Generosity is one of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. In the spiritual economics of Buddhism, when one gives, both the giver and the receiver benefits from the act. The receiver gains through obtaining the object he/she receives while the giver gains both the joy of performing an act of goodness and future karmic fruit he/she will reap. Perhaps no other quote captures the benefits of giving more clearly and with such simplicity as the one below:
“If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift.”
- Iti 26; 18
When one understands this, one can appreciate why in the Mangala Sutta the Buddha said that to be in the position to give is itself a blessing.
While giving is important, it is also equally important to know how to give. In the Sappurisadana Sutta (The discourse on a good person’s giving), the Buddha described what is called “gift from someone who is a person of integrity”. A person of integrity would consider these 5 factors before giving;
“These five are a person of integrity’s gifts. Which five? (1) A person of integrity gives a gift with a sense of conviction. (2) A person of integrity gives a gift attentively. (3) A person of integrity gives a gift in season. (4) A person of integrity gives a gift with an empathetic heart. (5) A person of integrity gives a gift without adversely affecting himself or others.”
Conviction or Faith. Well-practiced Buddhists are kind, forgiving and trusting people and would give when there is a need to. While these are good qualities to have, Buddhist should also exercise greater discretion (In the same way, the Buddha always encourage us to question and to investigate his teachings before accepting something to be true). This is to ensure that we are not taken advantage of or encouraging unscrupulous people to commit crimes. This is all the more true given recent scandals that have hit a number of high profile charities, and the issue of bogus monks and nuns. Lastly, encouraging ourselves to know the recipients would make the giving more personal and personable, making the conviction and faith more real.
Attentive or Respect. When one has established faith in the giving, one needs to give with respect. During times of great tragedy, like natural disaster, there is an out-pour of generosity. Among the donations made, however, we would inadvertently find some donations of items that are totally inappropriate. These includes things that are broken, damaged or dirty. Giving in this manner is not considered to be respecting the act of giving nor to the recipient.
In Season or at Appropriate time. One needs to give at an appropriate time. This is especially true for giving emotional and psychological support.
Empathetic Heart. When giving, one should do it with a sincere wish that the recipient would benefit from it. One should not get a sense of moral superiority over the recipient but rather, treat him as an equal.
Without adversely affecting or harming oneself or others. Giving is motivated by the wish that the other party would benefit from the act. Thus giving requires that we use our wisdom to discern what the recipient actually needs. If not, we could make the situation worse.
In short, a “person of integrity” would give with a genuine wish that the receiver would benefits from the act. Genuine giving is performed only when then giver gives with a genuine heart and clear awareness that the gift is what the receiver needs and that the receiver would benefits from it. One needs to remember that giving can come in many forms. One can give money, friendship, support, smiles, service, etc.
Lastly, when we perform acts of generosity, we are motivated by reasons. In the Dana Sutta, when asked why some acts of generosity bear greater fruits than others, the Buddha listed 6 reasons why people performs acts of generosity and the resultant good karma they would experience.
“Sariputta, there is the case where a person gives a gift
(1) Seeking his own profit…
(2) Giving is good… it was given in the past, done in the past by my father and grandfather…
(3) I am well-off. These are not well-off. It would not be right for me, being well-off, not to give a gift to those who are not well-off…
(4) Just as there were the great sacrifices of the sages of the past… in the same way will this be my distribution of gifts…
(5) When this gift of mine is given, it makes the mind serene…
(6) This is an ornament for the mind, a support for the mind… ”
If we read the sutta in detail, one realises that each motive gives higher reward than the one before it. Giving motivated by the thought that such acts would support our Buddhist practice would bear the greatest fruits.
While keeping in mind that when performing acts of generosity, the receiver should be the first person to benefit from it, at the same time, we should check our motivation to ensure it helps us to achieve the highest goal in Buddhism – Nibbana.