The power of generosity is one of the greatest powers in the universe. The power of generosity is unimaginable. Generosity is the very basis of spiritual advancement: it is karma in motion, creating benefit. That is why all the great masters exemplify generosity—the power of sacrifice. In Kabbalah, that is the power of the sephirah Chokmah: love as sacrifice, the power of giving. It is a generosity of spirit, a generosity of heart.
True generosity is most accurately summarized as thinking of others before yourself. It is the most fundamental basis of real spirituality.
As we are now, we only think of ourselves, and when it is convenient to us, we might think of somebody else—only if it is convenient to us. That is not sacrifice. The true spirit of generosity is to constantly think of others first, especially in regard to our psychological work, our spiritual work. Some spiritual traditions talk about eliminating desire, but we usually think about eliminating desire in an egotistical way. We think, “I want to eliminate my egos so I can reach liberation (for myself).” It is very egotistical, and contradictory.
The opposite polarity of generosity is selfishness. The power of selfishness has created the state of the world today. All of the suffering of humanity is caused by selfishness.
All religions (before they become corrupted by selfishness) were originally conceived in order to guide us out of our selfish point of view, and learn how to become truly generous; that is, conscious of others. For this purpose, all religions were organized in levels, in order to prepare us to reach the heights of spiritual development. To reach very elevated levels requires a very powerful foundation. Imagine a tower. If the base is weak or easy to damage, the tower will fall. Similarly, we need a strong foundation. In spirituality, the foundation is a deep understanding of:
Death is inevitable. Our physical body is impermanent. Everyone “knows” that, but few are they who really know it. Those who comprehend that life is impermanent and death certain do not waste time on foolish activities. Moreover, no matter how many possessions we accumulate during life, we do not take any of it with us when we die. Those who comprehend this prefer not to waste so much time and energy on material things.
Every religion teaches ethics so that we comprehend cause and effect (karma). Every religion emphasizes that by doing good deeds, we receive benefits. By performing harmful actions, we receive suffering.
At the foundational level of instruction, students are primarily concerned with their own karma, their own suffering. In other words, while they may talk about loving and serving others, their actions are primarily driven by concern for themselves. To advance to the next level of instruction, that attitude has to be transcended.
Selfish spirituality is not compatible with the higher trainings. To receive the higher teachings, you spontaneously have to be at that stage where you think of others first, where you start to realize: “I really need to eliminate my pride because it is hurting other people. I really need to eliminate my lust because it is hurting other people. This anger in me is hurting other people.” When that is your first, spontaneous impulse, you are showing signs of being ready to enter into the middle level. In Buddhism, it is called Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”). Jesus gave profound teachings about this level of instruction.
In order for us to enter the higher aspects of the path, such as the middle range of the path which is the Mahayana aspect, and then the Bodhisattva path, which is the Tantric aspect, we have to have a strong foundation first, which is the Sutrayana or foundational path. To have that foundation, we need to comprehend two primary aspects: death and Karma (cause and effect). None of us comprehend either. This is proven and easy to see. When we analyze just a day of our lives—yesterday, for example—if we are sincere with ourselves, we can see how much time we wasted in futility, in activities that are completely pointless, spiritually speaking, and the rest was spent thinking about ourselves. There is so much that we have been doing, spending time on, thinking about, being worried about, investing energy into, that are fruitless spiritually. Moreover, we do them thinking that we still have time on this planet, that we will not die. We believe that death may happen to everyone else but not us. We act in ways in which we think we will not bear the consequences, as if we can act, think, feel, and do what we like without receiving consequences. So, for example, we think lustful thoughts, we look lustfully at others, we nurse our anger, we feed our pride, we indulge in envy. All of these are done in ignorance of death and Karma. It is quite simple and quite sad, but these are the fundamental aspects. How can we expect to move on to the greater and higher aspects if we do not even grasp this today in our daily life?
As it is now, our mind is selfish. Even when the mind does charity and is generous, it is always, in the end, acting for itself. We give donations and we do volunteer work, and on the outside we look like we are great saints and helping humanity, but really we are fattening up our pride. That is not real generosity. True generosity does not concern itself with itself. True generosity is love as sacrifice, giving because it must be given, at any cost—that is generosity, that is true compassion.
The highest level of spiritual instruction is given to those who embody generosity, and whose every action is done to benefit others. All of our greatest spiritual heroes attained this level of generosity, and sacrificed everything in order to help us realize how to stop suffering. That is why the beginning level of every religion is ethics: how to stop causing harm.