Giving in the Buddhist Tradition

sduncan post on February 25th, 2013
Posted in India Tags: , ,

By Fatima Valentim

“Nature gives without expectation of return – and we should too” – Phra Santikaro, noted monk

Generally speaking, the concept or 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” (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2010). In Western tradition, giving is often seen as an obligation or something we should strive for, and it often comes with an expectation of being recognized in some way. Our giving has become an act of exchange or an investment (Karnjariya Sukrung, The Rewards of Giving). Of course, the concepts of giving and generosity are not limited to Western traditions. Giving is known by a number of terms worldwide and takes on many different shapes and forms. Buddhism takes on a different perspective of giving, or dana as it is called, than does the Western tradition. Buddhism views giving, or dana, not only as a virtue, but instead of as a way of life and as essential in order to achieve true enlightenment. Enlightenment is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. This paper will explore the Buddhist tradition of dana or giving and how it manifests itself within the tradition.

Buddhism teaches that we exist as a vast network of life, so that we are continuously receiving the generosity of others. This means that we can choose to orient ourselves more and more towards others, developing loving-kindness for them and learning to give in all ways to all beings (Peter Joseph, Traditions of Giving in Buddhism). When they begin to explore Buddhism, most people are struck by the pervasiveness of the practice of giving and of generosity. Starting with the Buddha, the tradition has always emphasized that an open-handed and open-hearted orientation to life is essential if one is to make spiritual progress. It is no accident then that dana is frequently given “first in the systems of practice; it is emphasized by all schools and precise instructions are given in how to become increasingly generous”(Giving of the Heart – Giving in Buddhism). Buddhism seeks to replace the potentially natural human tendency to take, to draw to oneself and care about oneself first and to instead “grow towards Enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism, where we are instructed to enter into others’ lives sympathetically, to imaginatively identify with their pleasures and pain (Giving of the Heart – Giving in Buddhism).

With Buddhism, the gifts that we are to give are whatever is most needed by a particular person, and range from the most basis material things such as food, clothing and shelter, to those gifts that demand more of the donor, such as helpful communication, education, or even one’s life. The Buddhist tradition of giving recognizes that there is a range of motivations for our giving, from the Transactional (when I get something in return) to the transcendent (when giving means overcoming selfishness). Each of these is seen as “having validity, but the mental and emotional state from which we act is of supreme importance” (Peter Joseph, 2000). In essence, what this entails is that we need to examine our motives for the giving and ensure they are coming from a place of purity, giving solely for the sake of giving.

Giving, or dana, is one of the three elements of the path of practice as formulated by Buddha for laypeople (New World Encyclopedia). In Buddhism, giving is the beginning of one’s journey to Nirvana. True giving must be free from the expectation of anything in return, and in some perspectives “if you expect even a word of appreciation like thank you from the receivers, then it is not free giving, but an exchange (Karnjariya Sukrung, The Rewards of Giving). Dana is the first step towards eliminating the defilement of greed, hate and delusion (lobka, dosa, moha) – for every act of giving is an act of non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion ( When you give you are considered to have only loving-kindness (meta) and compassion (karuna) in your heart, so of course greed, hate and delusion will be absent as a result. Viewed as the quality of generosity, giving has a particularly intimate connection to the entire movement of the Buddha’s path.

Giving in the Buddhist perspective means that when we are kind to each other, we are giving kindness, gentleness, comfort, peace and happiness. In the teaching of Buddha, 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 (Bhinkkhu Bodhi, 2010). The true practice of giving is not defined by an outwardly act where an object is transferred from one to another, but instead as “an inward disposition to give, a disposition strengthened by outward acts of giving and where in turn makes possible still more demanding acts of self-sacrifice” (Bhinkkhu Bodhi, 2010).

In the Buddhist practice, the practice of giving is also seen as a basis of merit or wholesome kamma (karma) and when it is coupled with other virtues such as morality, concentration and insight, it leads ultimately to liberation from samsara, the cycle of repeated existence (Susan Elbaum Jootka, 2010). Like all good deeds in Buddhism, an act of giving will bring us happiness in the future in accordance with the karma laws of cause and effect taught by the Buddha. In this view, “giving yields benefits in the present life and lives to come whether or not we are aware of this fact, but when the volition is accompanied by understanding, we can greatly increase the merits earned by our gifts” (Susan Elbaum Jootka,2010). The amount of merit gained varies according to three factors: the quality of the donor’s motive, the spiritual purity of the recipient, and the kind and size of the gift. Simply put, good deeds mean good results and bad deeds mean bad results and the idea is to create as much good karma as possible and in the practice of giving this means keeping one’s mind pure in the act of giving, choosing the worthiest recipient available, and choosing the most appropriate and generous gifts one can afford. This is somewhat different from the Western perspective where the rewards of giving are usually expected more immediately.

In Buddhism, giving is the beginning of one’s journey to the ultimate goal of the Buddhist tradition which is Enlightenment. Although this might appear to be too great an ideal to aspire to in terms of the Western perspective of giving, perhaps we could adopt some of the concepts surrounding giving or dana in our own lives and strive to view giving in a different light.

Works cited

“Dana: The Act of Giving” retrieved from

“Dana: The Practice of Giving”, Selected Essays edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Access to Insight June 2010 retrieved from

Give of the Heart – Giving in Buddhism retrieved from

Jootka, Susan Elbaum “The Practice of Giving” from “Dana: The Practice of Giving”, Selected Essays edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Access to Insight June 2010 retrieved from

Joseph, Peter “Traditions of Giving in Buddhism, Alliance Magazine December 2000 retrieved from

Sukrung, Karnjaiya “The Rewards of Giving” retrieved from

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