Giving comes very naturally to some people — they enjoy giving and are unhappy if they cannot do so. And though it is obvious that one can give foolishly, it is in general a very good and meritorious thing to give.
This is recognized in, probably, all religions: in Christianity we are told that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and in Islam there is a positive injunction to give part of one’s wealth to the poor.
Perhaps, however, we ought to start by squarely facing a point which may worry some people: the question of giving to the Sangha. In a phrase which lay Buddhists may frequently hear chanted, or even chant themselves, the Sangha is described as anuttaram punnakkhettam lokassa, “an unequalled field of merit-making for the world,” meaning that the merit to be gained by giving to the Sangha is unequalled. Well of course, not all the lay people who hear or join in such chanting know what the words mean, but of those who do, Westerners who are Buddhists or Buddhist sympathizers sometimes react to this notion with a degree of indignation, considering the words tactless or worse! In fact some, whose conditioning was at least partly under the influence of the Lutheran Christian tradition, are reminded of the abuses to which Martin Luther objected in the Church of his day, when “good deeds” were very largely associated in the popular mind with maintaining priests and monks, who in some cases at least were idle and corrupt, in the style to which they were accustomed.
Such misgivings are perhaps understandable, but can be countered by a proper explanation, and will in any case not take root provided the Sangha is patently seen to be well conducted (supatipanno). The traditional Buddhist community consists of four groups: monks, nuns, male and female lay followers. Though the original order of nuns has died out, there are women who have undertaken the holy life and live virtually as nuns, and there is every indication that their numbers will grow. The relation between the first two groups and the latter two is one of symbiosis. After all, the Sangha has a priceless gift to give, the gift of the Dhamma. Sabbadanam dhammadanam jinati: “The gift of the Dhamma excels all other gifts” (Dhp. 354). Members of the Sangha also have an inescapable obligation to live according to the Vinaya and to strive continuously for enlightenment. It is in fact only by so doing that they can claim to be “an unequalled field of merit-making,” and if they fail in this obligation they are letting down not only themselves but also the laity who support them. A monk or nun who cannot observe the rules should, and in certain cases must, leave the Order. This could be regarded, at least in part, as the price to be paid for abusing the generosity of lay supporters.
It was mentioned above that, according to the Bible, it is more blessed to give than to receive. It is interesting to note that, just as in the practice of metta-bhavana, the meditation on universal love, there is given an actual method for fulfilling that difficult Judaeo-Christian injunction “love thy neighbor as thyself,” so too Buddhism can give a precise technical meaning to this biblical statement. If we receive something pleasant, this in Buddhism is considered to be vipaka, the result of previous meritorious conduct. It is nice while it lasts, but when it is finished, its virtue is exhausted. To give, however is kusala kamma, skilled action, which will be productive of some pleasant vipaka or result for the giver. In this way it can be clearly seen to be more “blessed” to give than to receive. True, this “blessing” remains purely mundane and limited, being “merit-making for the world” (lokassa). But as all our actions are habit-forming, giving once inclines us to give again, so that the result tends to be cumulative. Also, of course, this king of kusala kamma can lead on to other things, and it is not for nothing that dana is listed as the first among the ten paramis or “perfections,” coming even before sila or morality. It is, after all, possible for an immoral person to be generous!
The late Dr. I.B.Horner selected ten Jataka stories to illustrate the ten perfections, in a little book that is widely used as an introductory Pali reader, and she used the delightful story of the self-sacrificing hare (No. 316) to illustrate the perfection of giving. Strangely enough, though, to the Western mind at least, the most popular Jataka story on this theme is the very last, the Vessantara Jataka (No. 547), in which the Bodhisatta gives everything away including, finally, his wife and children — a distinctly dubious moral, one might think! But in Thailand this story has been singled out and is regularly made the subject of special readings and sermons for the edification of the laity.
Giving is something that comes from the heart, and as I have said, there are people who enjoy giving for its own sake — which is fine provided the giving is balanced with wisdom. There are of course other people who are reluctant givers, and they are often the same people who find it difficult to say “please,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and so on. For all such types the brahmavihara meditations on love and compassion would be beneficial, to enable them to open up their hearts.
Recently, in Britain, we have had a magnificent example of the power of giving from the heart, and from what to many must have seemed an unexpected source. Moved by the plight of the starving people in Ethiopia, the rock star Bob Geldof organized the fantastic international Live Aid concert which raised millions of pounds — in its way, and with the aid of modern technology, the most spectacular act of generosity in history, touching the hearts of millions, and transcending the boundaries not only of politics and religions, but also that gulf that exists between those addicted to this particular form of entertainment and those who dislike it.
It is perhaps hardly necessary to point out that dana has to be exercised with discretion, and is as much subject to the rule of the middle way as everything else. It is not the best way to bring up a child, for instance, to give it everything it wants — or thinks it wants. Contrary to some trendy theories recently current, it does no harm to frustrate a spoilt brat occasionally! Nor, of course, is it the highest kind if giving if one expects something in return — even a nice rebirth in some heavenly realm! That is a kind of giving which is basically rooted in attachment and is therefore of limited kammic value.
In point of fact, one of the true benefits to the giver is precisely that the act of spontaneous giving is a very fine way of helping to overcome attachment. And that is the intended point of the Vessantara story. We Westerners think of the unfortunate wife and family the Bodhisatta “sacrificed” (though of course there was happy ending and they came back to him, in the story!), but the intention is to regard them as objects of attachment, to be given up as such. As a matter of fact, despite the popularity of this particular story, modern scholars consider that it was not originally a Buddhist tale at all, and was somewhat unskillfully adapted to provide a “Buddhist” moral.
The more we consider the question of dana, the more aspects emerge, and we see that there are many ways of giving, skillfully or otherwise. We may conclude with an amusing canonical example of the alleged results of relatively unskillful giving. In the Payasi Sutta (No. 23 of the Digha Nikaya) we read of the debate between the skeptic Prince Payasi, who did not believe in an afterlife, and the Venerable Kumara-Kassapa. After listening to a brilliant series of parables from the monk, Payasi declares himself converted, and decides to establish a charity “for ascetics and brahmans, wayfarers, beggars and the needy,” and he appoints the young brahman Uttara to organize the distribution. (N.B. This is the correct version — there is an error in the Rhys Davids translation at his point.) Uttara complains that the food and clothing he is called upon to distribute are of such poor quality that Payasi would not touch them himself, and Payasi finally gives him leave to supply “food as I eat and clothes as I wear.” At the conclusion of the sutta, we are told of the rewards the two men received after death. Payasi, who had established the charity grudgingly, was indeed reborn in a heavenly world, but in the very lowest, that of the Four Great Kings, where he was lodged in the empty Serisaka mansion (vimana). Here, indeed, he was visited by the Venerable Gavampati, an arahant who made a habit of taking his siesta in the lower heavens. And so the story was brought back to earth. But Uttara, who had reorganized the charity and given from the heart, was born in a higher heaven, among the Thirty-three Gods.
Probably few Westerners will give in order to be reborn among the Thirty-three Gods, and perhaps the only reward some people look to is an easing of the conscience: being aware of some particular need — of which the case of Ethiopia is the outstanding current example — people feel unable to live with themselves if they do not give something. This is certainly better than hoping for a heavenly reward, but an easy conscience, too, may perhaps sometimes be purchased a little too easily. Best let the giving itself be its own reward, and leave it at that!
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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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276