Susan Elbaum Jootla

The Practice of Giving

The Practice of Giving

Giving (dana) is one of the essential preliminary steps of Buddhist practice. When practiced in itself, it is a basis of merit or wholesome kamma.

When coupled with morality, concentration and insight, it leads ultimately to liberation from samsara, the cycle of repeated existence. Even those who are well-established on the path to emancipation continue to practice giving as it is conducive to wealth, beauty and pleasure in their remaining lifetimes. Bodhisattas complete the danaparami or perfection of giving to the ultimate degree by happily donating their limbs and their very lives to help other beings.

Like all good deeds, an act of giving will bring us happiness in the future, in accordance with the kammic law of cause and effect taught by the Buddha. Giving yields benefits in the present life and in lives to come whether or not we are aware of this fact, but when the volition is accompanied by understanding, we can greatly increase the merits earned by our gifts.

The amount of merit gained varies according to three factors: the quality of the donor’s motive, the spiritual purity of the recipient, and the kind and size of the gift. Since we have to experience the results of our actions, and good deeds lead to good results and bad deeds to bad results, it is sensible to try to create as much good kamma as possible. In the practice of giving, this would mean keeping one’s mind pure in the act of giving, selecting the worthiest recipients available, and choosing the most appropriate and generous gifts one can afford.

The Factor of Volition

The volition of the donor before, during and after the act of generosity is the most important of the three factors involved in the practice of giving: “If we have no control over our minds we will not choose proper gifts, the best recipient…, we will be unable to prepare them properly. And we may be foolish enough to regret having made them afterwards.”[1] Buddhist teaching devotes special attention to the psychological basis of giving, distinguishing among the different states of mind with which one may give. A fundamental distinction is made between acts of giving that lack wisdom and those that are accompanied by wisdom, the latter being superior to the former. An example of a very elementary kind of giving would be the case of a young girl who places a flower on the household shrine simply because her mother tells her to do so, without having any idea of the significance of her act.

Generosity associated with wisdom before, during and after the act is the highest type of giving. Three examples of wise giving are: giving with the clear understanding that according to the kammic law of cause and effect, the generous act will bring beneficial results in the future; giving while aware that the gift, the recipient and the giver are all impermanent; and giving with the aim of enhancing one’s efforts to become enlightened. As the giving of a gift takes a certain amount of time, a single act of giving may be accompanied by each of these three types of understanding at a different stage in the process.

The most excellent motive for giving is the intention that it strengthens ones efforts to attain Nibbana. Liberation is achieved by eliminating all the mental defilements (kilesa), which are rooted in the delusion of a controlling and lasting “I.” Once this illusion is eradicated, selfish thoughts can no longer arise. If we aspire to ultimate peace and purity by practicing generosity, we will be developing the dana parami, the perfection of giving, building up a store of merit that will bear its full fruit with our attainment of enlightenment. As we progress towards that goal, the volition involved in acts of giving will assist us by contributing towards the pliancy of the mind, an essential asset in developing concentration and wisdom, the prime requisites of liberation.

Ariyas — noble ones, those who have attained any of the four stages of holiness — always give with pure volition because their minds function on the basis of wisdom. Those below this level sometimes give carelessly or disrespectfully, with unwholesome states of mind. The Buddha teaches that in the practice of giving, as in all bodily and verbal conduct, it is the volition accompanying the act that determines its moral quality. If one is offering something to a monk, doing so without adopting a respectful manner would not be proper. Throwing a coin to a beggar in order to get rid of him would also be considered a defilement of giving. One should think carefully about the relevance and the timing of a gift for it to bring the best results. A gift given through an intermediary — for example, having a servant give food to a monk rather than giving it by one’s own hand — also detracts from the value of the gift. When one gives without realizing that one must experience the results of one’s deeds, an act of giving again diminishes in meritorious potency.

If one only plans on giving a donation but does not fulfill one’s plan, the merit earned will be very slight. Thus we should always follow up our intentions of generosity expeditiously, unless something intervenes to prevent our doing so. If, after having given a gift, we should subsequently regret our action, much of the merit of the deed will be lost.

A moral person gives politely and respectfully. Whether the gift is spontaneous or planned, he or she will make sure that the timing and contents of the gift are appropriate for the receiver. Many housewives in Buddhist countries regularly invite a few monks to their homes to receive almsfood early in the day. Before feeding the family, these women always offer the food to the bhikkhus with their own hands.

One might contribute to a certain cause from fear that friends would disapprove if one did not give. Giving in response to such social pressures will have weak, though still beneficial, results. Charitable actions undertaken to gain a good reputation are also selfish and hence not a very valuable kind of giving. Nor can it be praiseworthy when one gives merely to return a favor or in expectation of a reward. The former is like repaying a debt, the latter analogous to offering a bribe.

The Recipient of Gifts

The purity of the recipient is another factor which helps determine the kammic fruitfulness of a gift. The worthier the receiver, the greater the benefits that will come to the donor; hence it is good to give to the holiest people available. The Buddha teaches that the worthiest recipients of gifts are the ariyas, the noble ones, such as the Buddha himself and those of his disciples who have reached supramundane paths and fruits; for it is their purity of mind, attained by wisdom, that makes the act of giving capable of yielding abundant benefits. Therefore, to earn the maximum merit, we should give as much as we can, and as often as possible, to the noble ones. Gifts to a bhikkhu who strives for the state of a noble one, or to a Buddhist meditator who lives by the Five Precepts, will also yield bountiful results.

When ariyas accept offerings, they do so to provide an opportunity for the donor to earn merit. Non-returners and Arahats in particular, who have attained the two highest stages of sanctity, have eliminated desire for sense objects. Thus when they are given gifts their minds remain detached from the objects presented and are filled with compassion for the giver.

The story of Sivali in the Dhammapada Commentary[2] is an example of the great merit which even a small gift can yield when presented to the Sangha led by the Buddha. At the time of Vipassi Buddha, the citizens of a country were competing with their king to see who could make the greatest offering to the Buddha and Sangha. The citizens had obtained everything for their offering except fresh honey, and they sent out messengers, each with plenty of money, to buy the missing ingredient.

One of these men met a villager who happened to be bringing a newly harvested honeycomb into the city for sale. The messenger was only able to buy it from the peasant when he had offered his entire allowance of a thousand pieces of money, which was far more than a single honeycomb was worth. The villager said: “Are you crazy?… This honey isn’t worth a farthing but you offer me a thousand pieces of money for it. What is the explanation for this?” The other man told him that the honey was worth so much to him because it was the final item on the menu for the citizens’ offering to the Buddha. The peasant spontaneously replied, “If that is the case, I will not sell it to you for a price; if I may receive the merit of the offering, I will give it to you.” The citizens were impressed with the faith of this man who so readily gave up a windfall and enthusiastically agreed that he should receive the merit of the offering.

Because of this simple gift at the time of the Vipassi Buddha, the villager was reborn numerous times in celestial planes and the became the prince who inherited the throne of Benares. In his final lifetime, he became the Elder Sivali and attained Arahatship as a disciple of the present Buddha. Even after that, his gift of the honeycomb continued to bear fruit. To honor the one who had made the sweet gift aeons before, the gods provided lodging and food for the Buddha and five hundred of his monks, including Sivali, when for several days they had been walking along a deserted road.

The practice of giving is also beneficial when directed to someone who is not spiritually advanced. If the donor’s intention is good, then even though the receiver is immoral, the donor will earn merit and further, by his act of giving, he will strengthen within himself his own disposition to renunciation. A gift mentally offered to the noble Sangha but physically presented to a monk who is morally corrupt will still bear great fruit. To be sure, we should not pretend that a bad person is good, but we must be most careful of our own attitude while giving, as our attitude is the factor over which we have most control.

The Objects to be Given

The third factor involved in giving is the gift itself, which can be either material or immaterial. Dhamma-dana, the gift of the noble teachings, is said by the Buddha to excel all other gifts (Dhammapada, 354). Those who expound his teachings — monks who preach sermons or recite from the Tipitaka, teachers of meditation — frequently share the Truth, thus practicing the highest kind of generosity. Those of us who are not qualified to teach the Dhamma can give the gift of the Dhamma in other ways. We can donate Dhamma books or pay for the translation or publication of a rare or new manuscript propagating the Buddha-Word. We can discuss the Dhamma informally and encourage others to keep precepts or to take up meditation. We might write an explanation of some aspect of the Dhamma for the benefit of others. Giving cash or labor to a meditation center or helping support a meditation teacher can also be considered the gift of the Dhamma, as the purpose of the center and the teacher is the transmission of the Buddha’s teaching.

The most common type of gift is material things. A material object need not have a high monetary value for it to bring great results, as the story of Sivali and the honeycomb illustrates. If a poor man gives a monk the cup of rice that was to be his only food for the day, the man is making a great donation which may bear abundant fruit, while if a prosperous merchant, knowing in advance that the monk was coming for alms, were to give the same small portion of rice, he would reap meager fruits. We should try to give things whose quality is at least as good as those we use ourselves, like the people of Burma, who buy the best fruits on the market as gifts for the monks although these fruits are much too expensive for them to consume themselves.

Gifts to the Sangha may consist of food, robes, medicine or monasteries, each of which has a wide range. The limits are set by the rules of the Vinaya to keep the Bhikkhu Sangha pure and strong. Lay people who understand the monks’ rules can earn vast merit by donating the proper things at the proper time to the order of monks and nuns.

A story about Visakha, the Buddha’s chief woman lay disciple, offers a delightful illustration of the results of large-scale charity.[3] When Visakha was to be married, elaborate preparations and gifts were arranged by her father. He gave her five hundred cartloads each of money, of gold, silver and copper implements. Then he decided that she must also take cattle with her. He gave orders to his men to allow out of their pen just as many animals as would fill a particular lane. When the cows has filed out and stood close together in that road, he had the corral closed, saying, “These cattle are enough for my daughter.” However, after the gate had been latched securely, powerful bulls and milk cows jumped over the barrier to join the animals going with Visakha. Her father’s servants could not keep them inside no matter how hard they tried.

All these cattle came to Visakha because, in a former lifetime long ago at the time of the Buddha Kassapa, she had given a generous gift of five kinds of dairy products to a company of 20,000 monks and novices. As the youngest of the seven daughters of King Kiki of Benares, she continued to urge the monks to take more milk, curds, ghee, etc., even when they said they had eaten enough. That gift earned her the merit of having such a large number of cattle go along with her at her marriage in the lifetime when she was Visakha, and no one could prevent this merit from bearing its fruit.

Material gifts of a religious nature would include contributions towards the erection of a new temple or shrine, gold leaf to help gild the umbrella of a shrine, or the purchase of a Buddha statue for a temple. The recipients of such gifts are the general public — whoever comes to the temple or worships before the Buddha image.

Mundane gifts to the citizens of one’s town would include donations to various welfare organizations, a contribution to a hospital or public library, keeping a neighborhood park neat and clean. If one does not merely contribute funds for such projects but provides physical labor as well, the kammic results will be even greater. Gifts of this sort can be quite meritorious if preceded, accompanied and followed by pure mental volitions.

The Perfection of Giving

There is a mode of giving which completely disregards the qualities of the recipient and even the mundane fruits of the merit acquired by giving. Such generosity springs from the motive of renunciation, the thought of eliminating one’s attachment to one’s possessions, and thus aims at giving away the dearest and most difficult gifts. Bodhisattas give in this manner whenever the opportunity presents itself, strictly in order to fulfill the danaparami, the “perfection of giving,” which is the first of the ten perfections they must cultivate to the highest degree in order to attain Buddhahood. A Bodhisatta’s work to complete the perfection of giving demands much more of him than other beings could emulate. Many Jataka tales relate how the Bodhisatta who was to become the Buddha Gotama gave things away with absolutely no thought of himself or of the mundane benefits that might follow. A Bodhisatta’s only concern in practicing generosity is to fulfill the requirements for Buddhahood.

The Basket of Conduct[4] contains ten stories of the Bodhisatta’s former lives. In one of these lifetimes he was a brahman named Sankha who saw a Paccekabuddha, or non-teaching enlightened one, walking barefoot on a desert path. Sankha thought to himself, “Desiring merit, seeing one eminently worthy of a gift of faith, if I do not give him a gift, I will dwindle in merit.” So the brahman, who had a very delicate constitution, presented his sandals to the Paccekabuddha even though his own need for them was greater (Division I, Story 2).

Another time the Bodhisatta was a great emperor named Maha-Sudassana. He had criers proclaim several times every day, in thousands of places throughout his empire, that anyone who wanted anything would be given it if he just came there and asked. “If there came a mendicant beggar, whether by day or by night, receiving whatever goods he wanted, he went away with hands full.” Maha-Sudassana gave with completely openhanded generosity, “without attachment, expecting nothing in return, for the attainment of Self-Awakening” (I,4).

A Bodhisatta must give more difficult gifts than material goods to fulfill the highest form of the perfection of generosity. He must freely give the parts of his body, his children, his wife, and even his own life. As King Sivi, our Bodhisatta plucked out both his eyes with his bare hands and gave them to Sakka, the king of the gods. Sakka had come to Sivi in the guise of a blind old man, just to provide him with the opportunity to make this remarkable gift. Sivi did this with no hesitation prior to the act, nor with any reluctance during the act, nor with any hint of regret afterwards. He said that this gift was made “for the sake of Awakening itself. The two eyes were not disagreeable to me. Omniscience was dear to me, therefore I gave my eyes” (I,8).

As Prince Vessantara, the Bodhisatta gave the auspicious, powerful royal elephant to the people of a rival kingdom merely because they had requested it. As a result of this liberality, he and his wife and two small children were banished to a remote mountain. They lived there in the forest, Vessantara tending his son and daughter in their hut while his wife spent the days gathering the wild fruits on which they lived. One day a traveler chanced by and asked the Bodhisatta to give him the children. Vessantara gave them away without any hesitation at all. Later he gave away his virtuous wife too. “Neither child was disagreeable to me, the Lady Maddi was not disagreeable. Omniscience was dear to me, therefore I gave away those who were dear” (I, 9). It should be noted that at that time, a man’s children and wife were generally considered his property. Ages before, the Lady Maddi had aspired to be the wife of the Bodhisatta and to share whatever trials he had to undergo along the path to Buddhahood. The result of her own kamma complemented Prince Vessanatara’s volition and led to her being given away. Their children must also have been experiencing the results of their own past deeds when they had to leave their parents.

Another time the Bodhisatta took birth as a wise hare. That existence came to an end when, joyously, he jumped into a fire after inviting a famished brahman (again, Sakka in disguise) to eat him roasted. Because of the purity of the Bodhisatta’s mind while making this highest gift of his entire body and life, the blazing fire did not hurt him as it burned his flesh. In relating the story he said that, in fact, the fire had calmed him and brought him peace as if it had been cool water, because he had accomplished the complete perfection of giving.

The Ultimate Goal of Giving

The goal of the Buddhist path is emancipation from the suffering of repeated existence in samsara. The Buddha taught that uprooting ignorance and the mental defilements it nurtures will bring us to Nibbana, the utter cessation of suffering. Unwholesome mental tendencies make us cling to what we mistakenly take to be our “selves,” they keep us struggling to satisfy our insatiable sense desires with objects that are inherently transitory and thus unsatisfying.

The Buddha said that the practice of giving will aid us in our efforts to purify the mind. Generous gifts accompanied by wholesome volition help to eradicate suffering in three ways. First, when we decide to give something of our own to someone else, we simultaneously reduce our attachment to the object; to make a habit of giving can thus gradually weaken the mental factor of craving, one of the main causes of unhappiness. Second, giving accompanied by wholesome volition will lead to happy future births in circumstances favorable to encountering and practicing the pure Buddha Dhamma. Third, and most important, when giving is practiced with the intention that the mind becomes pliant enough for the attainment of Nibbana, the act of generosity will help us develop virtue, concentration and wisdom (sila, samadhi, pañña) right in the present. These three stages make up the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, and perfecting the path leads to the extinction of suffering.

If we give in the hope of winning luxury in future lives, we may attain our aim providing that we adhere to the principles of virtuous conduct. According to the Buddha, however, the motivation of working for liberation is far superior to that of aiming at mundane happiness in future births. This is because a gift made with the desire for pleasure is accompanied in part by the unwholesome psychological root craving (tanha). The merits earned by such gifts are exhausted in transient pleasure, and such mundane happiness keeps us revolving in the round of rebirth, which in the deepest sense is always dukkha, subject to suffering. Giving associated with craving cannot contribute to the one form of happiness that does not perish, release from the round, which comes only with the full elimination of craving. Gifts untainted by craving and attachment can only be made during a Buddha Sasana, the period when the teachings of a Buddha are available. So when we give now, during such a time, we should do so with the aim of putting an end to craving. With the end of craving, suffering ceases, and that is liberation.

May the merits of this gift of the Dhamma be shared by all beings!


1. U Chit Tin, The Perfection of Generosity, Introduction.

2. E.W. Burlingame, trans. Buddhist Legends (London: Pali Text Society, 1969), 2:212-16.

3. Buddhist Legends, 2:67-68.

4. Cariyapitaka, translated by I.B. Horner, included in Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, Part III (London: Pali Text Society, 1975).

The present text was previously published as Selected Essays on Dana: The Practice of Giving (a Wheel-publication) by the Buddhist Publishing Society.

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