The Perfection of Giving

Awakening of Faith Sutra

“If persons should come to them and ask for something, they should as far as their means allow, supply it ungrudgingly and thus make them happy. If they see people threatened with danger, they should try every means for rescuing them and restore them to a feeling of safety. If people come to them desiring instruction in the Dharma, they should, as far as they are acquainted with it and according to their discretion, deliver discourses upon religious themes. And when they are performing these acts of charity, let them not cherish any desire for fame or advantage, nor covet any earthly reward. Thinking only of the benefits and blessings that are to be mutually shared, let them aspire for the most excellent, the most perfect wisdom.” (Awakening of Faith Sutra, Goddard, 1932)

“If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” (Matthew 5: 38)

“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them; otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret.” (Matthew 6: 1-3)

Generosity: The Inward Dimension

by Nina Van Gorkom

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 53

The giving 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 not producing a good result, and there is consciousness which is wholesome or productive of a good result; besides these there are 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.” 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 some luxury. 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; however, the unwholesome has a wider range than what is conventionally considered “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 that are wholesome and the moments that 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 anger or hate.

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, non-aversion, and understanding or wisdom. Each type of wholesome consciousness is rooted in non-attachment and non-aversion, and it may be rooted in understanding or wisdom as well. [True generosity is entirely free of attachments.] When one is truly generous one gives impartially and does not limit 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 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 possessions one cannot give up the clinging to self.

Stinginess can bring about—either in this life or in a future life—the very result we fear: [lack or want] of possessions. Generosity can bring about pleasant results, such as prosperity. However, when we perform acts of generosity we should not hope for pleasant results. [Indeed, we should hold no thought whatsoever of giver, gift or recipient in our minds. – Editor]

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. We should understand 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 is past, 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.

[We must be aware of our consciousness before the giving, when we are planning the giving, and afterwards when we recollect our giving, and be on guard against unwholesome feelings. Before giving the gift we should be mindful that we do not anticipate any benefit to ourselves. After the giving, we should never think about whether the gift was too valuable or whether it was a wasted gesture because it wasn’t appreciated. The gift is nothing, and what happens to the gift doesn’t matter in the least: the only thing that matters is one’s own mental attitude, which should be one of pure giving-ness. – Editor]

There are still other ways of practicing generosity, even when we do not have things to give. When we notice that someone else is doing a good deed we can give words of approval and praise. One can be stingy not only with regard to one’s possessions but also with praise.

Our outlook on what is worthwhile in life can change. We correct our views when we understand that it is not a self, but different types of consciousness, wholesome and unwholesome, which motivate our deeds; when we understand that these types of consciousness arise because of [the conditioning of past experiences]. By developing an understanding of reality 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.

Nina Van Gorkom is a Dutch Buddhist who first encountered Buddhism in Thailand. A keen student of the Abhidhamma, she is the author of Buddhism in Daily Life and Abhidhamma in Daily Life.

Giving in the Pali Canon

by Lily de Silva

Dana, giving, is extolled in the Pali canon as a great virtue. It is, in fact, the beginning of the path to liberation. When the Buddha preaches to a newcomer he starts his graduated sermon with an exposition on the virtues of giving (danakatha, Vin.i,15,18). Of the three bases for the performance of meritorious deeds (punnakiriyavatthu), giving is the first, the other two being virtue and mental culture (A.iv,241). It is also the first of the ten paramita perfected by a Buddha. Therefore, on the march towards liberation as an arahant or a Buddha, one initially has to practice dana.

Function of Giving

Giving is of prime importance in the Buddhist scheme of mental purification because it is the best weapon against greed (lobha), the first of the three unwholesome motivational roots (akusalamula). Greed is wrapped up with egoism and selfishness, since we hold our personalities and our possessions as “I” and “mine”. Giving helps make egoism thaw: it is the antidote to cure the illness of egoism and greed. “Overcome the taint of greed and practice giving,” exhorts the Devatasamyutta (S.i,18). The Dhammapada admonishes us to conquer miserliness with generosity (jine kadariyam danena, Dhp. 223).

Lily de Silva is Professor of Pali and Buddhist Studies at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. A regular contributor to Buddhist scholarly and popular journals, she is also the editor of the subcommentary to he Digha Nikaya, published by the Pali Text Society of London.


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