At the time of the dawning of the Mahayana as a path of practice, the paramitas were described as six lights on the awakening activity of a Buddhist practitioner. This was near the beginning of the Common Era (CE), and it was a period in which the Mahayana was neither a school nor a sect of Buddhism. Instead, it was a clarification of the path of a practitioner whose aspiration is to turn all beneficial karmic activity into the ultimate gift, the gift of awakening. The Mahayana was an exposition of the path of the bodhisattva.
The Sanskrit paramita is often translated as "perfection," though to understand it as a final objective is to miss the mark. The paramitas are actually mutually interdependent activities that inspire and inform any being dedicated to awakening as much as they benefit others. Thus, to expect that the paramitas might one day be completed is to forget the virtuous circle of practice in which the giver also receives, in which the giver is also the gift.
Perhaps for that reason the first of the paramitas is dana (pronounced like "Donna"). This word means giving or generosity, and it is said to encompass all of the other paramitas which are: sila or morality, kshanti or patience, virya or energy, dhyana or concentration, and prajna or wisdom. In fact, it can be said that each paramita is a complete practice because each paramita includes all of the others. Taken as whole, I see the first two paramitas as based in compassion, the last two as based in wisdom, and the entire path balanced by allowing what is and applying oneself wholeheartedly.
Returning to dana paramita, it was traditionally understood that the laity gave material goods and the monastics gave the teaching of Dharma. In many ways this is a balanced approach when monastics are renunciates who depend on others for their food, clothing, medicine and lodging. However, over time this distinction was blurred as monastics came to own land and other material goods, and lay practitioners became respected as disciples and teachers. In China, for example, alms collection was not as well received as in India, and Ch'an monasteries began tending rice paddies to sustain themselves. Also at that time, roughly estimated to be the 8th and 9th Centuries, Layman Pang and his daughter Ling Zhao became renowned as examples of profound and playful Dharma.
Today when I think about giving, the underlying intention seems at least as important as the thing given. Giving might be motivated by a desire for one's own benefit - such as to accumulate merit, or to influence someone to like you or to give you something in return. It might be motivated by a wish for another's well being or progress on a spiritual path. Or it might be motivated by the wish to benefit everyone.
However, it is not until I see that the gifts I give are not mine that dana paramita can be practiced. Even the teachings or material objects which I seemingly produce temporally arise out of interconnectedness, and therefore cannot truly be seen as my own. Knowing this I can give because all of life is a gift. I can give because these gifts must pass through my hands. I can give because I understand that my practice is the only gift left when I die, the only true legacy I leave.
So please let the many gifts pass through your hands, that they might awaken the whole world.