on dana: perfecting the art of giving

The practice of the Buddhist philosophy is based first and foremost on self-improvement: without an effort to improve ourselves, there is no meaning in meditation, or in any part of the philosophy.

To help to give a structure to this work on ourselves, we use a list of ten qualities, which, as practitioners, we wish to develop in ourselves in this life, while removing impurities. By doing so, we aim to leave this life as a better person than when we arrived. The complete list of qualities to be developed is as follows: Generosity, Morality, Renunciation, Wisdom, Effort, Patience, Honesty, Determination, Compassion, and Equilibrium.

Generosity is the first quality that appears on this list.  This is not accidental; it is indeed the first quality that should be worked on and developed in anyone wishing to work on themselves, not least because a generous action is by definition a direct counter-attack on selfishness – when we give, we have to do a physical action to remove something from ourselves, we make ourselves “poorer” to make someone else “richer.” This act of removing from oneself has always an immediate and visible result, often benefiting the receiver even more than the giver; strengthening the mind and bringing with it lightness and joy.

An act of pure generosity is one of the most beautiful things in the world, but also surprisingly rare, and not as “easy” as one might think, as practicing it properly requires other qualities, most importantly renunciation and wisdom. This is another good reason to start working on oneself by practicing generosity, as in doing so we practice not only one, but several qualities at once.

The Anatomy of a Gift

The only way to practice generosity is by giving – a material donation, or a service. Generosity is defined by willingness to give – without the act of giving there is no generosity. Dana, a Pali word that signifies the act of giving, is therefore  an extremely important word in Buddhist philosophy.

All actions bring results. The results of Dana may be good or bad, depending on the conditions with which the Dana is given. The most important conditions which affect the results of any Dana are as follows: firstly, the intention with which it is given; secondly, the value of what is given, and thirdly, the person to whom it is given.

  1. The Intention of Dana

It is possible for two people to give exactly the same gift to the same person; and yet their actions are not necessarily the same action; they can have two completely different values in Dhamma, and two entirely different results.

This is because the intention behind the action of giving is of great importance; it changes the whole quality of the action, it is one main factor that decides whether an action is good or bad. There is therefore a need to question ourselves and check what our motivation is as we give something. Why do I give? For example:

  • is it out of obligation?
  • is it out of compassion with the aim of helping someone who suffers?
  • is it out of pity?
  • is it from wanting to have a good reputation, so that people will know I’m a good person?
  • is it just to get rid of something I don’t need?
  • is it to remove a sense of guilt?
  • is it just because it’s a special occasion like Christmas?
  • is it to please someone?
  • is it to thank someone who gave me something in the past?
  • is it to feel appreciated?
  • is it because I want to do good?
  • is it to humiliate someone against whom I carry a grudge?
  • is it because I have a particular liking for the person to whom I give?
  • is it because i just want to get rid of someone who is bothering me?
  • is it out of competition, or jealousy, because someone else is more generous than I am and I want to “beat” them in generosity?

You can see that in all these possible intentions for giving, some are good, some are less noble, and some are downright ugly. If the intention with which we give is tainted by ill-will, jealousy or anger, for example, it will necessarily bring with bad results with it; it cannot be considered a “good” or generous action if it is done for these kinds of wrong reasons. If, on the other hand, the intention with which we give is really out of compassion and the desire to help, to make this world a little better, it will necessarily bring with it good results; as its motivation is a good one.  (It’s also, of course quite possible to have more than one motivation when we give a gift: we can give out of compassion and wanting to help, for example, but at the same time are happy that our gift is appreciated by the recipient; when we hear “Thank you,” it makes us feel good.)

Whoever believes in the law of karma has faith that they will later receive the results of their actions, good or bad; in this life and/or in their lives to come. But everyone, whether they are believers in karma or not, can realise that the good or bad results of our actions can be felt immediately. After helping someone, don’t you feel light and happy? At peace with yourself? Is that not a good result of generosity? After having acted out of hostility, after having insulted someone by giving him something that you know will embarrass him; wouldn’t you feel heavy and guilty, won’t you carry regret on your shoulders?

2. The value of what we give

Two people could, again, give exactly the same thing to the same person, but for another reason their gift might not have the same worth. The worth of Dana is not its monetary value, but rather it is the value it holds for us, how much we sacrifice in giving.

Let’s say I give my bicycle to somebody who has no other means of transport. If I have two bicycles in my garage and I give the oldest one that I never use any more and which, to be honest, is just taking up empty space, I do a good action, but the value of my Dana is not very high, as I do not give up anything that is dear to me. If, on the other hand, I bought this bicycle with my savings of a year of work, and it is my biggest source of pleasure for going to explore the countryside at the weekends – then, my Dana has a much bigger value, as I give up the result of a year of work, and a beloved source of enjoyment.

Generosity has little to do with the material wealth of the person who gives, but everything to do with what the thing that is given represents for him or her. Someone who is very poor can be much more generous in giving $10 than a millionaire who gives $1000.

3. The one to whom we give

At first glance, we could think that generosity is nothing but a personal matter, that only our intention and the value of what we give are important. However, the receiver also holds a great importance in an act of generosity: without a recipient, there is no gift! It is therefore quite natural that the one who receives our gift, or service, should have an effect on the quality of the gift itself, and on its results.

To see why, consider this: when we give, we contribute to whatever is done by the one to whom we give. If I volunteer my time by going to help prepare food every weekend at an organisation that provides meals to children in a poor area, I help to make possible this activity – I contribute to the fact that these children will be healthy and can receive a better education.

If I volunteer my service by collecting money for an organisation that is responsible for going into armed combat with another nation, I help to make possible the violence and cruelty that will results from their activities. For this reason, it is important to reflect carefully on whom to give when we want to give a Dana. To what do we wish to contribute?

Giving is like a tree

To plant and germinate a seed that will grow into a fruit-bearing tree, several conditions must be taken into consideration, as they will affect what kind of results we will get from planting our seed. When I plant a seed, I modify the environment where I plant; I may improve the place by doing so, or I may destroy it, depending on how I act. The more knowledge I have about caring for trees, and the more I pay attention to following the right practices when planting the tree; the more likely I am to have good results from it; while if I’m just throwing any seed I find on the side of the road, it’s unlikely that many of those seeds will grow into a majestic and productive fruit tree.

Even if my intention is good and I do my best to plant my seed in a good spot and give it the care it needs, my effort may still fail if I lack the basic understanding of soil, irrigation, weeding and other factors that are necessary to bring a tree to maturity.

Generosity is like that; it’s all very well to be generous by nature and give in a random way now and then, but with more understanding and more wisdom, one gives instead in an intentional way, having reflected on the effect that the gift will have on both donor and recipient, finding the gift that has a good value, and taking the time to find a good place to give, to “plant the gift in the right soil.”

When we meditate and practice the teachings of the Buddha, we become a gardener of gifts; developing in ourselves the quality of generosity, and a deeper understanding of it, so that instead of giving blindly and randomly (or not at all) one gives with heedfulness and wisdom; thus bringing a far richer share of goodness into this world.

Perfecting the Quality of Dana

So far we have spoken about giving in general; acts of generosity that can be done by anyone for any reason. However, for a meditator in this school who is practicing with the aim of going out of Samsara (that is, the cycle of birth and death), generosity in this sense is not enough. We must work on perfecting the quality of generosity in ourselves by practicing a Dana that is not only good, but pure. Pure Dana is the act of giving of one who is working deliberately to get rid of his own selfishness.


To be considered pure Dana, an act of giving needs to meet certain special conditions that are not very easy to achieve; just like a delicate seed that needs particular care and attention in order to grow.

The conditions of the gift that make it to be considered one of the qualities of a meditator are as follows: firstly the gift has to be done with a pure intention, secondly it has to be really removing from oneself, and thirdly, it should be given to the most discerning and moral person that can be found: one practicing wisdom, not only goodness.

This does not mean that we cannot also continue to give in other situations  and for other reasons, but we are aware that what we practice at these times, though still good, is not the quality that will carry us further on the path we wish to follow.

1. Pure Intention

The pure intention necessary for giving a pure Dana, as one who wishes to perfect in himself the quality of generosity, is like a higher  and more refined version of the basic need to give with a good intention and not a bad one.

“Pure intention” means that not only that the gift is given with good will, but that the motivation of giving should be truly selfless and free from emotion. To make this a bit easier to understand, there is a list of eight conditions which render the Dana impure. If I give with one of these eight motivations for giving, the gift, though still a good action, is not considered a perfect Dana. Giving in such a way, I am not practicing the quality of pure generosity that will lead me closer to my aim.

  1. Out of pity (I see a beggar on the street, feel pity for him and give him some money or food.)
  2. Out of fear or obligation (I am asked to give and feel judged or afraid of what people will think of me if I do not give; or I give to someone just because it is Christmas and I feel obliged.)
  3. Because giving is considered good (I give to charity just so that I can  feel good and think of myself as a “good person”)
  4. Out of a desire for name and fame (I give to a hospital knowing that they will write my name on their wall, or I make a meal for someone in the hope of getting a smile and a “thank you,” and feel disappointed if I don’t get it.)
  5. With the intent of offending or insulting (I give a cake to someone who is diabetic.)
  6. In return for a favour given in the past (Someone gave me a book, I return the favour and give them some clothes.)
  7. In hope of getting a favour in the future (I give someone a gift hoping that they will give me something in return, or as a Buddhist I give thinking about the reward I will get in a future life.)
  8. Automatically or by reflex, rather than intentionally, giving without knowing why one does it (I’m a tourist coming to look at the Mass in a Catholic church and at some point I see everyone putting money in a bowl, so I give some coins too without knowing what it’s for, without thinking about it.)

A gift of really pure intention is not attached to anything, not looking for or expecting any result whatsoever, not wishing for anything whatsoever in return, not driven by any emotion. It’s hard to give such a gift without being a meditator, without having some kind of other emotional motivation. So what remains, if the gift is not given for any of these reasons?

2. Removing from Self

A gift of pure Dana is done when the one who gives deliberately wants to remove from his own selfishness, to remove from his greed, to “cut from his own stomach” as Ajan calls it.

Why is this so important? Because we are all so selfish, we all really think that we are the centre of the universe and we are so concerned with our own problems, our own feelings and our own desires. When we look deep inside and are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that no sadness matters to us as much as our own sadness, no problem is as overwhelming as our own problems, no desire as important as our own desire. Giving is like a tool perfectly shaped to fight this selfishness inside: the opportunity to remove from self.

A meditator gives in renunciation of the things to which he is attached; the more he loves something and the more he wants to keep it for himself, the better it is for him to give it away. The mark of an act of selfless generosity is that something is really sacrificed by the one who gives: you are so hungry, but you give your only food to the one who has nothing to eat; it’s the middle of the night and you are dead tired, but you get out of your warm bed to help someone whose car has broken down near your house – you sacrifice your comfort or pleasure for the sake of someone else.

Ajan gives an example of one day long before he became a monk, when he was walking home in wintertime, and saw a man who had no shoes. Right away he stooped to remove his own expensive shoes and gave them to the man, and then he walked home barefoot in the snow, feeling no regret, not minding the cold on his feet.

3. To the wise

A Dana that is given out of pure intention, and removing from the self, also needs to be given to the right person. The one who wants to give an act of pure Dana should also have the wisdom that is needed to find the best person to whom they can give; giving to the wrong person is like planting your seed in useless soil where it’s impossible for it to grow. Just as there is a wide range of soil types, ranging from the most infertile desert land, or the Antartic where nothing at all can grow, all the way to the most fertile soils of the earth where almost anything will that is planted will grow well; there is a wide range of the kinds of people to whom you can choose to give Dana, the place where you choose to invest your generosity. Just as you would try to find the best and most fertile soil in which to plant a seed that you want to grow; one should try to choose the best possible place to invest it, the wisest and most moral one you can find. It is wonderful to give to a wise person who is ardently working on himself to remove his selfishness, to remove his desire, to remove his impurities. This is even better than giving to a “good cause” such as a charity working to benefit a certain group of people.

Why is that? If, for example, I give to a charity giving healthcare to refugees, I contribute to the material condition of some few people who are suffering from the effects of war, slavery, greed, ill-will, and abuse. But I don’t help to remove the root cause of their suffering.

However, when I supply food or lodging to someone who is working to constantly choose right over wrong, constantly fighting against impurities to replace them with qualities; then I contribute to his work: I support him materially so that his attention can be directed entirely on his spiritual practice, rather than being distracted by needing to work. Thus, when I give to the wise, it means that I am contributing to choosing right over wrong; it means that I am fighting against war, against killing, against greed, against slavery, against ill-will, against abuse, all at once. There is nothing more excellent than wisdom to contribute to – in a world without hate, without greed, without desire; how could there ever be war, abuse or slavery?

There is a story that Ajan told us to give us an example of pure Dana. At one time, long before he became a monk, Ajan was living in India as a refugee, having escaped there from Iran. He had been able to take almost nothing with him from home (when you are a refugee, you don’t get to pack a large suitcase) so he had brought only the most valuable thing he had: several beautiful polished pieces of turquoise. He hoped that by selling them he would have enough money to get by in a strange country.

One day, he happened to be passing by a city where there was a temple, and in this temple he saw a man sitting and smiling. Immediately he saw just from looking at the face of the man that this was somebody of quality, somebody whose whole face, body, being, was shining with love, goodness, wisdom. He didn’t know when he would ever get the chance to meet someone of that quality again. Without hesitation, he went to the man to offer him the most precious thing he had in his possession: the turquoise gems. At first the man refused, but Ajan would not take no for an answer, and insisted that the man take one of them. Reluctantly the man picked out a smaller piece without very much value. Again Ajan said “No! Not that one!” and now he himself chose carefully the most valuable of all the pieces and gave it to the man.

The Oil Lamp

Here is a story from the time of the Buddha, which tells of the great sacrifice that people may be prepared to make for the sake of having the chance to give Dana to the wise.

There was once a grandmother and granddaughter living in deep poverty in a small village, earning their living by washing clothes. At that time, the Buddha would travel from town to town, village to village, together with a group of monks. The news of his arrival would often travel before him, and almost everywhere he visited , the people of the place would be full of delight and excitement at the news, for it was a great honour to receive the Buddha and to have the chance to hear him teach, and to offer him and the group of monks gifts and food.

So it was with the village where the grandmother and granddaughter were living: hearing their neighbours saying that the Buddha was on his way, they had a profound wish to be able to offer him something, but were at a loss as to what they could give, poor as they were – until passing one day by a shop selling oil for oil lamps on their way to work, they had the idea that they could give some oil. Thus they could contribute to lighting the room where the Buddha would teach in the evening. To be able to buy oil to give, they began to work extra hours day and night, to save enough money to buy the oil. After two weeks, finally they had saved enough, and they went to the oil merchant full of joy at the idea that now they could purchase their gift.

Yet when they arrived there, they were dismayed: since the announcement of the Buddha’s arrival, not only they, but also every rich person in the village wished to buy oil for the same purpose of offering it to the great teacher. Because of this, the price of oil had increased dramatically in a short time and all their meagre savings were still not enough to purchase an offering. With still a few days left before the event, the two women continued to work even harder without pause to save the money that was missing, even denying themselves food as they did not want to allow themselves to spend even a penny elsewhere. By the eve of the day when it was expected that the Buddha would arrive, they had managed to save enough money to pay the new higher price of the oil. Exhausted, but happy, they went again to the oil merchant.

“Is the price of oil the same as before?” they asked, full of concern.

“It is,” replied the merchant.

“Wonderful! Then let us have some of the first quality, enough to light a small lamp.”

“Ah, but that will not be possible. I have been sold out completely of the first-quality oil for oil-lamps.”

The hearts of the two women sank. “Well,” they asked after a moment, “then let us have some of the second quality. It is not what we wanted, but still we must offer something, and this will still keep a small lamp burning for a while.”

“Of that oil too, there is not even a drop left. I am sorry.”

“Then what do you have left?” asked the two, in desperation.

“Only this dark and unfiltered batch of oil, one year old – I have been trying to sell it for a long time but nobody wanted to buy it.”

“Then we will take it, if there is nothing else.”

The next day, the Buddha arrived with the group of monks as anticipated, and all the village was astir at the news of his arrival. That evening, the biggest hall in the village was prepared for the Buddha to give a teaching: the richest carpets were spread on the floor, the most beautiful tapestries were hung on the walls, and all around the room was hung with oil lamps, big and small, and many offerings for the monks were left there by the people of the village. The grandmother and grandmother went together to hear the teaching that evening. Although they were delighted to be able to go to listen to the Buddha speaking, there was shame in their hearts at the low quality and worth of the gift they were bringing. When they entered the hall, they went to light a lamp with their third-class oil that nobody else wanted, trying to make themselves small and keep out of sight of others.

The Buddha taught all evening and long into the night. When dawn broke, the villagers went home, and as the sun was rising, Moggalana, one of the most respected Elder monks who sat at the right hand of the Buddha, was sent to go and extinguish each of the oil lamps one by one. He did so, arriving last at the lamp that had been lit with the oil donated by the grandmother and granddaughter. He blew on it, but it stayed lit. He put a metal cup over it, but still it stayed lit. No matter what he did, he could not put it out.

Thinking that this was very strange, he went and told the Buddha about this extraordinary thing. The Buddha explained: “Nobody in this world or in any world can put out this lamp, Moggallana. It will continue to burn for many weeks. Such is the power of the sacrifice that was made to light it; such is the power of Dana when it is given with a pure heart. The value of this little oil lamp is higher than the value of all the rest of the offerings put together.”


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