Altruism or Generosity (Dana)

Altruism, popularly known as generosity is a concept that received most favored attention in the teachings of Buddhadhamma. People of ancient India, known then as Jambudeepa, engaged themselves in such practice even prior to the advent of Buddhism.

Though its origin is not known, evidence of this quality having come down from prehistoric times is abundant. In fact traces of this attribute can be observed even in animals and other living beings. For instance a mother is generous to the extent of giving her own milk to her newborn offspring. Even plants are observed to sacrifice their fruits in the propagation of their species. The single-celled amoebae too divides itself into two for its own development.

All life in the material world (Sakharaloka) has this nature of giving, in some degree or other, for the benefit of others. So much so that we live almost in an atmosphere of hospitality, generosity and charity. The quality of giving which demonstrates the hallmark of a cultured mankind is considered by the people as of immense value to their spiritual development. The practice of charity marked the Vedic Brahman society’s early introduction to altruism. This trend, it seems, has continued in the same vein up to this date. However, altruism as practiced originally in the world failed to command respect as a human quality par excellence.

Following the great renunciation, the Bodisatta, for the first time, went on alms rounds in King Bimbisara’s city of Rajagaha, evoking the spirit of generosity in people’s mind. Giving is basic to the practice of altruism. But for a person not used to it, it will pose myriad problems. It takes a great mind to be able to divest oneself of one’s possessions. This is considered as one of the most meritorious acts in the books of Buddhism. The teaching has it that three main good deeds can be done by a person for his own benefit or that of others. One is Dana - the word that describes giving: to give something possessed by one for the benefit of others without expecting anything in return. To be able to do this, one needs immense control over his craving and attachment to the object offered. It may be material or immaterial. Objects of visible, audible, odorous, savorous or tactile nature are called material offerings while knowledge imparted is considered as immaterial offering. What qualifies something to be considered as a full-fledged offering or dana, is the giving away of an object for which one has no attachment, being prompted purely by compassion for others. So that what is of paramount importance is that element of compassion that induced the offering. Giving in that spirit helps the giver, the recipient and all others to reap benefits.

There is a gaping difference between the pre-Buddhist era dana and the dana practiced in the true Buddhist image in that the former involved offerings of sacrificial nature in the expectation of good returns to the performer while the latter envisages or promotes abandonment of craving from the mind or at least the curtailment thereof. Buddha said “ danam bhikkhave sappurisa pannattam, pandita pannattam “ meaning giving is considered by the good and wise because of the benefits accrued and the results gained by many. Cultivation of altruism based on generosity and loving kindess is the aim here. Altruism is the main instrument used on the way to attainment of wisdom of the Buddhahood - Enlightenment. Buddha the master, had been practicing dana and altruism for many countless eons. Jataka stories vouch for this.

Ordinary dana is threefold in its main aspects namely gift of material nature, gift of fearlessness and gift of Dhamma knowledge. That is providing material help in the way of food, clothing and shelter, giving fearlessness by promoting adherence to the five precepts and imparting knowledge so as to eschew ignorance and bring happiness to others. Buddha laid emphasis on Dhammadana thus: Sabba danam dhammadanam jinati meaning that the gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts. This is because the Buddha saw the harm the world was exposed to by widespread ignorance which made him declare that giving knowledge to people was the highest dana one can conceive of. Dana enjoys pride of place in the doctrine of the tenfold righteous rule enunciated by the Buddha which was appreciated by many and practiced in many other religious teachings. A human quality worthy of appreciation, dana offers an opportunity for wise use of one’s earned wealth. While being devoid of craving, anger and delusion, if one follows the regimen mentioned above, it will lead one to accrue meritorious and wholesome results, and thus bring happiness to all. The value of altruism is not appreciated by many because of inborn self-centeredness which lead them towards unwholesomeness. Selfishness is the vilest characteristic that draws people towards evil.

The Buddha was the first ever teacher in the world to dwell on the concept of the well being of many ( bahujana hita sankappa ) In exemplifying his concern for the betterment of others and his total commitment towards helping them, his first sixty two disciples were sent out to teach the Dhamma for the well being of gods and humans. Altruism enjoys a highly respectable position in the attainment of perfections that all Bodhisattas are invariably required to accomplish.

The Buddha has used the two words “ parattham patipajjata to urge people to be altruistic. In the tenfold Dhamma he states that one should contemplate on one’s life considering it to be bound with that of the others. Buddhist monks, nuns, adults, children and all alike are supposed to think and act for the common good and the betterment of mankind. Buddhist children particularly should be alive to all animate and inanimate environmental issues. The practice of altruism therefore should almost be a way of life for Buddhists. Altruism is the heart of Buddhism. If any proof is needed one has only to look at the far reaches of the history of Gauthama Buddha, who as a Bodhisatta, in a perfect example of altruism, let go of a good opportunity of attaining Enlightenment in the shelter of Buddha Deepankara. This caused him to finally attain Buddhahood only after twenty four Buddha periods. He who practices altruism, practices Dana, Sila and Bhavana which enable him to acquire thoughts that would bring him benefits in the long journey of Samsara. This is how we should take advantage of this rare birth as a human.

May all be well and happy!
Ven. Kurunegoda Piyatissa
Edited by A Bamunuwatte