Nina van Gorkom

Generosity: The Inward Dimension

Generosity: The Inward Dimension

As from a heap of flowers many a garland is made, even so many good deeds should be done by one born a mortal (Dhammapada verse 53).

The giving away of useful or pleasant things is an act of generosity. However, if we only pay attention to the outward deeds we do not know whether or not we are being sincerely generous. We should learn more about the mind which motivates our deeds. True generosity is difficult. While we are giving, our thoughts may not all be good and noble. Our motives for giving may not all be pure. We may give with selfish motives — expecting something in return, hoping to be liked by the receiver or our gift, wanting to be known as a generous person. We may notice that there are different thoughts at different moments, some truly generous, and others having different motives.

The Buddha taught that there is no lasting mind or soul which undergoes different experiences. Our experiences themselves are different moments of consciousness, which arise one at a time and then fall away immediately. Each moment of consciousness that arises and falls away is succeeded by the next moment of consciousness. Our life is thus a series of moments of consciousness arising in succession. Gradually we can learn to distinguish different types of consciousness. There is consciousness which is unwholesome or unskillful, and there is consciousness which is wholesome or skillful, and besides these there are other types of consciousness which are neither wholesome nor unwholesome. Only one type of consciousness occurs at a time, but each type is accompanied by several mental factors. Unwholesome types of consciousness are accompanied by unwholesome mental factors, such as attachment, stinginess, jealousy or aversion. Wholesome types of consciousness are accompanied by beautiful mental factors, such as generosity, kindness or compassion.

Three of the unwholesome mental factors are “roots of evil.”[1] These are the strong foundation of unwholesome types of consciousness: attachment or greed, aversion or anger, and ignorance.

Each of these unwholesome factors has many shades and degrees. We may know that there is attachment when we are greedy for food or desire to acquire someone else’s property. However, we may not realize that there is also attachment when we enjoy natural scenery or beautiful music. In society attachment of a subtle kind is considered good, provided we do not harm others. The unwholesome has a wider range than what we call in conventional language “immoral.” It can include states that are weaker than the immoral. We cannot force ourselves not to like beautiful things; there are conditions for the arising of attachment. But we can learn to know the difference between the moments which are wholesome and the moments which are unwholesome. A degree of selfishness persists even in moments of subtle attachment. These are different from selfless moments of consciousness accompanied by generosity, when we do not think of our own enjoyment. There is attachment time and again, when we stand up, move around, reach for things, eat or go to sleep. We think of ourselves and want to acquire pleasant things for ourselves. We expect other people to be nice to us, and this is also a form of attachment.

We may wonder whether attachment to relatives is wholesome. Attachment to relatives is not wholesome; it is different from pure loving-kindness, which is wholesome. When we cling to the pleasant feeling we derive from the company of relatives or dear friends, there is attachment. When we are genuinely concerned for someone else we do not think of ourselves, and then there is wholesome consciousness. We are so used to living with attachment that we may have never considered the difference between the moments of attachment and the moments of unselfish love. The different types of consciousness succeed one another so rapidly that so long as we have not developed understanding of them, we do not notice that they have changed.

The unwholesome root of aversion also has many degrees. It can manifest as slight uneasiness or as coarse anger or hate. Aversion does not arise at the time as attachment. When there is attachment consciousness likes the object that is experienced and when there is aversion consciousness dislikes the object. Attachment arises with certain types of consciousness, not with all types, and so does aversion.

Ignorance is an unwholesome root that arises with all types of unwholesome consciousness. It is the root of all evil. Ignorance does not know what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, it does not know anything about what is real. Whenever there is attachment or aversion, at the same time there is also ignorance.

The three beautiful roots are: non-attachment or generosity, non-aversion or kindness, and understanding or wisdom. Each type of wholesome consciousness is rooted in non-attachment and non-aversion, and it may be rooted in understanding as well. Each of these beautiful roots has many degrees. Without the assistance of non-attachment and non-aversion wholesome consciousness could not arise motivating acts of generosity. Attachment cannot exist at the same time as generosity. When one is truly generous one gives impartially and does not restrict one’s generosity to people one likes or to the members of one’s family. The purpose of all kinds of wholesomeness should be to eliminate defilements, to get rid of selfishness. The Buddha taught the wisdom that can eradicate the clinging to the idea of self, but if one does not learn to get rid of stinginess and clings to one’s possessions, one cannot give up the clinging to self.

When we see that true generosity is beneficial and that selfishness and stinginess are harmful, we would like to have more moments of generosity. However, in spite of our wishes, we notice that unwholesome types of consciousness often arise. Then we are disappointed with ourselves. We should acquire understanding of what conditions the arising of unwholesome consciousness. We must have been full of attachment, aversion and ignorance in the past, even in past lives. Such tendencies have become deeply rooted; they have been accumulated. What is past has gone already, but the unwholesome tendencies that have been accumulated can condition the arising of unwholesome consciousness at the present time.

We have accumulated not only tendencies to evil but also inclinations to the wholesome. That is why there can also be moments of generosity and kindness at the present time. When an unwholesome type of consciousness arises we accumulate more unwholesomeness; when a wholesome type arises we accumulate more wholesomeness.

The Buddha taught different ways of developing wholesomeness, and when we learn about these ways there are already conditions for more wholesomeness. We find opportunity for generosity not only while we are giving but also before the actual giving, when we try to obtain the things we intend to give, and afterwards when we recollect our giving. When we are honest with ourselves we can notice that before, during and after the giving, opportunities for generosity are often spoilt by unwholesome consciousness. We may get tired when we have to buy or prepare the gift, and then aversion arises. While we are giving the gift the receiver may be ungrateful and fail to respond to our gift in the way we expected and then we may be disappointed.

However, when we have right understanding of what wholesomeness is, we should be concerned only with developing wholesome states of mind and not with the reactions of other people. Wholesomeness is wholesomeness and nobody else can change the wholesome consciousness that arises. Before we learned about the Buddha’s teachings we did not consider generosity in this way, we did not pay attention to the moments of consciousness. Through the Buddha’s teachings we learn about things as they really are. After the act of giving the opportunity to recollect our generosity with wholesome consciousness can be wasted by unwholesome consciousness. At first we may have been generous, but afterwards we may find that the gift was too expensive and regret have spent our money.

The Buddha taught that there is no self that can exert power over the different types of consciousness that arise; they arise because of their appropriate conditions. Through his teachings we can learn about the different types of consciousness and about our accumulated tendencies. Thus there will be more understanding of what is real, and this too is wholesome. When one has accumulated the tendency to stinginess it is difficult to be generous, but through the understanding of what the Buddha taught inclinations can be changed.

We read in the commentary to the Subhabhojana Jataka (Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, Jatakas, Book V, No. 535) about a monk in the Buddha’s time who practiced the utmost generosity. He gave away his food, and if he received drink sufficient to fill the hollow of his hand, he would, free from greed, still give it away. But formerly he used to be so stingy that “he would not give so much as a drop of oil on the tip of a blade of grass.” In one of his past lives, when he was named Kosiya, he lived as a miser. One day he had a craving for rice porridge. When his wife suggested that she would cook porridge not only for him but also for all the inhabitants of Benares, he felt “just as if he had been struck on the head with a stick.” Then his wife offered to cook for a single street, or only for the attendants in his house, only for the family, only for the two of them, but he turned down all her offers. He wanted porridge cooked for himself alone, in the forest, so that nobody else could see it. The Bodhisatta, who was at that time the god Sakka, wanted to convert him and came to him with four attendants disguised as brahmans. One by one they approached the miser and begged for some of his porridge. Sakka spoke the following stanza, praising generosity (387):

From little one should little give, from moderate means likewise,
From much give much: of giving nothing no question can arise.
This then I tell you, Kosiya, give alms of that is thine:
Eat not alone, no bliss is his that by himself shall dine,
By charity you may ascend the noble path divine.

Kosiya reluctantly offered them some porridge. Then one of the brahmans changed into a dog. The dog made water and a drop of it fell on Kosiya’s hand. Kosiya went to the river to wash and then the dog made water in Kosiya’s cooking pot. When Kosiya threatened him he changed into a “blood horse” and pursued Kosiya. Then Sakka and his attendants stood in the air and Sakka preached to Kosiya out of compassion and warned him of an unhappy rebirth. Kosiya came to understand the danger of stinginess. He gave away all his possessions and became an ascetic.

We may find it difficult to part with our possessions, but when we die we cannot take them with us. Life is short: thus when we have an opportunity for generosity we should use it in order to combat selfishness. Each moment of generosity now will condition the arising of generosity in the future.

Good deeds bring about pleasant results and bad deeds bring unpleasant results. This is the law of kamma and its fruit, of cause and effect.[2] A deed (kamma) can produce result in the form of rebirth. Wholesome kamma can produce a happy rebirth and unwholesome kamma can produce an unhappy rebirth. Besides the human plane of existence, there are other planes which are happy or unhappy. Birth in the human plane or in a heavenly plane is a happy rebirth conditioned by wholesome kamma; birth in a hell plane, as a ghost or as an animal is an unhappy rebirth conditioned by unwholesome kamma. Kamma can also produce results in the form of pleasant or unpleasant sense experiences arising in the course of life. Seeing and hearing are types of consciousness that are results of kamma. We see and hear pleasant or unpleasant objects according to the kamma that produces these experiences.

Stinginess can bring about — either in this life or in a future life — the very result we fear: loss of possessions. Generosity can bring about pleasant results, such as prosperity. However, when we perform acts of generosity we should not cling to pleasant results; clinging is unwholesome. Kamma will produce its appropriate result whether we think of it or not. While we are giving we can have right understanding of kamma and its result, without clinging. We may do good deeds with the understanding of what wholesomeness is. As we have seen, understanding is a beautiful root which may or may not accompany wholesome consciousness. When understanding accompanies the wholesome consciousness, it increases the degree of wholesomeness. We cannot make understanding arise at will; it arises when there are conditions for it. Learning what the Buddha taught is a condition for greater understanding.

There are still other ways of practicing generosity, even when we do not have things to give. The appreciation of other people’s good deeds is also a type of generosity. When we notice that someone else is doing a good deed we can appreciate his wholesomeness, and we may express this with words of approval and praise. We may be stingy not only with regard to our possessions but also with regard to words of praise. Gradually one can learn to be generous in appreciating the wholesomeness of others.

In Thailand I had an opportunity to learn about this way of generosity, which I had not heard of before. I received a book that was printed on the occasion of the birthday of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand. This book mentioned many of her good works, such as promoting the teaching of Buddhism, supporting temples, improving the standard of living of the people in the provinces by setting up different projects for them. When one reads this one can sincerely admire and rejoice in the good works of Her Majesty. In Thailand I also often heard the Thais saying, “anumodana,” which means “thanks,” with the inclination of their head and clasped hands. This they do when they respect and appreciate the wholesomeness of others, usually on occasions of presenting food to the monks or giving books on the Buddhist teachings. It can become a wholesome custom to express one’s appreciation on such occasions.

When we know about this way of generosity we may remember to speak about others with wholesome consciousness. In the development of wholesomeness one has to be farsighted. One should realize that whatever wholesomeness or unwholesomeness one accumulates today will produce its effects in the future, even in future lives. One can become more adept in evaluating the circumstances one is in and the friends one has. One will then be able to judge whether or not one’s surroundings and friends are favorable for the development of wholesomeness. One will know what kind of speech should be avoided, what kind of speech cultivated. Often conversation tends to be about the bad qualities of others or about useless matters which are not helpful for the development of wholesomeness. Since we often become engaged in conversation with others, we should learn how to turn the conversation into an opportunity for wholesomeness.

Another way of generosity is the “sharing” of one’s wholesome deeds with others. This does not mean that other people can receive the pleasant results of our good deeds. The Buddha taught that beings are “heirs” to their deeds. We each receive the results of the deeds we have done ourselves. Sharing wholesomeness with others means that our good deeds can be the condition for the arising of wholesome consciousness in others when they rejoice in our good deeds. We can share wholesomeness even with beings in other planes of existence, provided they are in planes where they can receive the benefits.

The commentary to the Without the Walls Sutta[3] narrates that King Bimbisara offered a meal to the Buddha and omitted to dedicate his merits to other beings. Ghosts, his relatives in a former life, had hoped for this in vain, and because they were disappointed, in their despair they made a horrible screeching noise throughout the night. The Buddha explained to King Bimbisara why the ghosts had screeched. Then King Bimbisara made another offering and uttered the dedication, “Let this be for those relatives.” The ghosts benefited from his gifts immediately; they had wholesome states of consciousness and their sufferings were allayed. Lotus-covered pools were generated for them in which they could bathe and drink, and they took on the color of gold. Heavenly food, heavenly clothing and heavenly palaces manifested spontaneously for their use. This story illustrates that one can share one’s good deeds with departed ones. If one’s departed relatives are not able to receive the merit, other beings can.

It is understandable that we are sad when we lose loved ones, but if we know how to develop what is wholesome we can find great consolation. Instead of becoming filled with sadness and aversion, we should dedicate our good deeds to all those who are able to rejoice in them, then our consciousness will be wholesome. It can become our custom to share wholesomeness with others; we need not even specify to whom we wish to dedicate it.

It is a Buddhist custom when a meal or robes are offered to monks to pour water over one’s hands while the monks recite words of blessings, in order to give expression to one’s intention to dedicate this deed to other beings. The water symbolizes a river which fills the ocean, and even so a wholesome deed is so plentiful that it can also be shared with others.

Good deeds are usually classified as threefold: as generosity, morality, and mental development. This threefold classification should not be considered a rigid one. Morality, or abstinence from evil deeds, can also be seen as an aspect of generosity, as an act of kindness to others. When we abstain from evil deeds we give other beings the opportunity to live in peace, free from harm. If we want to develop generosity, we should not neglect mental development — the development of wholesome states of mind. We should know when consciousness is unwholesome and when wholesome in order to develop generosity and other good qualities. Knowing more about one’s different types of consciousness is mental development.

The “stream-winner” is the noble person at the first stage of enlightenment. He has developed right understanding of the different mental and physical phenomena that appear at the present moment and has seen realities as they are. With the attainment of enlightenment he experiences Nibbana, the unconditioned reality, for the first time. At the moment of enlightenment the wrong view of self is eradicated, and with it stinginess too is destroyed. Stinginess can never arise again, and he thus has perfect generosity. An ordinary person may be able to suppress stinginess temporarily, for example, at the time of giving, but stinginess is bound to arise again so long as its accumulated tendency remains. The stream-winner, through right understanding, has eradicated the tendency to stinginess and can never be overcome by it anymore.

Learning from the Buddha’s teachings how to develop wholesomeness and to eradicate defilements is the greatest blessing. Therefore the teaching of the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teaching, should be considered as the giving of the highest gift. In learning what the Buddha taught and in developing wholesomeness we correct our views about what is worthwhile striving for and what is not, about what is real and what is mere illusion. Before we heard about the Buddha’s teachings we may have considered the enjoyment of pleasant sense objects to be the goal of our life. After we learn the Buddha’s teachings we may gradually come to see that selfish attachment gives unrest of mind and that it is harmful to ourselves and others. We may come to understand that wholesomeness is beneficial both for ourselves and for others, that it brings peace of mind.

Our outlook on what is worthwhile in life can change. We correct our views about reality when we understand what wholesome kamma is and what unwholesome kamma is, when we understand that kamma brings its appropriate result. We correct our views when we understand that not a self but different types of consciousness, wholesome and unwholesome, motivate our deeds, when we understand that these types of consciousness arise because of different conditioning factors. There are many degrees of correcting one’s views. By developing understanding of realities the wrong view of self can be eradicated, and thereby perfect generosity can emerge. The effect of learning the Dhamma should be that we become less selfish and more generous, that we have more genuine concern for other people.


1. See Nyanaponika Thera, The Roots of Good and Evil (Wheel No. 251/253).

2. See Kamma and Its Fruit (Wheel No. 221/224).

4. In The Illustrator of Ultimate Meaning (Paramatthajotika), Commentary to the Minor Readings (Khuddakapatha). London: Pali Text Society, 1960.

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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About Nina van Gorkom

Nina van Gorkom, born in 1928, is a Buddhist scholar and translator in the Pali tradition who has written extensively on the Abhidhamma. Born in the Netherlands, she moved to Thailand as an adult and studied extensively with Thai teachers.

You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the way

Buddha, Dhp 276