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Buddhistdoor View: Cultivating Charity – Lessons for Buddhists From Christianity

As Buddhism continues to evolve within, and confront aspects of, the modern world, it makes sense to take notice of modernity’s most successful religion: Christianity. In particular, a better understanding of the Christian practice of charity can offer Buddhists both greater self-understanding and moral development.

While Protestant Christians hold charity in the highest regard, the sheer variety of doctrines and practices among differing Churches makes a simple summary nearly impossible. Carter Skeel, former consultant for American Philanthropic, a firm serving nonprofit organizations in the United States, writes of the very personal nature of charity for the Christian, as opposed to the secular philanthropist:

. . . the philanthropist easily reduces his giving to a kind of utilitarian calculus, focused only on alleviating the need “out there” in the most efficient way possible. Such cold math leads to the absurd juxtaposition . . .  of the homeless beggar outside of the Gates Foundation—with the latter too busy addressing the world’s systemic poverty to help the impoverished on its doorstep.

The Christian, on the other hand, approaches charity with a profound sense of humility. If I can’t even meet my own material and spiritual needs in my own strength, he muses, how can I possibly eradicate the world’s? Instead of setting unrealistic goals, the Christian is grateful for the opportunity to participate in God’s work of providing for others—a gratitude borne of his undeserved receipt of life itself, salvation, and daily bread. (Philanthropy Daily)

Skeel goes on to say that here Catholics and Protestants split ways:

Whereas, for the Catholic, charity has salvific implications, for the Protestant it does not. The Protestant gives solely out of gratitude for what the Lord has done: for His provision of material and spiritual needs and the abundance of blessings above and beyond these. (Philanthropy Daily)

This points to one of the earliest theological splits in Christianity’s Reformation period, in which Martin Luther (1483–1546) helped drive the term sola fide (through faith alone) to the heart of the Protestant split from Catholicism. However, Catholics are quick to clarify that charity is not a matter of earning one’s way to heaven, but rather a result of the “gift of righteousness.” As Jimmy Akin, a senior writer for Catholic Answers notes, God bestows righteousness upon all believers, but “He wants us to grow in righteousness over the course of the Christian life, and, if we cooperate with his grace, we will.” (Catholic Answers) Charity is one aspect of that growth. And both Catholic and Protestant Christians will point to both “Christ-like” behavior—seeking to emulate the generosity of God—and charity as a response to their love for God as reasons for giving.

Can Buddhists relate to these motivations for generosity? The Buddha famously taught the importance of giving (Pāli: dāna or cāga) as the foundation for spiritual progress, stating that one must abandon stinginess with regard to one’s monastery, one’s family, one’s gains, and one’s status, as well as any lingering ingratitude one may hold on to in order to progress into meditative absorption (Pāli: jhāna) and further spiritual progress. (AN 5.256–63) In another teaching, the Buddha states:

“If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of miserliness 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 miserliness overcomes their minds.” (Iti. 26)

The Buddha offered a three-fold division of giving: giving of material gifts to support the sangha, giving in freedom from fear, and the gift of the Dharma, the last of these being considered the highest of all gifts. The need to support the sangha is relatively straightforward. Monk and nuns seek a life of simplicity, aiming to devote their time and energy fully to the Dharma. For many, this means work in the monastery of one kind or another. And for some this will mean intense focus on learning the Dharma through some combination of textual study and meditation. It is these who study most diligently who are generally most revered by laypeople, for they are believed to have developed the greatest clarity of the Dharma to offer back.

The gift of harmlessness is developed as one abstains from harms such as intentional taking of life, even a mosquito, theft of property, lying, sexual misconduct, and use of intoxicants. By following the five precepts, we are thus offering a gift to the world. Lastly, the gift of the Dharma is the gift of the Buddha’s teachings and the liberatory practices and truths that they contain. These two forms of gifts, one might suggest, point to a rather abstract generosity, somewhat like the professional philanthropist mentioned above.

What about giving material goods to people in need, regardless of their status as monastics or their ability to repay us in any way in the future? Here we can look again to the Christian motivation for generosity. For the Christian, reflection on God’s gift (including the life and suffering of Jesus) and the ensuing gratitude naturally bring forth joyful generosity. It is like the lottery winner who goes on a generous spending and giving spree; except that the “win” here is the grace of God’s love everyday of one’s life.

For Buddhists this may all sound difficult, but the grace of the Dharma might prove to be as compelling as a Christian’s gratitude to God. Add to this gratitude for the Buddha and his teachings as well as the sangha for preserving and embodying these in devout practitioners to this day and Buddhists can have a powerful recipe to create this gratitude-generosity cycle.

One example of this is vividly illustrated in the Buddhistdoor Global column Living Metta. Author Mettamorphsis describes how she encountered a homeless person and immediately treated him as if he might just be a bodhisattva, one of those beings who, while extraordinarily spiritually advanced, hangs around with ordinary beings to offer guidance.* The result is nothing less than heartwarming.  

And while stories like this surely abound from the Buddhist world, it is fair to note that charitable missions, which seek out those in material need to offer open-handed service, seem comparitively far and few between. The Taiwan-based Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation (Tzu Chi) is one notable exception, offering global humanitarian aid to those in need since 1966. From the US, another organization developing direct action has arisen in recent years, Buddhist Global Relief (BGR). BGR arose out of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay “A Challenge to Buddhists,” which saw clearly that Buddhists, particularly in the Western world, were lagging behind others in confronting social and economic suffering.**

Despite Tzu Chi, BGR, and a few other organizations mainly focusing on training leaders and education, Buddhists stand today as lagging behind Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in terms of generous outreach. Nonetheless, the historical and textual resources are there for Buddhist leaders—existing and emerging—to harness the joy of giving and to bring Buddhism to the forefront of providing people the material foundations needed to pursue a full and happy life.

Metta Waits for Change (Buddhistdoor Global)

** Buddhist Global Relief Continues Efforts Toward the Eradication of Hunger and Poverty (Buddhistdoor Global)


Thannissaro, Bhikkhu (trans. From Pali). 2013. “Macchariya Suttas: Stinginess” (AN 5.254–71). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition)

Thannissaro, Bhikkhu (trans. From Pali). 2013. “Itivuttaka: The Group of Ones” (Iti 1–27). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition)

See more

Toward a Protestant conception of charity (Philanthropy Daily)
Faith and Works (Catholic Answers)
Charity and Charities, Catholic Encyclopedia (New Advent)
Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

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