In whatsoever village or district there is a woman or a
man who has taken refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and the Order . . . who
dwells at home with heart free from the taint of stinginess, who is
open-handed, pure-handed, delighting in giving up, one to ask a favour
of, one who delights in sharing gifts with others,--of such an one
recluses and hermits sing the praises in all quarters.1
By contrast the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and
self-control. . . . If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by
the Spirit. Let us not be conceited, competing against one another,
envying one another.2
In this article I will explore what Christianity and Buddhism,
particularly Theravada Buddhism, say about generosity and self-giving.
I will do this in the light of our current global crisis, which is
worsening because of our inability to share resources equitably.
Christianity and Generosity
The two quotations above suggest that the ability to give is praised
in both Christianity and Theravada Buddhism. Christianity grew from
Judaism and shares with Judaism the Hebrew Bible, which Christians
usually call the Old Testament. One theme that runs throughout the
entire Hebrew Bible is concern that each person in society should have
the means to live. This is often linked with generosity, particularly
to the stranger and to the poor. So one of the commandments of God in
the early history of the Jewish people is, "You shall love the
stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."3 To ease the
plight of widows, orphans, and foreigners resident in the land, the
Jewish people were also commanded, every third year, to make available
a tenth of their agricultural produce for people in need, and, every
seventh year, to grant remission of debts. The text goes on:
Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on
this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in
all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be need on the
earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy
neighbour in your land."
Prophets arose in the history of the Jewish people to call them back
to these commandments, when they were in danger of forgetting them. The
prophet Amos, for instance, speaking in the eighth century BCE, accused
the people of Israel of "trampling the head of the poor into the dust
of the earth" and of pushing the "afflicted out of the way."4 In other
words, the people were guilty of a lack of generosity, a lack of the
ability to give.
Christians look not only to the Hebrew Bible, but also to what they
call the New Testament, which concentrates on the life and meaning of
Jesus. Jesus's teaching diverged little from traditional Jewish
teaching on the question of giving, but there were differences in
emphasis. A very radical message is given, for instance, to one
idealistic, rich young man, who comes to him asking what he should do
to gain eternal life. The young man is unsatisfied when Jesus mentions
the usual commandments--not committing murder, adultery, or theft, and
loving one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus then goes further and says, "If
you wish to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions, and give the
money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come,
follow me."5 The young man, according to the story, went away,
grieving, because he had many possessions, which he was not willing to
At another point in the records of Jesus's life, he tells the story
of a rich man, who lives in luxury, ignoring a poor man, Lazarus, who
lies at his gate and longs to satisfy his hunger with what falls from
the rich man's table. "Even the dogs would come and lick his sores," we
are told. The poor man dies and is taken to heaven. When the rich man
dies, he is taken to hell, from where he sees Lazarus and pleads for
Lazarus to come and give him some water to cool his tongue. But he is
told, in short, that there is a great chasm between heaven and hell and
that, if he had listened to the prophets and their message about
giving, he would not be in hell.6 One message of the New Testament is
that we will be judged on whether we are able to give to those who are
hungry, thirsty, naked, or in need of a welcome and on whether we can
see the holy in every person.7
Giving forgiveness is also an important aspect of giving in the New
Testament. "How many times shall I forgive if a member of the church
sins against me--seven times?" one of the disciples asks Jesus at one
point. The reply is, "Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy seven
The New Testament also speaks of what could be called the ultimate
in giving--the giving of one's very self. Jesus was killed by the Roman
authorities in one of the most barbaric forms of torture that existed
at the time--crucifixion. Christian theology sees this not as a random
punishment but as an act of voluntary self-giving for the good of
humanity by Jesus, a person who was both human and divine. So, Paul,
one of the leaders of the early Christian communities, could say that
Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human
likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became
obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross."9 This example
was, for the early Christians, an invitation to imitate Jesus's
humility and not to regard others as better than themselves.
Buddhism and Generosity
Buddhism does not speak of God or of punishment, but it certainly
speaks of the consequences, for self and others, of deeds that lack
compassion and the ability to give. The touching points between the two
religions here are remarkable.
In Theravada Buddhism, dana, or giving things away to others,
is crucially important, for it is the very first step on the Buddhist
path toward having respect and care for all life. It is the first of
the ten perfections (paramita) that an aspiring buddha must
master and the first of two traditional lists of practices that would
be known by many Buddhists in Asia. The first is a threefold practice
linked with the gaining of merit: giving, the practice of virtue,
meditation (dana, sila, bhavana). The second is a non-canonical
list of ten wholesome actions, which begins with the three practices
just mentioned and then continues with actions such as rejoicing in
another's merit, paying homage, and listening to preaching.
Lying behind the practice of dana in Buddhism is empathy for
"the other" rooted in an appreciation that we all yearn for happiness
and recoil from pain. To give to others is to increase their happiness
and reduce their pain.
In traditional Buddhist contexts, dana is often interpreted
as giving to the monastic community. The midday meal given to the
monastic community by lay people is popularly called dana. Yet, the Pali texts are adamant that dana
as generosity is not restricted to this. Generosity has to be for all,
including the animal world. The Buddha is recorded as saying:
If one should throw away pot-scourings or the rinsings
of cups into a pool or cesspit, even with the idea of feeding the
creatures that live therein, I declare it would be a source of merit
The fifth-century CE scholar, Buddhaghosa, in his remarkable commentary on the Pali canon, the Visuddhimagga, when explaining the meditative practice of recollecting generosity, wrote:
One who wants to develop the recollection of generosity
should be naturally devoted to generosity and the constant practice of
giving and sharing. Or alternatively, if he is one who is starting the
development of it, he should make the resolution: "From now on, when
there is anyone present to receive, I shall not eat a mouthful without
having given a gift."11
In Theravada Buddhism as in Christianity, there are examples of
radical self-giving. The Buddha in his previous lives, according to the
traditional narratives, gave of himself time and time again in order to
master the perfection of dana. One story shows the Buddha-to-be
as an elephant who jumps to his death to feed a hungry tigress. In
other stories, he sacrifices his hands, his feet, or other parts of his
body. One of the early British converts to Buddhism, Allan Bennett, who
became Venerable Ananda Metteyya in Myanmar in 1901, wrote that this
self-sacrifice was, "so great, so utterly beyond our ken, that we can
only try to dimly represent it in terms of human life and thought and
action."12 For Bennett, it was the ability to give up his life or his
organs for the good of others that ultimately equipped the Buddha-to-be
to become a buddha.
The Other Side of Generosity: Refraining
In both Christianity and Buddhism, the emphasis on giving or
generosity is intricately linked to other, equally important,
qualities. Supreme among them are renunciation and
refraining--refraining from selfish reactions, refraining from greed,
and refraining from worry about personal security. Unless our own
desires and wants are curbed, generosity is impossible. For me, this is
exceptionally important in our global crisis. Among the most
significant inhibitors of the generosity that could help the world
today are fear for self and personal greed.
What has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount in
Christianity--probably an amalgam of teachings given by Jesus at
different times--addresses both fear for self and consumerism, with a
message that places trust and faith first. Jesus is recorded as saying
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other
also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even
your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes
away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would
have them do to you.13
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and
rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for
yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure
is, there your heart will be also.14
Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will
eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is
not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . But
strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all
these things will be given to you as well.15
The Kingdom of God, in Christianity, is a state of society in which
no one lives in deprivation. Right relationships prevail. There is both
justice and compassion. The sick are healed and the despairing are made
whole. No one is involved in activities that hurt others. People are
able to give healing, forgiveness, and freedom from fear to one
another. It is to this ideal that Jesus called people. His message
was--if you work for these things, then you will receive all that you
need, in this life and in the next. Within this, the forgetting of self
was most important, as this recorded saying of Jesus shows:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny
themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to
save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake
will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world
but forfeit their life.16
In Theravada Buddhism, the practice of dana is intimately
linked with the eradication of greed and hatred from the mind,
non-retaliation and the overcoming of any clinging to the self. The
links between this and what I have just said about Christian giving and
non-consumerism is plain. In Buddhism, however, there is a greater
emphasis on training the mind so that a point is reached where fear for
self is absent and compassion for the "other" takes over, a compassion
that is willing to give all. There is a story in the Pali Canon of a
monk called Punnovada who comes to the Buddha saying that he is to
travel to a place where the people are known to be hostile. The Buddha
asks him what he would do if the people of that place attack him. The
possible violence he might receive is listed, from verbal abuse to
physical harm. After each one, Punnovada responds by saying that he
would be thankful that the abuse was not even more serious. When the
Buddha eventually mentions murder, Punnovada says:
If the people of Sunaparanta deprive me of life with a
sharp knife, revered sir, it will be thus for me there; I will say,
"There are disciples of the Lord, who, disgusted by the body and the
life-principle and ashamed of them, look about for a knife. I have come
to this knife without having looked for it."17
Venerable Punnovada in his wish to give the teachings to a new community is willing to give his own life as well.
In our current global crisis, how do we interpret this? Can Buddhism
and Christianity help the world take a new course? What now needs to be
given? And what now needs to be given up? There are no easy answers
Certainly, the world must take seriously the message of both
Buddhism and Christianity that accumulation of material goods will
never bring the world happiness. If I went further and said that we
should emulate the fearlessness spoken about in the Buddhist and
Christian texts, I might be told that there are very real reasons for
fear in the world because the threats coming to us from terrorism and
political destabilization are too great for us to ignore. Yet, courage
and fearlessness born of trust in the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha
are most important, I believe, in our age. We who are followers of
these two great figures must be willing to speak out against the
consumerism and greed that is tearing our world apart, even if this
goes against current economic and political theory. We also must be
willing to declare that affluent nations have a duty of generosity to
help the poor meet their needs for food, shelter, health care, and
education, and that this must come before expenditure on arms or space
exploration, and before producing ever more sophisticated methods of
communication. In short, our message should be that generosity and
renunciation must go hand in hand.
1. Anguttara Nikaya, i 225 (all translations of the Pali texts are taken from the versions published by the Pali Text Society).
2. The Bible with Apocrypha,
New Revised Standard Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003),
Galatians 5:22-26. All subsequent quotations from the Bible will be
taken from this version.
3. The Bible, Deuteronomy 10:19.
4. The Bible, Amos 2:6-7.
5. The Bible, Matthew 19:21.
6. The Bible, Luke 16:19-31.
7. See also The Bible, Matthew 25:31-46, which carries another parable on this subject.
8. The Bible, Matthew 18:21-22.
9. The Bible, Philippians 2:7-8.
10. Anguttara Nikaya, i 161.
11. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), Bhikkhu Nanamoli, trans. (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1979), 220; Visuddhimagga VII. 115.
12. Allan Bennett, The Wisdom of the Aryas (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench and Trubner, 1923), 111, quoted in Elizabeth J. Harris, Ananda Metteyya: The First British Emissary of Buddhism (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1998), 27.
13. The Bible, Luke 6:29-31.
14. The Bible, Matthew 6:19-21.
15. The Bible, Matthew 6:25-33.
16. The Bible, Matthew 16:24-26.
17. Punnovadasutta, Majjhima Nikaya, III 269.
Elizabeth J. Harris is a senior lecturer in the
comparative study of religion at Liverpool Hope University. She has
been involved in Buddhist-Christian encounter for over twenty years and
has written extensively. Her latest book is Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka (London: Routledge, 2006).
This article was originally published in the October-December 2008 issue of Dharma World.
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