The practice of giving is universally recognized as one of the most basic human virtues, a quality that testifies to the depth of one’s humanity and one’s capacity for self-transcendence.
In the teaching of the Buddha, too, the practice of giving claims a place of special eminence, one which singles it out as being in a sense the foundation and seed of spiritual development. In the Pali suttas we read time and again that “talk on giving” (danakatha) was invariably the first topic to be discussed by the Buddha in his “graduated exposition” of the Dhamma. Whenever the Buddha delivered a discourse to an audience of people who had not yet come to regard him as their teacher, he would start by emphasizing the value of giving. Only after his audience had come to appreciate this virtue would he introduce other aspects of his teaching, such as morality, the law of kamma, and the benefits in renunciation, and only after all these principles had made their impact on the minds of his listeners would he expound to them that unique discovery of the Awakened Ones, the Four Noble Truths.
Strictly speaking, giving does not appear in its own right among the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, nor does it enter among the other requisites of enlightenment (bodhipakkhiya dhamma). Most probably it has been excluded from these groupings because the practice of giving does not by its own nature conduce directly and immediately to the arising of insight and the realization of the Four Noble Truths. Giving functions in the Buddhist discipline in a different capacity. It does not come at the apex of the path, as a factor constituent of the process of awakening, but rather it serves as a basis and preparation which underlies and quietly supports the entire endeavor to free the mind from the defilements.
Nevertheless, though giving is not counted directly among the factors of the path, its contribution to progress along the road to liberation should not be overlooked or underestimated. The prominence of this contribution is underscored by the place which the Buddha assigns to giving in various sets of practices he has laid down for his followers. Besides appearing as the first topic in the graduated exposition of the Dhamma, the practice of giving also figures as the first of the three bases of meritorious deeds (punnakiriyavatthu), as the first of the four means of benefiting others (sangahavatthu), and as the first of the ten paramis or “perfections.” The latter are the sublime virtues to be cultivated by all aspirants to enlightenment, and to the most exalted degree by those who follow the way of the Bodhisatta aimed at the supreme enlightenment of perfect Buddhahood.
Regarded from another angle, giving can also be identified with the personal quality of generosity (caga). This angle highlights the practice of giving, not as the outwardly manifest act by which an object is transferred from oneself to others, but as the inward disposition to give, a disposition which is strengthened by outward acts of giving and which in turn makes possible still more demanding acts of self-sacrifice. Generosity is included among the essential attributes of the sappurisa, the good or superior person, along with such other qualities as faith, morality, learning and wisdom. Viewed as the quality of generosity, giving has a particularly intimate connection to the entire movement of the Buddha’s path. For the goal of the path is the destruction of greed, hate and delusion, and the cultivation of generosity directly debilitates greed and hate, while facilitating that pliancy of mind that allows for the eradication of delusion.
The present Wheel publication has been compiled in order to explore in greater depth this cardinal Buddhist virtue, the practice of giving, which in writings on applied Buddhism is so often taken for granted that it is usually passed over without comment. In this issue four practicing Buddhists of today, all of whom combine textual knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings with a personal commitment to the path, set forth their understanding of the various aspects of giving and examine it in relation to the wider body of Dhamma practice.
The collection concludes with a translation of an older document — the description of the Bodhisatta’s practice of giving by the medieval commentator, Acariya Dhammapala. This has been extracted from his Treatise on the Paramis, found in his commentary to the Cariyapitaka.
In the coming weeks we will be publishing several essays on dāna (generosity). The collection was previously published by the Buddhist Publishing Society as a Wheel-publication. The present text was the introduction to the collection, written by its compiler Bhikkhu Bodhi.
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276