As I understand it, we carry out generous and selfless deeds for the purpose of acquiring positive kamma and/or promoting our spiritual quest. However, this seems like a form of greed, one of the three unwholesome roots (I think that's what it is labeled as, unsure). How can moral acts be qualified as free of greed, when it seems that the motive for morality is ultimately self-gain (greed)?


3 Answers 3


Your question might be considered a mixture of asking about sila (morality) and dana (giving). The reasons for doing each are a little different.

The most basic reason for acting with sila is to prevent remorse at our own wrongdoings which would make samadhi (concentration or meditation practice) far more difficult. Being able to practice proper samadhi leads to panna (wisdom). Sila, samadhi, and panna are all intricately connected and the whole thing breaks down when one is filled with remorse at wrong doing.

You should be interested in your own enlightenment. From What Buddhist Believe, by Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada. (page 266-267)

You Have to Save Yourself

ONESELF, indeed, is one’s saviour, for what other saviour would there be? With oneself well controlled the problem of looking for an external saviour is solved. (DHAMMAPADA 166)

As the Buddha was about to pass away, His disciples came from everywhere to be near Him. While the other disciples were constantly at His side and in deep sorrow over the impending loss of their Master, a monk named Attadatta went into his cell and practised meditation. The other monks, thinking that he was unconcerned about the welfare of the Buddha, were upset and reported the matter to Him. The monk, however, addressed the Buddha thus, ‘Lord as the Blessed One would be passing away soon, I thought the best way to honour the Blessed One would be by attaining Arahantship during the lifetime of the Blessed One itself’. The Buddha praised his attitude and his conduct and said that one’s spiritual welfare should not be abandoned for the sake of others. In this story is illustrated one of the most important aspects of Buddhism. A person must constantly be on the alert to seek his or her own deliverance from Samsara, and ‘salvation’ must be brought about by the individual alone. One cannot look to any external force or agency for help to attain Nirvana.

Working towards our own enlightenment is clearly acceptable and expected.

The most basic reason for acting with generosity, is to reduce our own greed or attachment to our own resources. If we cling to anything, we suffer. If we give with wholesome intentions, we reduce our clinging to our own resources which reduces our suffering. That's different than giving with the expectation of receiving a good kammic effect in return. There are good kammic effects connected with acts taken with wholesome intentions, but we don't know the timetable on receipt of such kammic fruits. It could be a long way off.

So we do good things because it's good for our mind states, which is good for our eventual enlightenment. The importance of creating the conditions for our own enlightenment was stressed by the Buddha among his last words.

  • 1
    Thanks for the response, it's great- thorough and definitely answers my question!
    – Ian
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 1:10

I think we're supposed to distinguish between wholesome and unwholesome desire.

I think the word for greed or unwholesome desire is Taṇhā (literally "thirst"). The Wikipedia article says,

Contrast to wholesome desire (chanda)

The Buddhist teachings contrast the reflexive, self-centered desire of taṇhā with wholesome types of desire, such as the desire to benefit others or the desire to follow the Buddhist path.[c] Wholesome types of desire are traditionally identified as chanda.[20][21][d]

Ajahn Sucitto states:

Sometimes taṇhā is translated as “desire,” but that gives rise to some crucial misinterpretations with reference to the way of Liberation. As we shall see, some form of desire is essential in order to aspire to, and persist in, cultivating the path out of dukkha. Desire as an eagerness to offer, to commit, to apply oneself to meditation, is called chanda. It’s a psychological “yes,” a choice, not a pathology. In fact, you could summarize Dhamma training as the transformation of taṇhā into chanda. It’s a process whereby we guide volition, grab and hold on to the steering wheel, and travel with clarity toward our deeper well-being. So we’re not trying to get rid of desire (which would take another kind of desire, wouldn’t it). Instead, we are trying to transmute it, take it out of the shadow of gratification and need, and use its aspiration and vigor to bring us into light and clarity.[20]

I suppose a poor analogy might be that drinking (alcohol) isn't wholesome, but that drinking water is beneficial.

There's also a sutta on the subject: Brahmana Sutta.

It's also two different objects:

  • Not being generous implies accumulating wealth for selfish ends (which doesn't make you happy)
  • Whereas being generous implies helping other people (which does make you happy)

So they're not entirely the same thing; if it is "a form of greed" at least it's not the same form.

Also this description of generosity says that "stinginess" is a "stain". Presumably generosity then is the opposite.

Although the Zen story Mokusen's Hand implies that lay householders should aim for some medium.


Dhamma Greetings Ian,

it works anyway.

The two things having influence on what will happen to you in the future are the deed itself and the intention you have in your heart/mind while doing it.

The action determines the kind of Kamma-Vipaka and the intention has influence on how strong it will be.

So, if you do good with selfish intention, it will not come back onto you as good as it will if you're just having fun doing good things.

Hope this helps and please correct me, if I am wrong ;-)

Be Well

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