‘It is not about the gift.’: What we often forget about giving

Written by Danry Lim
4 mins read
Published on May 5, 2023

Editor’s Note: Danry shares about giving and how we can do so in the month of May for the inaugural International Sangha Dana 2023.

TLDR: Gifts are much more than just the act of giving – it encompasses the effects of the gift on the receiver too. However small the act of giving, it is the mind state of giving that makes it meritorious. Supporting the Sangha by Dana honours all three of the Triple Gems, the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, all at once!

In Buddhism, giving is not just an act of kindness – it is a powerful tool for personal growth and spiritual development.

I know, the term ‘giving’ might conjure an image of a donation box at every corner, with people scrambling to find dollar bills (especially the smaller dominations!) to stuff into the tiny slit – usually in exchange for some ’favour’. 

But this discounts the true power of giving, limiting it to only a form of transaction. Known as dana, giving is usually considered the foundation of one’s growth in the Dhamma. It is often taught as a way to lead a happier, more joyful life – with oneself and others!

Giving isn’t just about the gift!

While gifts are commonly in the form of something material, such as candles and books, it does not just stop there. When we give a gift to another, it is beyond the material. Giving can be considered an art because it involves creativity, intention, and skill. Like any form of art, giving requires thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and attention to detail. 

When we give to others, we are not simply handing over a material object or performing a task. We are engaging in a creative act that involves understanding the needs of the recipient, selecting an appropriate gift or action, and presenting it in a way that is meaningful and impactful. 

Giving is also an art because it requires intention and purpose. We give not just for the sake of giving, but with the hope that it can be of benefit to another’s well-being and even happiness. 

The gift of food is not just giving food

I remember once when I asked my teacher about the merits when one offers food to the Sangha, and his response changed how I saw giving. He shares that the giving of food to anyone (including the Sangha) is not merely a gift of food to fill the stomach, but a gift of life, gift of friendliness, and gift of worryless-ness. 

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A gift of life because it serves as a condition for the sustenance of life; a gift of friendliness because it serves as a condition for the feeling of being cared for by another; a gift of worryless-ness because one now has one less thing to worry about. 

When we contemplate in this way, any small act of giving can become boundless in rejoicing in our own goodness. And in so doing, we also learn to rejoice in the goodness of others when others engage in acts of giving. 

Similarly, when we offer medicine, we are in fact giving the gift of health, the gift of strength and the gift of fearlessness. 

When we offer lodging (in Singapore’s context it may be supporting the cost of lodging rather than actually offering land), it is a gift of refuge, a gift of conduciveness, a gift of safety. When we contemplate in this way, the act of giving becomes a powerful tool for cultivation, towards boundlessness. 

And when we can use the same lens when we receive a gift, gratitude and appreciation naturally spring up much more.

Is giving to the Buddha & his disciples the only way?

In the time of the Buddha, there was a rumour that the Buddha taught that only by giving to the Buddha and his disciples was it meritorious. Vacchagotta, a non-Buddhist wanderer, decided to question find out if the rumours were true. In that discourse, Vaccha Sutta, the Buddha described that even the smallest act of giving, would be a source of merit. He proclaimed:

“One acquires merit even if one throws away rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond with the thought: ‘May the living beings here sustain themselves with this!’ How much more, then, does one acquire merit when one gives to fellow human beings!”

Giving to the Sangha

In the same discourse, He taught Vacchagotta that “what is given to one of virtuous behaviour is more fruitful than what is given to an immoral person. And the most worthy recipient is one who has abandoned five factors and possesses five factors”, referring to the overcoming of the Five Hindrances

When one chooses to be a monastic, one makes the determination to overcome these hindrances despite all odds. To be a monastic requires one to give up worldly comforts to fully dedicate one’s life to the path of Awakening, while sharing insights into the Dhamma with the lay community. 

As such, one of the most significant forms of dana is giving to the Sangha, the community of monastics that have chosen to dedicate their lives to the practice of the Dhamma. Since the time of the Buddha and in many Buddhist countries today, alms offering, known as piṇḍapāta, is still practised. 

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As aspirants of the highest goal, the Sangha is often praised by the Buddha (and recited by many Buddhists) as the ‘incomparable field of merit for the world’ (anuttaram punnakhettam lokassa).

To me, by supporting the Sangha, we not only express our gratitude for the teachings we have received, but we also enable the continuation of the noble practice of the Dhamma for future generations. The Sangha plays a vital role in preserving the teachings of the Buddha. 

It once occurred to me that the very reason why we have access to the practice of Dhamma today is due to the effort of generations after generations of Sangha. In choosing to give to the Sangha, one is laying a condition for the continued preservation of the Dhamma of those to come. 

To me, preserving, practising and penetrating the Dhamma is the supreme homage to the Buddha. Thus, simple yet profound, the practice of dana, is related to the Triple Gems – the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha!

Want to explore the art of giving in person? Join Danry on 13th May for the international Sangha Dana 2023 from 9am to 5pm at Suntec Convention Centre! Sign-up is free!

Wise Steps:

  • Start giving something today, however small. It doesn’t need to be material.
  • Give with the heart of benefiting another
  • Receive gifts with an open heart

Author: Danry Lim

Danry is an avid explorer of Buddhist thought who is always geeking out over Dhamma concepts (sometimes too much!). In his free time, he loves exploring temples and seeing the world, inside and out.

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