Generosity and merit-making are strong values in Buddhist culture, and I see it in action on a daily basis. People are very generous toward the monastery, and Ajahn has devoted his life to serving others. He’s developed his monastery because of people’s requests for teachings and retreats, and nowadays he sometimes takes in young novices for a few weeks, even if he’d rather have his peace and quiet. For their benefit, he says. But if generosity is held in such high regard, it’s because of the effect it has on the giver’s mind. Everyone knows the merit maker reaps the benefits of his or her actions: uplifting of the mind, freedom from the burden of egoic tendencies and, perhaps just as importantly, a good rebirth.
Every morning, during alms round, villagers line up to bow and give Ajahn things he doesn’t necessarily need or want. It brings them joy and merit to give to the monk. During the retreat that was held here last week, people would wash his feet after walking meditation and carry his alms bowl for him. Every morning, his mother and sister and other laypeople come from the village to help set up the meal, tidy up the kitchen, water plants and do other odd jobs. They are making merit, and their generosity obviously gives them instant joy, not to mention the more subtle long-term karmic benefits.
And the same applies to Ajahn himself. Although his babysitting the novices looks like a sacrifice, he enjoys seeing the improvements in behaviour and making the parents happy. He is very pleased to have sincere visitors come by for a few hours or weeks, and he derives great satisfaction from making his monastery a little more beautiful every day. Although his natural inclination is for solitude and silence, it makes him happy to know that his contribution to the world brings joy and solace to others.
He sometimes complains that he has no time for himself. He would like to read, write, listen to the radio, raise his chickens, meditate more, etc., but his list of responsibilities is endless. People drive in almost daily to pay their respects or to see his million plants, and he has to entertain them. People like me come to stay for a few days or a few weeks, and he has to take care of us. He gives his life for others, but ultimately, he reaps the benefits of his generosity: happiness in the here-and-now and in the next life.
So in the end, although we often say we do things for others, we are the ones who benefit the most from our generosity. This may seem like a strange notion, especially for Westerners, but we know it to be true because the more generous we are, the better we feel. And the fewer expectations we have in the act of giving, the more immediate joy we experience. Ajahn told me yesterday that he feels fairly certain he will have a peaceful death because he has been of service to others. He lives in peace, so it seems likely that he will also die in peace. Perhaps this peace is the ultimate reward for being of benefit to others.