Culture

Giving dana

On and off for up to 10 years I worked as a caregiver for elderly and disabled clients in London. It started when I was 21 and travelling in the UK, and then I became stuck with it after my MA in Politics, and a challenge to get out of as a newly trained actress. Most of my clients were North London Jews, ranging from the not very religious to the very orthodox. I was fascinated by their ways and their exotic rituals, and being so far from my family I envied their closeness and family oriented routines. Week after week I attended Shabbat dinners, laid the table according to tradition, navigated kosher kitchens, listened to scriptures sung by the men of each household, attended Orthodox dinners and synagogues, and indulged in chopped liver, chicken soup and challah. More than anything I was taken by the constant laughter and warmth I encountered in almost every household. I took full advantage of everybody’s openness to ask all manner of questions, I mean, the women all wore wigs, had ritual baths, arranged marriages, and yet they were working London women with great jobs.

During this time I lost all sense that I am also part of a family with a strong sense of ritual, of deeply spiritual parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, of chanting, blessings, rosary beads, prayers, incense, churches, temples, monasteries, offerings and a rich tradition of giving.

I’m fascinated by rituals, and I’m sure most of us have been given these gifts, as part of our own cultures and backgrounds, and have dismissed them as meaningless.  Well, let me tell you, it’s hard to explain the feeling I get from chanting, it’s like I’ve tapped into some ancient part of myself, it’s both calming and energising, and most of all it allows me to make a statement of what I believe and stand for. Many of us are afraid to say what we believe in, or rarely get the chance. It’s not always appropriate and it usually happens in a tense situation, or during a discussion. I have found it a challenge to speak my mind, and I have found chanting allows me to express a part of me that is immovable, daily if I wish. It feels like a little confirmation that I exist. And even if I can’t always say what I think in front of others, I can make a statement of what I believe in private, which feels like a healthy thing.

And just to show you what a mixed up kid I am, there have been times when only the Hail Mary or the Lord’s Prayer will do. Having abandoned this long ago, in fact, having never taken to it at all, but knowing it was there as part of my upbringing, it found its way out somehow, when I was seething with rage and used it as a last resort to compose myself. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do’, ‘I want to kill this person’, my ego was screaming blue murder. These prayers appeared in my mind and I leaped onto them like a life raft. And as I repeated the prayers, ancient imagery flooded my mind,  I felt humbled and the intense feelings melted away. I felt I had tapped into something, that these words were given to us for a reason, for us to use. They didn’t need to be understood, only spoken. I’m still fascinated by how this works.

The following pictures show the preparation and ceremony I attended to bless my uncle’s new house.

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Ba Lum preparing my favourite fruit, Som-Oh

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Making hibiscus flower juice

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After chanting, we offer food by placing dishes directly on to special mats

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The monks are then able to help themselves after the initial offering

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We make a symbolic offering to our parents and grandparents

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My uncle on the right

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Most meals are eaten accompanied by fresh herbs and raw veges which we leave whole and eat in large pieces with curries and spicy dipping sauces

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We have a special hammer to break open the shells

Meanwhile in NZ…..

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Making an offering of robes at Mum’s

I have yet to develop a practice of giving dana regularly, so I do it when I can. Part of the reason monks can only receive what is given to them is that the Buddha wanted his monks to be teachers, and not live in complete isolation. It would be too easy to form isolated communes or to become a recluse, and who would benefit? So the community provides food, robes, toiletries and donations for the monks, which allows us to practice the virtue of dana, and in return we receive teachings and a place of refuge. I can safely say that I’m not at all envious of other cultures anymore as there’s too much I want to learn about my own.

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