The 7th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Alms (/ɑːmz/, /ɑːlmz/) or almsgiving involves giving materially to another as an act of virtue. It exists in a number of religions and regions. The word, in the modern English language, comes from the Old English ælmesse, ælmes, from Late Latin eleemosyna, from Greek ἐλεημοσύνη eleēmosynē "pity, alms", from ἐλεήμων eleēmōn "merciful", from ἔλεος eleos "pity".
In Buddhism, alms or almsgiving is the respect given by a lay Buddhist to a Buddhist monk, nun, spiritually-developed person or other sentient being. It is not charity as presumed by Western interpreters. It is closer to a symbolic connection to the spiritual realm and to show humbleness and respect in the presence of the secular society. The act of alms giving assists in connecting the human to the monk or nun and what he/she represents. As the Buddha has stated:
Householders & the homeless or charity (monastics)
in mutual dependence
both reach the true Dhamma....
In Theravada Buddhism, nuns (Pāli: bhikkhunis) and monks (Pāli: bhikkhus) go on a daily almsround (pindacara) to collect food (piṇḍapāta). This is often perceived as giving the laypeople the opportunity to make merit (Pāli: puñña). Money should not be accepted by a Buddhist monk or nun in lieu of or in addition to food , although nowadays not many monks and nuns keep to this rule (the exception being the monks and nuns of the Thai Forest Tradition and other Theravada traditions which focus on vinaya and meditation practice). In countries that follow Mahayana Buddhism, it has been impractical for monks to go on a daily almsround. In China, Korea and Japan, monasteries were situated in remote mountain areas in which the distance between the monastery and the nearest towns would make a daily almsround impossible. In Japan, the practice of a weekly or monthly takuhatsu replaced the daily round. In the Himalayan countries, the large number of bikshus would have made an almsround a heavy burden on families. Competition with other religions for support also made daily almsrounds difficult and even dangerous; the first Buddhist monks in the Shilla dynasty of Korea were said to be beaten due to their minority at the time.
In Buddhism, both "almsgiving" and, more generally, "giving" are called "dāna" (Pāli). Such giving is one of the three elements of the path of practice as formulated by the Buddha for laypeople. This path of practice for laypeople is: dāna, sīla, bhāvanā.
The exquisite paradox in Buddhism is that the more we give – and the more we give without seeking something in return – the wealthier (in the broadest sense of the word) we will become . By giving we destroy those acquisitive impulses that ultimately lead to further suffering. Generosity is also expressed towards other sentient beings as both a cause for merit and to aid the receiver of the gift. In Mahayana Tradition it is accepted that although the three jewels of refuge are the basis of the greatest merit, by seeing other sentient beings as having Buddhanature and making offerings towards the aspirational Buddha to be within them is of equal benefit. Generosity towards other sentient beings is greatly emphasised in Mahayana as one of the perfections (paramita) as shown in Lama Tsongkhapa's 'The Abbreviated Points of the Graded Path' (Tibetan: lam-rim bsdus-don):
Total willingness to give is the wish-granting gem for fulfilling the hopes of wandering beings.
It is the sharpest weapon to sever the knot of stinginess.
It leads to bodhisattva conduct that enhances self-confidence and courage,
And is the basis for universal proclamation of your fame and repute.
Realizing this, the wise rely, in a healthy manner, on the outstanding path
Of (being ever-willing) to offer completely their bodies, possessions, and positive potentials.
The ever-vigilant lama has practiced like that.
If you too would seek liberation,
Please cultivate yourself in the same way.
In Buddhism, giving of alms is the beginning of one's journey to Nirvana (Pali: nibbana). In practice, one can give anything with or without thought for Nibbana. This would lead to faith (Pali: saddha), one key power (Pali: bala) that one should generate within oneself for the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
The motives behind giving play an important role in developing spiritual qualities. The suttas record various motives for exercising generosity. For example, the Anguttara Nikaya (A.iv,236) enumerates the following eight motives:
Asajja danam deti: one gives with annoyance, or as a way of offending the recipient, or with the idea of insulting him.
Bhaya danam deti: fear also can motivate a person to make an offering.
Adasi me ti danam deti: one gives in return for a favor done to oneself in the past.
Dassati me ti danam deti: one also may give with the hope of getting a similar favor for oneself in the future.
Sadhu danan ti danam deti: one gives because giving is considered good.
Aham pacami, ime ne pacanti, na arahami pacanto apacantanam adatun ti danam deti: "I cook, they do not cook. It is not proper for me who cooks not to give to those who do not cook." Some give urged by such altruistic motives.
Imam me danam dadato kalyano kittisaddo abbhuggacchati ti danam deti: some give alms to gain a good reputation.
Cittalankara-cittaparikkarattham danam deti: still others give alms to adorn and beautify the mind.
According to the Pali canon:
Of all gifts alms, the gift of Dhamma is the highest.
—Dhp. XXIV v. 354)[note 3]
Bhiksha is a devotional offering, usually food, presented at a temple or to a swami or a religious Brahmin who in turn provides a religious service (karmkand) or instruction. According to Vasishtha Samhitha (Chapter XXIX):
Through Alms giving to poor obtains all his desires
(Even) longevity, (and he is born again as) a student of the Veda, possessed of beauty.
He who abstains from injuring (sentient beings) obtains heaven.
By entering a fire the world of Brahman (is gained).
By (a vow of) silence (he obtains) happiness.
By staying (constantly) in water he becomes a lord of elephants.
He who expends his hoard (in gifts) becomes free from disease.
A giver of water (becomes) rich by (the fulfilment of) all his desires.
A giver of food (will have) beautiful eyes and a good memory.
He who gives a promise to protect (somebody) from all dangers (becomes) wise.
(To bestow gifts) for the use of cows (is equal to) bathing at all sacred places.
By giving a couch and a seat (the giver becomes) master of a harem.
By giving an umbrella (the giver) obtains a house.
He who gives a House to a poor family obtains a town
He who gives a pair of Shoes obtains a vehicle.
Now they quote also (the following verses): Whatever sin a man distressed for livelihood commits, (from that) he is purified by giving land, (be it) even "a bull's hide".
He who gives to a Brâhmana guest a vessel filled with water for sipping, will obtain after death complete freedom from thirst and be born again as a drinker of Soma.
If a gift of one thousand oxen fit to draw a carriage (has been bestowed) according to the rule on a perfectly worthy man, that is equal to giving a maiden.
They declare that cows, land, and learning are the three most excellent gifts. For to give learning is (to bestow) the greatest of all gifts, and it surpasses those (other gifts).
A learned man who, free from envy, follows this rule of conduct which procures endless rewards, and which through final liberation frees him from transmigration.
Or who, full of faith, pure, and subduing his senses, remembers or even hears it, will, freed from all sin, be exalted in the highest heaven.
Inspired by Hinduism, Acharya Vinoba Bhave started The Bhoodan movement (Hindi: भूदान, Urdu: بھودان) or Land Gift Movement in 1951, as a voluntary land reform movement in India. This experiment in voluntary social justice, has had a tangible effect on the lives of many people – over 5 million acres (20,000 km2) were donated.