Did the Buddha Do Charity?

Of late, I’ve been thinking about something. “Did the Buddha do charity?”

Of course the mere inclusion of Buddha in such a question would invoke hordes of Buddha-fans who might flame this entry as its preposterous to even conceive such a question, much less ask one, and to post it online at that. Purists would start asking questions like “Define ‘Charity'” or “When we say ‘Did’, are we referring to the Buddha in his final life, as a monastic, as a prince or are we referring to his numerous past life?” … or perhaps my personal
favorite would be “What do you mean by Buddha? Are we referring to the historical Buddha or the very concept of Buddha-Nature” … etc etc.

While it may really seem like they are splitting hairs, those questions are very real and helps define the extent of our question. It can also shed light on the current status of Buddhism and perhaps whether there are alternatives to our current way of applying Buddhism to modern society.

If we start of with the first premise of time, we can refer to the Buddha in the following three periods:

  1. When he was a Bodhisattva in his various previous lives,
  2. When he was a Bodhisattva as a prince in his final life, known to us as Prince Siddhartha,
  3. From the point onwards as a samana (homeless one, monk etc) until he became enlightened, beginning his dispensation of Dhamma-Vinaya and ultimately entering into Final Liberation (Paranibbana).

In this sense, Buddha would refer to the historical Gotama Buddha, including his past lives as a Bodhisattva.

Charity here refers to Dana, or giving. Giving in Buddhism includes many different things, from the simplest giving of material support to the highest giving of the Dhamma.

To start off, the Buddha is a man of charity. He gave everything, boundlessly, unconditionally. As a Bodhisattva many aeons ago, He started off by giving up his wordly habits towards seeking wordly happiness (sensual pleasures). He ended his pursuit of worldly dreams and goals and began His long and ardous journey towards Buddhahood. Of course this is more like giving up, of renounciation and not giving, as in giving all these to others, as in charity. But with this giving up, he also started the outward giving. In the Jataka tales (Khuddaka Nikaya, Pali Canon. BenShen Jing in the Chinese Canon [Da Zang Jing]) he is cited to have performed numerous, or countless acts of giving, ranging from giving of wealth, food, assistance, lodging, time, protection, his wife, part of his own body and even his very own life in some cases. All these he did. And he did over many years, many thousands of years, many aeons. And over these many years, he perfected his Giving, ie Paramita of Dana (Perfection of Giving). From the Mahayana sutras, we will also see how the various Bodhisattvas, including the Buddha when he was still a Bodhisattva are described to have made offerings to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the ten directions (all directions in other words) and also gave to all sentient beings, ranging from the highest heavens to the lowest hells. So its safe to say that he definitely gave in material terms in his past life, prior to him becoming the Buddha.

It is said that in his final life as a prince, he gave some flesh to an eagle to avoid the eagle killing a snake for a meal. The suttas are quite scant on his personal life as a philanthropic prince. As far as I’ve learnt from the Pali Canon and some post-canonical literature, prince Siddhartha led his youth basked in luxury, carefully crafted by his father, King Shuddhodana, to prevent prince Siddhartha from coming to see the four sights of Sickness, Old Age, Death and Renounciation. That being the case, it seem to lead me to believe that while the prince was kind and compassionate to all the royal maidens, guards and his kins, he had little if any opportunity to express his kindness and compassion in the form of charity. From the Mahayana sutras, again scant details if at all, depict him as a humanitarian during his princehood. Most Mahayana sutras describes the path of the Bodhisattva, and hence focused on the Buddha’s past lives as a backdrop for teaching the Perfections (Paramitas) to the aspiring Bodhisattvas. The final life as a prince, according to Mahayana sutras was said to be a ‘walk-through’ demo, just to convince unenlightened beings that it is possible to become enlightened as a wordling, as a human being. Caveat emptor here being that I’ve not read every single one of the Mahayana sutras and hence would love to hear
comments from readers who can cite specific canonical Mahayana sutras illustrating the Buddha in his princehood performing philathropic deeds. For the Pali Canon, I’ve not found any specific instances from the Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya nor the Anguttara Nikaya (Anthologies) or selected suttas from Khuddaka Nikaya such as the Dhammapada, Theragatha, Therigatha etc, that supports a philanthropic prince Siddhartha. Again, I would love to stand corrected.

Coming past his princehood, we look at the Buddha’s early six years as a renounciate, or samana. He began his ‘career’ by learning from two of the most prominent meditation master of those days in India. The first being Alara Kalama and the second being Uddaka Ramaputta. Both were meditation masters who attained and taught the (formless) concentration of infinite sphere of nothingness and infinite sphere of neither perception nor non-perception. The Buddha learnt and attained both levels to completion but found that it still led to more becoming, ie rebirths, and hence was not the Final goal. Even then, during this period, it is not evident that he spent his time engaged in philanthropic activities such as charity etc.

After his stint with the two meditation masters, he went on to practice ascetism for six years or so together with five other ascetics. As an ascetic, he not only had little belongings, he even subsisted on little daily nourishments. At the extreme end, the Buddha was said to have survived on only one sesame seed a day! Surely it would be unlikely if at all for the Buddha to have organised fund-raising events to do charity or even do any much humanitarian work! As far as the Pali Canon and the Mahayana sutras are concerned, we also cannot find any evidence contrary to this.

At the end of this six years (some say five to six years, owing to some months spent with the two masters), the Buddha came to the realisation that extreme ascetism did not and will not bring about liberation for he had practiced it to the fullest extent humanly possible. He then recalled a meditation experience he had and decided to resume meditation instead of ascetism. Taking some nourishment, he strengthened his body and then began meditation. Reflecting on the nature of our very existence, he realised three insights over the three periods of the night. In the end, he broke through all attachments to the five khandas and put an end to delight, attachment, desire and craving for them, ceasing completely the cycle of birth and death, thereby becoming enlightened. He became to be known as Buddha, an Arahant or the Blessed One.

For the next forty-five years, He taught ceaselessly the Dhamma-Vinaya to the monks, starting with the five ascetic companions. His exhortation to the monastics was consistently the urgent need to meditate and attain Final Liberation. India in those days did not enjoy some mystical hey day where there were no calamities or suffering. Instead, through the Pali Canon, we see instances of drought, famine, floods, epidemics, war etc ravaging the people, including the monastics. In this backdrop, we see that the monks themselves were also affected frequently, when whole community of monks would be affected by the lack of alms food. There has thus far been no mention of the Buddha nor his monks organising any humanitarian work to provide food, shelter or medicine for the poor or needy. Instead, the Buddha and his monastics went on alms round, to let them practise generosity, sowing the seeds for *future* well being. Again, in neither the Pali Canon nor the Mahayana sutras, do we see any evidence pointing otherwise.

The one few instances was when the Buddha said that “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. But because beings do not know, as I know, the
results of giving & sharing, they eat without having given. The stain of selfishness overcomes their minds.” Khuddaka Nikaya, Itivuttaka I.26 While this surely points towards the virtue of giving, this instance itself lends more to the giving of Dhamma, which enlightens someone to the virtue of giving. In this aspect, the Buddha gave many other discourses to the lay community on the virtue of dana (giving), further reinforcing that the Buddha Himself and his monastics probably did not participate directly in charity, at least not in the material sense.

In that case, you may now ask, what did the Buddha and his monastics do, if they did not do charity? And if they did not, then how do we contend with the present society? Should monks do charity if the Buddha himself in his final life did not directly get involved in material charity? Apparently, the Buddha and his monastics did not engage directly in material charity. They were samanas, ‘homeless ones’, with only the triple robes, an
alms bowl and some other personal artifacts. Being known as “those who prefer quietude”, it is difficult at best to picture the Buddha and his monastics organising some charity gala dinner (oops, they don’t take dinner at that!) or charity funfair. So what did the Buddha and his monastics do? Did they do no charity? No, they did do charity, but not the way we think of charity.

Instead of being directly involved in charity, they inspired others to do charity. Through their Dhamma discourses, they inspire the lay community to perform charity. Through their lifestyle, they provide the lay community an opportunity to offer dana, sowing the seeds for future well being. In this way, the needy is aided in the here and now, and in the future. And by laying a good foundation of giving, the heart is softened and nourished with loving kindness, making it conducive for further teachings. In one sutta, the Buddha gave a series of discourses to some lay people, starting from giving, extolling the superiority of rebirth in the heavens and ultimately ending with Nibbana as the Final Goal. In this way, the Buddha made clear that giving was not an end in itself, but was taught as a means for future benefits, possibly culminating in Nibbana. For the Highest Gift of all is the Gift of Dhamma, which leads to the Highest Blessing of all, Nibbana.

So yes, the Buddha did charity, the giving of Dhamma.