Giving is essential to Buddhism. Giving includes charity, or giving material help to people in want. It also includes giving spiritual guidance to those who seek it and loving kindness to all who need it. However, one’s motivation for giving to others is at least as important as what is given.
What is right or wrong motivation? The Anguttara Nikaya, a collection of texts in the Vinaya-pitaka section of the Pali Canon, lists a number of motivations for practicing charity. These include being shamed or intimidated into giving; giving to receive a favor; giving to feel good about yourself. These are impure motivations.
The Buddha taught that when we give to others, we give without expectation of reward. We give without attaching to either the gift or the recipient. We practice giving to release greed and self-clinging.
Some teachers propose that giving is good because it accrues merit and creates karma that will bring future happiness. Others say that even this is self-clinging and an expectation of reward. In Mahayana Buddhism in particular, any merit that might come with giving is to be dedicated to the liberation of others.
Giving with pure motivation is called dana paramita, or “perfection of giving.” It is first in a list of paramitas, or perfections, that are to be cultivated in Buddhist practice. The Six Perfections are:
- Dana paramita, perfection of giving
- Shila paramita, perfection of discipline
- Kshanti paramita, perfection of patience
- Virya paramita, perfection of exertion
- Dhyana paramita, perfection of meditation
- Prajna paramita, perfection of wisdom
The last paramita, wisdom, ties back to the first. As long as we are sorting ourselves into givers and receivers, we are still falling short of dana paramita. Wisdom teaches us that there is giving and receiving, but there are no givers and no receivers.
At the same time, there is no giving without receiving. In a sense, giving and receiving are one. If giving is “good,” then receiving is equally good.
Shohaku Okumura wrote in Soto Zen Journal that for a time he didn’t want to receive gifts from others, thinking that he should be giving, not taking. “When we understand this teaching in this way, we simply create another standard to measure gaining and losing. We are still in the framework of gaining and losing,” he wrote.
In Japan, when monks carry out traditional alms begging, they wear huge straw hats that partly obscure their faces. The hats also prevent them from seeing the faces of those giving them alms. No giver, no receiver; this is pure giving.