What is dana?

A word from the Pali language, dana is the spirit of generosity that has sustained the teachings of Gotama, the Buddha, for more than 2,500 years.

For many centuries, this generosity has enabled the support of monasteries, supported teachers and facilitated the creation of retreat centres, as well as a whole range of social and peace practices and projects.

The tradition of dana is a beautiful and precious one, inviting us all to cultivate great generosity of heart and to participate in sustaining a priceless and joyful teaching of freedom and compassion. It is an acknowledgement of our interconnectedness and interdependence.

In Asia this is apparent, as the monasteries and centres of learning that are generously supported by the lay community in turn offer a place of refuge and teaching, as well as a whole range of projects dedicated to peace and the relief of anguish.

The challenge we face is to translate this spirit of dana into our own culture.



Key terminology


A title meaning ‘one who is awake’. ‘The Buddha’ refers to a man, Gotama, who lived around 480–400 BCE in what is now NE India. He achieved a powerful awakening experience at around 35 and from then to his death 45 years later refined his teaching in the course of instructing others on the path to awakening.


A task-based ethics, the term dharma refers in the first instance to Gotama’s teachings. The dharma is also a living tradition to which many teachers have contributed – and continue to do so – since the Buddha’s death. The term can also mean ‘the truth’ or ‘the way things are’, or even ‘the law’ (in the sense of a law of nature).


As its most fundamental level, dana means ‘generosity’. In the context of a community, it refers to the voluntary donations from participants to a teacher in gratitude for the teaching, and to a community to enable it to function.


Kete refers to traditional baskets, which are made and used by New Zealand's Māori people. The size varies, but they usually resemble large handbags with two handles at the top. The Kete baskets are traditionally woven from the leaves of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax or harakeke in Māori).

Not self

Gotama, the Buddha, did not deal in metaphysics and refused to say whether there is such a thing as a self or soul. What he emphasised repeatedly was that if we pin our identity down to any aspect of our experience, be it the body, feelings, emotions or thoughts, we are falsifying who we truly are in a way that will lead us to act in self-defeating ways.


The main original teachings of the Buddha are expressed in suttas, or discourses. This oral tradition was eventually committed to writing some five or six centuries after his death. Before and after that process, the teachings were chanted as a way of preserving and diffusing them.


At the heart of this term is the concept of unconditional friendliness, though it’s often translated as ‘universal loving kindness’. In this day and age, though, the feeling of friendliness and goodwill towards all other sentient beings (human and otherwise) comes closest to the spirit of metta.

Key concepts

Awakening is a meditative experience (thus also a process), however momentary, whereby the mind sees clearly into and is suffused by the two basic currents of conscious life: insight into conditionality, and nirvana.

It is an altered state of consciousness. Depending on its intensity and duration, an awakening experience can have a formative effect on the meditator, especially if repeated.

Because awakening constitutes the apex of dharma practice, it inspires the movement of dharma practitioners who together contribute to a culture of awakening in their sangha life and their wider engagement in the community as a whole.

In conventional ‘Buddhism’, by contrast, awakening is often called ‘enlightenment’ and stands for the achievement of perfection and an irreversible change of status into an ‘awakened (or enlightened) being’. Such a beyond-human being is supposedly completely free of the ‘taints’ of greed, hatred and delusion, and is considered to have gone beyond suffering

Also translated as the the four immeasurables, the divine abodes or more literally the sacred dwellings, these are the four emotional tones of the awakening mind:

• universal unconditional friendliness
also known as loving kindness, this refers to a feeling of kindness and good will towards all sentient beings, human and otherwise

• compassion
an understanding, empathic care towards all other beings in their moments of suffering

• empathic joy
often known as ‘sympathetic joy’, this is a genuine happiness at the joy and achievements of others

• equanimity
a calm, positive emotional balance in the face of both good fortune and bad.

The Pali word satipatthāna means ‘the focuses of awareness’, but is usually translated as ‘the four foundations of mindfulness’. This is a pragmatic way to parse our meditative experience into distinct facets so we can explore its multi-layered nature. In fact, these facets go to the heart of insight meditation as set out in the Buddha’s discourse, the Satipatthāna sutta. The four focuses are:

• the body
the physical sensations we feel, internally and through our physical senses

• feeling tones
the instant reaction (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral) we have to everything we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or think of

• mind
emotions, moods and other mind states

• phenomena (dhammas in Pali)
under this heading we systematically contemplate all elements of direct experience in terms of sets of central teachings that the Buddha developed in list form, starting with the five hindrances, and ending with the four tasks.

This teaching prompts us to repeatedly probe these four facets of our experience, observing for ourselves how every experience we have contains the seeds of impermanence, dukkha and not self.

Experiencing these three ubiquitous characteristics of experience for ourselves viscerally brings us closer to awakening via a more balanced and sane way of life.

Conventional Buddhism asserts that the Buddha, in his very first teaching, the Dhammacakkappavattana sutta, announced Four Noble Truths (note the initial capital letters):

1. Life is suffering;
2. Craving is the cause of suffering;
3. The end of suffering is attainable; and
4. The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of suffering.

These metaphysical propositions became the stock-in-trade of a ‘Buddhism’ that has come to be understood as a religion rather than as an ethical practice.

A careful examination of the first teaching doesn’t support this conventional religious reading of it. Among the problems associated with this reading is the fact that Gotama taught that life was not just suffering but also joy and the potential to awaken.

Contemporary scholarship informs us that the original text in fact makes no metaphysical assertions at all. Rather, it sets out four central tasks which orient dharma practice as a whole and which constitute the core of Gotama’s teaching. These tasks are:

1. Embrace dukkha, or life
In other words, wholeheartedly embrace the human condition, even in all its difficult aspects.

2. Let go of greed, hatred and delusion – i.e. reactivity
When we fail to embrace dukkha, we indulge in reactivity. We pine for a set of conditions other than those which actually confront us, and this misstep in turn leads to further suffering and turbulence.

3. Stop and savour the ceasing of reactivity
When the mind is completely free of greed, hatred and delusion, however momentarily, we experience awakening, which not only clarifies our vision dramatically, but also inspires us to commit to the fourth and final task:

4. Act – cultivate the eightfold path
The eight aspects of this path call on us to overhaul our ‘view’ (worldview, or fundamental working assumptions) in line with dharmic insights, our intentions, communications with others, ethics, approach to work, the energy we put into our spiritual practice, our sensitivity and awareness to what is happening to and around us, and our mental integration.

A virtuous circle, the path is a comprehensive formula for flourishing, living more fully – more reflectively and sanely – and for whole-of-life spiritual growth.

These are disturbing energies we often experience both in meditation and in daily life. They contract the heart or mind as if it were a cramped muscle, and obstruct our access to more supple, expansive states of mind. They are not ‘bad’ things to be pushed aside; rather they are the result of our own mental habits, habits that we need to engage with, investigate, and in so doing ultimately leave behind. In this sense, they are our (temporary) teachers.

When we experience a hindrance (or several at the same time), the most helpful thing to do is simply to notice what’s happening and name the hindrance of the moment, placing our attention on it. The five hindrances are:

• craving for sense contact
we have five physical senses, and in the dharma the mind is understood as a sixth sense; we have cultivated the habit of having each sense continuously stimulated. When we meditate, we thwart this habit, and so craving for stimulation arises.

• aversion
negative reactions of any sort: hatred, anger and ill-will, as well as boredom, which is a negative reaction to what is happening in the moment.

• sloth and torpor
sloth refers to physical lethargy, which takes the form of slouching in meditation, while torpor is the mental dullness and sluggishness that accompanies it.

• restlessness and anxiety
even when we are sleeping, our bodies constantly move and squirm; when we sit still in meditation, we countermand the body’s usual restlessness, which can in turn induce anxiety in the mind.

• doubt
lack of self-confidence that we can practise successfully, and lack of conviction or trust in the methods and benefits of the practice, this shilly-shallying doubt simply obstructs practice; it is quite different to the bracing, no-holds-barred questioning (great doubt) that the dharma encourages.

These are the central inspirations and orientations of a dharma practitioner. They give our lives direction and meaning – clarity without closure – as we follow the path to awakening.

In the face of the fragility and uncertainty of our lives, which inevitably end in loss and death, we all ‘go for refuge’ to something. It could be wealth, fame, career, relationships, entertainments, fantasies about all of the above, insurance policies, and whatever else we can find to distract us from our actual experience – such as obsessive busy-ness, drugs, overindulgence in music and TV, fanaticisms, and so on.

However, in the end these refuges are all ineffective. They ultimately fail and usually they make matters worse. The three refuges on the other hand can never be taken away from us, they are always there for us, and tackle the great matter of life and death directly.

Traditionally placed in the order Buddha, dharma, sangha, it makes a lot more sense in 21st century Aotearoa New Zealand to order them as follows:

 sangha – refers in the first instance to the community of spiritual friends with whom we practise, but more generally to our fellowship with all dharma practitioners everywhere – the ‘great sangha’.

 dharma – which is to be practised and realised, not merely contemplated intellectually.

the Buddha – in this context, the term refers mainly to our human potential to awaken and so make life both meaningful and joyful.

This is an updated version of the glossary originally put together by Winton Higgins for Beaches Sangha of Sydney and is reproduced with gratitude.
Find the complete glossary here.


Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand

One Mindful Breath – Wellington’s secular Buddhist community

Insight meditation communities in Aotearoa New Zealand

An introduction to insight meditation by Gil Fronsdal

Insight dialogue practice – bringing the tranquility and insight attained in meditation into your interactions with others

Meditation and reflection – a path with an open-minded, open-hearted, thoughtful approach to meditation, unique to each person who practises

Glossary – some of the key terms in making our practice vital

Wanting to meditate, or find out more about Buddhism? Here are some books you might like to get out of the library, or perhaps buy your own copy. If you buy a book from fishpond.co.nz after clicking a link below, a small amount will be donated to Aotearoa Buddhist Education Trust.

A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield

An End to Suffering by Pankaj Mishra

Awakening Joy by Shoshana Alexander & James Baraz

Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Glenn Wallis

Breath By Breath by Larry Rosenberg

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There by Wallace Chapman

Insight Dialogue by Gregory Kramer

Let Go: A buddhist guide to breaking free of habits by Martine Batchelor

Lovingkindness, the Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg

Mindfulness & The Art of Urban Living by Adam Ford

Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The path of insight meditation by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield

The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 years of dharma, drama and uncommon insight edited by Wes Nisker & Barbara Gates

The Life of the Buddha by Ñanamoli Thera

Unlearning Meditation by Jason Siff

Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Woman Awake by Christina Feldman

In This Moment – an occasional email newsletter examining secular approaches to Buddhism

One Mindful Breath – the monthly newsletter of Wellington’s secular dharma practice community

Inquiring Mind – a donation supported, semiannual journal dedicated to the creative transmission of buddhadharma to the west, founded in 1983 and published each April and October, it was distributed to more than 30,000 people worldwide, with the April 2015 issue being the final one

Mindfulness at work – hints and suggestions for reducing work stress, a poster to put up at work, and at home

Dharmaseed – talks you can download and listen to, by teachers you can support with dana

Audiodharma – an archive of freely downloadable audio talks by Gil Fronsdal and guest speakers at the Insight Meditation Center, Palo Alto, California, supported by donations

Talks by Tara Brach from the Insight Meditation Community of Washington