Buddha with the mudra (hand position) for charity

Buddhism emphasizes ideals of wisdom and compassion and sometimes gives as much weight to thoughts as actions. The Buddhist equivalent of the Golden Rule is that “all we are is the result of what we have thought." There is a great emphasis on generosity and the giving of alms. Concepts such confession, forgiveness and restitution that are normally associated with Christianity are also emphasized in Buddhism.

Buddhists are taught to practice nonviolence, do good deeds, present gifts to monks, aspire to have gentle thoughts, meditate, and have respect for the sanctity of life. The basic tenets of Buddhism influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Mahayana Buddhists have also debated the merits of charity. Scholars are clearly in agreement that charity is beneficial to the giver but how helpful and useful it is to the recipient is not such a clear cut matter. Some argue charity is merely a means for the well-off to relieve themselves of guilt and duty by giving a few scraps to the poor that ultimately humiliates them.

The great Tibetan saint Milarepa was once asked by his disciples “if they could engage in worldly duties, in a small way, for the benefit of others." Milarepa replied: “If there be not the least self-interest attached to such duties, it is permissible. But such detachment is indeed rare; and works performed for the good of others seldom succeed, if not wholly freed from self-interest...One should not be over-anxious and hasty in setting out to serve others before onself has realized the Truth in its fullness; to do so, would be like the blind leading the blind...Til the opportunity come, I exhort each of you to attain Buddhahood for the good of all living beings."

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Buddhism and Generosity

The Theravada Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: “Buddhism promotes economic well being in society by its stress on the virtue of generosity. The Buddha teaches all his disciples, whether monks or laymen, to practice giving, to be generous and bountiful. The wealthy in particular have an obligation to give to the poor, to help and assist the poor. The things that can be given have been minutely classified as follows: The basic requirements are: 1) Food, 2) Clothing, 3) Dwelling places, 4) Medicine. Secondary objects: 1) Vehicles, 2) Books, 3) Utensils, lights, seats etc. ***

“The Buddha especially praises, the giving of food. He says that if people knew the benefits of giving food, they would not sit down to a single meal without sharing it with someone if there is an opportunity for them to do so. He says one who gives food gives the following five things and in return receives these five as its karmic result. He gives : 1) Life (long life ), 2) Beauty (good complexion), 3) Happiness, 4) Strength (physical health), 5) Intelligence (mind is able to function properly). ***

“The Buddha gave the following advice to a group of lay people as conducive to their happiness here and now. 1) Energy and diligence: You have to be energetic and diligent in performing your job whether it is farming, a trade, business or a profession. 2) Security: You have to protect your wealth. 3) Good friendship: Associate with true friends, with wise and virtuous people who will help you and protect you, and guide you in Dhamma. 4) Balanced livelihood. You should not be too bountiful, spending more than your means allow, and you should not be niggardly, clinging to your wealth. Avoid these extremes and spend in proportion to your income. Then he gave them advice for their long term benefit: as 1) faith and confidence in spiritual values, 2) generosity, 3) moral discipline and 4) wisdom. ***

“Right Livelihood: The Buddha laid down four standards of right livelihood to which a lay follower should conform.1) He should acquire wealth only by legal means. 2) He should acquire it without violence. 3) He should acquire it honestly. 4) He should require it in ways which do not harm others. ***

“Use of one’s wealth: The Buddha says that having acquired wealth by the proper means one should spend it for five purposes. 1) To provide for one’s own household, one’s relatives and children. 2) To make gifts to friends, to entertain them, to give them presents. 3) To protect and repair one’s property and dwelling. 4) To pay taxes and make obeisance to the deities. 6) To offer alms and requisites to the monks and brahmins.” ***

Dana (Proper Giving) in Buddhism

20120501-Begging-monks1 kala photo Beverly Brott.jpg
begging monks
Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The importance of proper giving (dana) is utterly central to Buddhist ethics and to the life of both the layperson and the monk; indeed, dana can be said to be the key to monk-lay relations. The first principle that must be noted here is that in Buddhism there is a marked ambiguity about material wealth. The concept of nonattachment, the absence of grasping, is of crucial importance here; from the Buddhist perspective material goods are only important as a means of cultivating nonattachment. Again, however, the middle way is emphasized: Too many possessions can lead to attachment, just as too few can lead to craving. Any material prosperity offers at once the opportunity for greater giving and the cultivation and expression of nonattachment, but such prosperity also offers a temptation toward the kind of antidharmic self-indulgence that leads to increased entrapment in the web of worldly existence. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

The model donor in Buddhism is the laywoman Sujata, who gave Siddhartha the simple and selfless gift of rice gruel, which enabled him to gain the strength to make the final push to enlightenment. What makes this act of dana so important is that Sujata gave her gift modestly, with no self-interest, no expectation of gain or reward; she was responding with selfless compassion to Siddhartha's obvious need.

Equally important as a model donor is the king Vessantara, whose story is told in a popular tale from the Jataka collection that provides not only a model of ethical giving but also a cautionary tale about the karmic consequences of giving too much. In this story Vessantara eventually gives away his kingdom and prosperity, his wife and children, everything, and the result is suffering for all until everything is restored and Vessantara realizes the need to give modestly. Monks also engage in dana, although rather than giving material goods, which they necessarily depend on the laity for, they give what the Dhammapada says is the best gift of all: "The gift of dharma excels all gifts."

Bija and Khsetra

Kinnard wrote: Two important metaphors for proper ethical giving are bija and khsetra. Bija basically means "seed" but is nearly always used to describe the seed of an auspicious act. This act, if it is indeed done with the correct selfless motives, bears karmic fruit (phala); the act itself is called kushala, which can be defined as "good, moral, skillful, proper," or, to use the best Buddhism definition, that which is "karmically wholesome" — in other words, a gift that is given with proper intention, given out of selfless compassion. The best field in which to plant a seed is the sangha (community of monks), and the best seed to plant is an act of giving, dana. The sangha is thus consistently referred to as a fertile karmic field. This imagery is further developed in times when there are monastic schisms or crises, in which case the monks are sometimes described as a barren field in which no seeds will bear fruit. This imagery is not limited to the monks and gifts to them but refers to any auspicious action. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

Buddhist acts of charity, then, are fundamentally symbiotic in nature. The laypeople provide the monks with the material support that they need — shelter, robes, food, and so on — and in the process cultivate the crucial attitudes of nonattachment and compassion, a kind of domestic asceticism that is not disruptive of the social order. The monks, in turn, depend on the laypeople and return the material gifts with the gift of the Buddha's teachings. Furthermore, the ideology of dana is such that the laypeople's gifts will only bear "fruit" (that is, positive karma) if the monks are pure (in other words, a fertile field). If a particular monastery becomes corrupt, then the laypeople will give somewhere else, providing a kind of ethical imperative for monastic purity.

A crucial element in all of this is the concept of punya (merit), which is positive karma. By giving selflessly, one "earns" merit, accumulating positive karma, which determines the quality of one's next rebirth. If one is too attached to this merit, though — too focused on the end products and not the selfless and compassionate act of giving (and giving up) — then one in fact earns not positive karma but negative, which will hinder one's ultimate spiritual progress.

Buddhist Sources on Compassion

I cannot have pleasure while another grieves and I have power to help him.—Jatakamala. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

With pure thoughts and fulness of love, I will do towards others what I do for myself.—Lalita Vistara.

giving alms to a monk in Laos

Good men melt with compassion even for one who has wrought them harm.—Kshemendra's Avadana Kalpalata.

He lives only to be a help to others.—Questions of King Milinda.

Is not all I possess, even to my very body, kept for the benefit of others?—Nagananda.

'T is wrong to conquer him who sues for mercy.—Lalita Vistara.

Think of all sentient beings as thy children.—Tenets of the Soto Sect.

Though exalted, forget not the lowly.—Jitsu-go-kiyo.

Cultivate compassion.—Visuddhi-Magga.

If a man thus walks in the ways of compassion, is it possible that he should hurt anything intentionally?—Sha-mi-lu-i-yao-lio.

He felt compassion towards those who tormented him.—Attanagalu-vansa.

Day and night the mind of Buddha's disciples always delights in compassion.—Dhammapada.

He cares for and cherishes his people more than one would a naked and perishing child. —Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

Buddhist Sources on Pity and Mercy

If you desire to do something pleasing to me, then desist from hunting forever! The poor poor beasts of the forest, being ... dull of intellect, are worthy of pity for this very reason.—Jatakamala. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

You will generously follow the impulse of pity, I hope.—Jatakamala.

For that they hated this poor slender boy, That ever frowned upon their barbarous sports, And loved the beasts they tortured in their play, And wept to see the wounded hare, or doe, Or trout that floundered on the angler's hook. —Lloyd "Nichiren."

'Tis out of mercy, not with the desire of gain, that the virtuous take care of a person in distress, nor do they mind whether the other understands this or not.—Jatakamala.

Let him that has a merciful character be my friend.—Bhakti Sataka.

Siddhartha witnessing sickness

Compassion alone sanctifies the good.—Kshemendra's Avadana Kalpalata.

Feeling deep compassion for the poor, grudging nothing which he possessed.—Phu-yau-king.

Humble in mind, but large in gracious deeds, abundant in charity to the poor and helpless.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Full of modesty and pity, ... kind and compassionate to all creatures that have life.—Tevijja-sutta.

If, then, you would please me, show pity to that poor wretch.—Nagananda.

Oppressed with others' sufferings.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

A loving heart is the great requirement! ... not to oppress, not to destroy; ... not to exalt oneself by treading down others; but to comfort and befriend those in suffering.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

My son, tell me thy sorrow, that it may become more endurable by participation.—Nagananda.

Buddhist Sources on Good Deeds and Brahmanism

The young man Vasettha said: "When one is virtuous and full of (good) works, in this way he becomes a Brahman."—Vasettha-sutta. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Not by birth does one become low caste, not by birth a Brahman; by his deeds he becomes low caste, by his deeds he becomes a Brahman.—Vasala-sutta.

Whosoever strikes, or by words annoys, mother or father, brother or sister, ... let us know such as a "base-born."—Vasala-sutta.

In whom there is truth and righteousness, he is blessed, he is a Brahman.—Dhammapada.

Whoso hurts not (living) creatures, whether those that tremble or those that are strong, nor yet kills nor causes to be killed, him do I call a Brahman.—Vasettha-sutta.

Whoso is (entirely) divested of sin, as is the heaven of mire and the moon of dust, him do I call a Brahman.—Udanavarga.

Him I call indeed a Brahman who, though he be guilty of no offense, patiently endures reproaches, bonds, and stripes.—Dhammapada.

Buddhist Sources on Charity

Always give in charity to people of good conduct.—Jatakamala. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

There is no sweet companion like pure charity.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Almsgiving, it is said, constitutes the value of riches.—Jatakamala.

Good is restraint in all things.—Dhammapada.

Unselfishness, true, and self-control.—Jataka.

Give to him that asketh, even though it be but a little.—Udanavarga.

He delights in giving so far as he is able.—Questions of King Milinda.

Your guileless heart loves to exercise its charity.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

He who now gives in charity Shall surely reap where he has given; For whosoever piously bestows a little water Shall receive return like the great ocean. —Ta-chwang-yan-king-lun. That which is given in charity is rich in returns; therefore charity is a true friend; although it scatters it brings no remorse.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

There is in charity a proper time and a proper mode.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Better would it be to swallow a red-hot iron ball than that a bad, unrestrained fellow should live on the charity of the land.—Dhammapada.

What is a true gift? One for which nothing is expected in return.—Prasnottaramalika.

There is a way of giving, seeking pleasure by it (or) coveting to get more; some also give to gain a name for charity, some to gain the happiness of heaven.... But yours, O friend, is a charity free from such thoughts, the highest and best degree of charity, free from self-interest or thought of getting more.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

It is not as a means of procuring my own happiness that I give in charity, but I love charity that I may do good to the world.—Jatakamala.

May I be thoroughly imbued with benevolence, and show always a charitable disposition, till such time as this heart shall cease to beat.—Inscription in Temple of Nakhon Vat.

Buddhist Sources on Righteousness

Dalai Lama receiving an honorary university degree

To a righteous man death must bring gladness. For no fear of mishap exists for him who is devoted to a holy life.—Jatakamala. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

He who has done what is right is free from fear.—Udanavarga.

It is better to die in righteousness than to live in unrighteousness.—Loweda Sangrahaya.

There is no happiness except in righteousness.—Attanagalu-vansa.

Doubts will exist as long as we live in the world. Yet, pursuing with joy the road of virtue, Like the man who observes the rugged path along the precipice, we ought Gladly and profitably to follow it. —Siau-chi-kwan.

They who do evil go to hell; they who are righteous go to heaven.—Dhammapada.

The wise firmly believe that in Mercy the whole of Righteousness is contained. What virtue ... does there exist which is not the consequence of Mercy?—Jatakamala.

Benevolence is the doing of righteous acts of help to living creatures whether of high or low degree; as when we help a tortoise in trouble, or a sick sparrow, without looking for any reward.—Tenets of the Soto Sect.

Evil he overcame by righteousness.—Questions of King Milinda.

He who lives far from me yet walks righteously, is ever near me.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

I deem ... unrighteous actions contemptible.—Mahavagga.

Like food besmeared with poison, I abhor such happiness as is tainted with unrighteousness.—Jatakamala.

When thou seest righteousness, quickly follow it: when thou seest iniquity, instantly flee.—Jitsu-go-kiyo.

Buddhist Sources on Virtue

meditating Bodhisattva

Making ... virtue always his first aim.—Fa-kheu-pi-u. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Practice the most perfect virtue.—Udanavarga.

Whatever I understand (to be right) ... I desire to practice.—Rock Inscriptions of Asoka.

Virtuous deeds should be practiced today; for who can say but we may die tomorrow?—Temee Jatu.

Where there is uprightness, wisdom is there, and where there is wisdom, uprightness is there.—Sonadanda-sutta.

The virtuous retain in their mind the good done to them, whereas the evil they experience drops from their mind, like water from a lotus-petal.—Jatakamala.

The virtuous (when injured) grieve not so much for their own pain as for the loss of happiness incurred by their injurers.—Jatakamala.

Sprinkle water on the seeds of virtue.—Story of Pratiharyya.

Buddhist Compassion Towards Living Things

The first of the Five Precepts is to abstain from taking life. "Life", according to Buddhism covers the entire spectrum of living beings, which the 'Karaneeya Mettha Sutta' says includes: 1) Tasa-Tava:- moving, unmoving; 2) Diga-long, Mahantha-large; 3) Majjima-medium; 4) Rassaka- short; 5) Anuka-minute, Thula- fat; 6) Ditta-that can be seen; 7) Additta-that cannot be seen; 8) Dure-which live far; 9) Avidure-which live near; 10) Bhuta-born; 11) Sambavesi- seeking birth. [Source: Major General Ananda Weerasekera, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

The member of Buddha's order ... should not intentionally destroy the life of any being, down even to a worm or an ant.—Mahavagga. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

He identified himself with all beings—Jatakamala.

My teaching is this, that the slightest act of charity, even in the lowest class of persons, such as saving the life of an insect out of pity, that this act ... shall bring to the doer of it consequent benefit.—T'sa-ho-hom-king.

He came to remove the sorrows of all living things.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

So imbued were they with lovingkindness that all the birds and animals loved them and harmed them not.—Sama Jataka (Burmese version).

Compassionate and kind to all creatures that have life.—Brahma-jala-sutta.

Be kind to all that lives.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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