where she saw two women joyfully counting a few coins to give to the teacher. Without shame, they gave what they could. Listen to learn how this affected Shambhavi and Jaya Kula culture. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

I want to go back to when we first started having teachings and people were coming over in person. I had been to India and seen something that really, really impressed me. I went to this retreat in India, and there were many, many Indian people there and very few Westerners.

And there was no set fee for the retreat or anything. At the end of the retreat, somebody who worked for the teacher set up a table in the hall. And everyone lined up to just give whatever they could.

I was standing behind these two Indian ladies, and they obviously didn't have a lot of money. And they were between the two of them, counting out a few rupees. Now, This was for a teaching that had gone on for a whole week and included meals, three meals a day.

It didn't give you a place to stay, but it was not a three-hour afternoon teaching. And so these two women were standing there, they were literally counting out change.

And they were laughing and smiling, and they were just so happy that they had anything at all to give. They were just beaming with joy. They weren't embarrassed. They didn't feel ashamed of not having a lot of money.

They were just happy to be able to give. And they went up and they gave their money, and their names got written down in a book with what they had given. When I got back to the United States after this trip, I was extremely moved by this. And it really kind of like, sunk into my psyche.

We started at Jaya Kula, something called give what you can. Instead of by donation, we started give what you can. We had a big sign over the donation box at satsang and other things that said, give what you can. I would periodically explain what this meant.

So, it means that you just give what you can, but you give. Sometimes people would give very, very little money, and it was totally, absolutely fine. There was no sense of shame.

And I think one of the reasons why people don't give here is because they feel if they can't give a lot, something that brands them as having money, then they're too ashamed to give anything. I'm going to talk more about that. But I think that's one of the things that happens here that maybe doesn't happen everywhere else.

One time someone left a pair of socks in the donation box. Another time they left an outdated can of tuna. [laughter] I mean, people were just really giving what they could, right? That was what was happening. That's what we asked for.

So in the traditions that I have studied in, which are all from India, Tibet, or China. There has been since ancient times, and probably since ever there were teachers, or ever there were diviners, or ever there were astrologers, or ever there were doctors.

Because all of these are what are called wisdom traditions. In ancient times in these countries, people would be practicing in, embedded in a tradition that had some sort of spiritual component, even if it wasn't spiritual practice.

And there was an understanding that you are giving and receiving. And that whoever it is, the doctor or the astrologer or the diviner or the ritualist or the spiritual teacher, that they're being supported by you. And they are supporting you with whatever they're offering.

And then there's this sense of an exchange, of a conversation. So in those times, what did they give? They gave what they could. I had one teacher who said he would receive a lot of different, very large gifts, but then somebody would just give him a flower and he would feel really happy about that.

It really was a give what you can system, and everybody understood it. And understood the grace of it and understood the beauty of it. People could be supported with medicine and guidance, and whoever was giving that medicine or guidance could be supported to continue doing that.

There's the understanding that you're not just doing it for yourself because you're receiving something. But that when you give what you can, you're also supporting other people to receive the wealth of these wisdom traditions.

The other way that this would happen, and this was actually more specific to Buddhism than to Hinduism. So at least in my experience, in the Hindu traditions, there's more of a sense of everyone just gives what they can.

In the Tibetan and the Buddhist traditions from India, there's more of an idea of patronage. It's a very ancient system where wealthy people invite teachers to come and give teachings on their property for long periods of time.

Like a week or a month or even a year. And during that time, those wealthy people would pay all of the expenses of the teacher and give the teacher money, would make food for anyone who showed up for teachings.

And then people who didn't have any money could just come for free. Or they could give very very small amounts. But the teacher would already be taken care of. This is how these kinds of traditions function historically.

I'm just as happy when someone gives $3 as when they give $30, or $300. I'm happy when people participate. I know that it means they're getting more in sync with what this is really about, and it feels good.

But I also think, and I've noticed this sometimes in students, that people feel embarrassed to give small amounts. And so they don't give anything. And your small amount is appreciated because it's appreciated when people get more participatory and knit more into the community. I really appreciate that.

Whenever giving is talked about, especially in the Buddhist communities, it's always talked about in terms of the blessing of being able to help other people get teachings. To support the community, not just the teacher.

I've said it kind of in a negative way, talking about teachers who behave badly. How I really can't think of anything worse as a teacher than wholesale throwing people off the path because of your bad behavior. Causing people to not want to practice or to not want to be involved in this process.

I can't think of anything worse. I can't think of a bigger burden for a teacher than that. And in reverse, I can't think of anything better than helping people to wake up. In whatever way one does. It's just so fulfilling.

Students can participate in that, too, by supporting each other in a lot of different ways. But one of the ways is financially. One of the things I discovered just doing practice is that being generous is actually incredibly enjoyable.

It's just like, life's greatest pleasure. So the other thing about this teacher, the one I talked about with the two ladies with their rupees, he had really bad sciatica. At one point during this retreat, he was lying in his bed. He was bedridden and he couldn't walk.

And all the students were crammed into his bedroom. Then at one point, some guy came into the bedroom weeping, and he just threw himself on the teacher and was weeping. I couldn't understand him. He was weeping in Bengali.

But it turned out like his business had failed. He'd had a terrible financial crisis. And so the teacher just went like this towards this cabinet [gestures]. And one of his attendants went over to the cabinet had opened it, and there was just stacks of bills in there, stacks of money. [laughter]

He just like [gestures]. And they just took out a stack and handed it to the guy. [laughter] I would love to be able to do that. [laughter] I have done in tiny little ways that I could, but it was just so great. [laughs]

You gave me money, I'm giving you back. I'm giving it back to you. All that money came from students, right? All the money that was in the cabinet. And he was like, fine, have it back. I loved it.

There's a great line. I think it's in the Zhouyi, cease with sufficiency. [laughter] Basically, we want to have have enough money so that we don't have to worry too much about it, but not spend our lives chasing after it so that we have enough time to do our sadhana.

That being said, we don't have a lot of control necessarily over how much money we have. Some people are going to work really, really hard their whole lives and never have much money. Other people are going to do fuck-all and have tons of money.

Some of this is karmic. We come in with some tendency to accumulate or some tendency to just be comfortable or some tendency to be challenged in that area. And we can work with that karma.

But just because someone has a lot of money doesn't mean that they did anything special for it. And just because they don't have a lot of money doesn't mean they're not doing what they should be doing.

In the writings of the tradition, there was a lot of emphasis put on any kind of person can do this practice. Of any class, of any origin, of any gender, et cetera. How that looked in actual practice in 1203, I don't know. [laughter]

I suspect that patriarchy and classism, caste-ism, and all those things were still operating, at least to some degree. But for sure, this tradition was known and prided itself on being more egalitarian and inclusive and we can certainly embody that more fully.

But there is a sense throughout all of these wisdom traditions, not just Trika, but all of them, of this idea of this proper exchange or a natural exchange, a conversation that happens in the form of exchange.

And of course, in those days, people would give grain, or they would give cattle or other useful animals. Or gold. If they had a lot of money, those were the kinds of things they would give.

Many of these traditions started before coins were being minted. It was like a barter system. You're bartering, in a sense. It was just understood that you support the teacher and the community. That was a given.

And so there was no need for this kind of proselytizing. Although I'm sure people proselytized anyway. But in any case, now we don't really have that, although I have been given socks and tuna fish. [laughter]

But now, really, money is the thing that we give in exchange. So what I like to say is we should have a habitable life. Ideally, to do practice, to practice well, we need a habitable life of some sort. And maybe reality is going to grant us that, and maybe it's not. But we can do our best to have a habitable life. And again, cease with sufficiency.

I did want to say one more thing about the money. Because there has been an influx of new people. Some of whom I've met in person and some of whom I haven't, coming from other teachers.

And some of them have remarked at their amazement that office hours are free. Or other things are free. This is how it should be. I should be completely available to you, and you should make yourself available to me. And it should be a free exchange.

Not necessarily to do with money. But I think we're so starved in our culture for this sense of generosity and reciprocity. We are not being well taken care of. We are not being well taken care of here.

And so it's no wonder what condition we're in. It's no wonder that we have this feeling of scarcity, and I don't have enough. And I can't give, and oh, my God, a free office hour. How amazing. [laughter]

When this started happening, when people started making these remarks to me. I was like, What? This is how things work. This is how it is. Some people, they don't have a natural sense of things, or they feel ashamed, or they have deep other things going on.

Or they actually just want something for free. They actually just want to feel that they could get something without working so hard for it. That's totally understandable. Unfortunately, we do have rent. [laughter]

When I was a little girl—and I don't know if this will make sense to some of you about this idea of just wanting to feel something coming toward you unimpeded. But most of you know that my parents didn't have a great marriage, and I didn't have much of a relationship with my dad.

And my mom was like my sole sort of love when I was a little girl. She went on a vacation to Europe, and my dad wouldn't let me talk to her on a phone when she called. Because at that time, long distance phone calls were expensive.

We didn't have a lot of money, and it was a big thing to get a call from Europe. [laughs] If you can even imagine that. Anyway, so I didn't get to talk to her, and she had left me kind of, to be the little mom with my dad.

She'd left all these frozen dinners in the freezer, and I was supposed to take them out and reheat them. And I was supposed to set the table and serve them to my two brothers and my dad. I was like 10. I was 10.

And I was supposed to go buy my dad a newspaper every night at the corner store. I was basically supposed to be mom in her stead, at 10 years old.

I remember I started stealing the money that she had given me for all these activities. I started stealing the money because I wanted to be given-to by her. I didn't want to have to be in this role. I wanted to feel her giving to me.

I didn't understand this until so much later. But I think for some of you, there's that, too. I'm a woman teacher, and for sure, some people relate to me as like, the mom, which I'm not really all that down with that. [laughter]

But it happens, you know? It definitely happens. And the mom is supposed to be all giving, and you aren't supposed to have to give anything to the mom. I think that's at work for some people, too.

And we're just in this culture where we're just starved of having been given to. We are being starved of that. The people that are supposed to be taking care of us are not taking care of us. Same situation I was in when I was 10.

I can't really imagine what it's like to be in the condition that almost all of our leaders/rulers are in. It's hard to fathom. Just almost seem like they're shriveled in some way. Their hearts are shriveled, and they're just functioning in this way that it seems joyless to me.

It's really hard to imagine that. It seems like a mental illness, you know? That they're all experiencing, some collective mental illness. But when we don't want to give, when we don't want to give, we are being very far from God.

Remember that line from the Abhinavagupta poem, Shiva showers grace without any restraint. That sense of just giving without restraint. That's what God is. God, this alive, aware reality, is creating all this for us, this playground. Our bodies are that, too. Everything here is from that fountain.

There's sort of a way that we're doing practice and going along with each other. And in tandem with that is the destruction of impediments to these virtues showing up naturally.

And part of that is we also self-reflect, right? We're reflecting on our condition. And sometimes that self-reflection can also lead to us wanting to experiment with letting more of our virtue out.

Why is it hard to show our sweetness? Why is it scary to show our sweetness? I think a lot of us aren't really cut off from our sweetness and our generosity as much as we think we are.

We're actually just embarrassed to show it. It's almost like it's too unsophisticated, something like that. This desire to just give everything. That is, to me, what a fulfilling life is, giving everything away.

And of course, what you discover is when you give everything away, that you are actually inexhaustible. You can't actually give everything away because everything is giving. And so you can never give everything away.

But there's this desire to just give everything away. I don't mean like some Christian sense of poverty, because there actually is no poverty in that sense. And so that's giving everything is the joy. What is also called in the tradition, the emission of everything.

Everything's being emitted. This is the sense of this fountain or this emission, right? Constantly, constantly, constantly giving out of the heart of reality. And so when we give freely. We are participating in that, and it brings joy. It brings joy just naturally.

I don't really have anything more to say about it. It's very simple and unsophisticated. It just brings joy to give, give, give, give, give. In that way, when you're feeling the real heart of things.

I don't mean giving as a duty or because you think it's ethical or it's good or other people will like you. Or you're afraid to show that you actually don't feel like giving, so you give, give, give. [laughter] All of that is exhausting.

That's where you get codependency and people just being exhausted. But when you're really feeling that heart of giving and it's just you don't hold back and you don't guard against it. Then it brings you more energy and more life and it brings you joy.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.