By Kerry Bowser
Thervāda Buddhism is the oldest surviving school of Buddhism and continues to inform Buddhist
observances today, including the practice of what westerners would call philanthropy.
Buddhism embodies the pursuit of seeking perfection. This concept of seeking perfection is applied
to all aspects of life including the practice of generosity (dāna or daan). Since there is great emphasis
in Buddhism on the path to discovery or enlightenment, generosity is seen as a process of cultivation
within one’s being as opposed to a single act or many acts of philanthropy. In other words,
philanthropy brings benefit to the giver from a spiritual perspective as well as bringing benefit to the
receiver from a pragmatic perspective. It leads the list of the ten perfections or qualities which leads
one to enlightenment signifying the importance of generosity in the life of a Buddhist practitioner.
But unlike western philanthropy, generosity is not necessarily viewed through the lens of economic
value, either as a monetary gift or as a gift in kind. Neither is there an expected financial benefit for
the donor such as a charitable tax receipt. Even the purpose for recording one’s generosity is not to
honour that individual, but to instruct others that enlightenment can be found through the path of
Alternatively, generosity is seen through the lens of universal peace and harmony. In three very well-
known stories of generosity within Thervāda Buddhism (the Story of Vessantara, the Story of
Anāthapindika and the Story of Asoka), the heroes are praised for their lack of attachment to wealth
and their commitment to teach the ways of the Buddha to others, even if their extreme generosity
ends in bankruptcy. No endowments here. But there is the reward of enlightenment and the causal
suggestion that generosity may result in the restoration of fortunes that have once been given away.
Since Buddhism de-emphasizes the monetary aspect of giving, generosity is instead defined more so
by the gift of service and the gift of teaching rather than the gift of wealth or material possessions. In
fact, these are actually seen as of greater value. The instruction of morality and teaching the
knowledge of virtue is seen to exceed all other gifts. It contributes to harmony by overcoming the
negative aspects of humanity such as greed, hatred and ignorance. Social Harmony is achieved
through generosity, kind speech, service and equal treatment. Therefore it is not simply for the sake
of those in need nor for humanity as a whole that generosity is practiced, but for the sake of universal
For the Buddhist, philanthropy cannot be viewed as a separate act. In fact, a life of philanthropy could
be described as “engaged Buddhism”, which means philanthropy is regarded much more subjectively
and individualistic rather than objectively or systemically. And that may explain why there are no
well-known Buddhist philanthropic organizations, foundations or trusts. Generosity, hence
philanthropy, must flow from within and become a part one’s being as opposed to an act or gesture
that one performs outwardly. Perhaps western philanthropy could learn a thing or two here.
Regardless of our cultural heritage or faith background, may we all come to believe that the world
will become a better place, and that we will become a better people through our acts of generosity
and learn to embrace philanthropy as an act of being rather than an act of doing.
Limited Engagements: Revisiting the Non-encounter between American Buddhism and the Shin Tradition by Galen Amatutz, Coordinator,
Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University Journal of Global Journalism, 2002. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
What is Theravāda Buddhism? by John T. Bullitt. Access to Insight, 5 June 2010. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
The Complete Book of Buddha’s Lists by David N. Snyder, Ph.D. Vipassana Foundation, Las Vegas Nevada, 2009. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
Buddhism and the Philanthropy of Compassion by Michael Nowik
Zen Buddhist Temple, Ann Arbor, Michigan (From a religious panel discussion, part of the “Philosophy of Philanthropy” course of the Ferris State
University Master’s in Education with a Concentration in Philanthropic Studies). Retrieved January 28, 2012.
Generosity and Service in Thervāda Buddhism by Ananda W. P. Guruge and G.D. Bond