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Giving alms or Dana

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The act of giving alms to monks has been practiced by Buddhists for thousands of years. It's equated with doing good things and the belief is that this will bring about peace and happiness.

There are many ways in which Buddhists can make merit and among them are giving alms, living life according to religious precepts and praying.

Alms giving is very common practice and usually done at the break of dawn when Buddhist monks begin their alms rounds. Laypeople are required to prepare food and water and wait for the monks to approach them with their alms bowl.

It is important to note that women are prohibited from physical contact with a monk - regardless of her age, nationality or religion. Every female alms donor must take care not to touch a monk when she is offering food to him.

Once food and water have been placed inside the bowl, the monk will place the lid on top of his alms bowl and recite a prayer as a blessing to his donor after which the merit-making will be considered as officially over.

Buddhists give alms for a number of reasons, one example is in honour of deceased loved ones, the belief being that they will not have to suffer from famine in the afterlife.

The common rule when making merit is to ensure that the mind is purified. Only after that state has been accomplished will the Buddhist proverb of "do good and good will come unto you" ring true.

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 is an expression of generosity

There are three kinds of giving, as follows:

1. Giving to the needy, e.g. helping the poor, giving to orphans, etc.
2. Giving to equals, e.g. giving to our friends or neighbours to build up friendship.
3. Giving to people to whom we want to show our gratitude or respect, such as parents, monks, etc.

In the real sense, a Buddhist should give without expectation of return. In other word, to give is to lessen one’s own selfishness. Hence giving is a way of decreasing craving and attachment.



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:

Avoiding Extremes

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.