I recently encountered an aggressive panhandler. To be exact, he was a peddler who was selling a small good at a profitable price.

I didn't end up buying anything from him because I simply didn't need the small good he was selling; but now I'm conflicted as to whether I should've just bought the item to help him out.

On one hand, I recognize that he is making a tough living and I admire him for that. I could've easily spared a few dollars to buy the item and help him out. To be honest, I really wanted to buy the item out of pity but I couldn't reason why I should treat this man differently from any other salesman I come across. All beings are suffering, and material wealth is illusory and insignificant at the end of the day. I am confused as to whether not giving (through refusing to buy from the peddler) is just me being stingy, and this is my attempt to rationalise my actions, or indeed there is no point in saying 'yes' to every salesman I come across selling something I don't need just to help them out with their livelihood.

Just to clarify this man was clearly not a drug addict or alcoholic who would use the money to feed his addictions, probably just an honest man trying to make a living. I guess what I'm trying to ask in essence is from a Buddhist perspective, should we treat those who are poorer and 'worse off' better by accommodating them than we do to those who are presumably 'better off'?

I understand that we should give whenever we can, but if the act of giving is accompanied by the moral high ground I take by deeming this man as more deserving of my sympathy, is it really the way I want to give?

On another note, this man was also aggressively trying to guilt trip me by saying that I could just give him money and it wouldn't make a difference to me but I didn't think this was relevant because I'm sure he has his reasons for any malevolence. I'm more troubled by the fact that I could've helped him, but I didn't simply because I didn't feel I should judge him differently from other salesmen and I really didn't need the small items he was selling.


5 Answers 5


And that is ok. Suppose you would have helped him, would you have felt aversion towards yourself because you allowed yourself to be tricked and towards him because he tricked you? Would his life improve beyond imagination if you would have bought the item?

Is it possible that you are allowing a trifling matter inflict exagerated suffering upon yourself?

One can accept the past the way it is and let it go.

  • Good point. We cause our own suffering really.
    – esh
    Jul 9, 2016 at 8:23

Your case would actually more suitable for the philosophy community (possible dilemma situation), because in Buddhism the answer to your question is quite simple (at least as I see it).

From a Buddhist point of view an action is 'good', if the prior intention is wholesome. 'wholesome' means free from greed, anger and delusion.

Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect. - AN 6.63

Therefore you shouldn't be so concerned with what you should do, but how you do it. If you have a pure mind that is free from defilements, the right action will come naturally.

If you don't buy something from such a person, you may feel guilty. If you do buy something, you may feel betrayed. So there is no warranty for a wholesome mind by only looking at the action itself, in both cases it is possible to reinforce bad habits and conflict.

Whether you do buy something or not, there is in both cases the potential to develop loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity towards this person.

Keep in mind that you're not responsible for the suffering of others. But if you really want to help, you should think about whether or not it would be more wise to give money to an organization that fights poverty than giving it to random individuals (I honestly don't know which one is more effective).


Throwing a coin to a beggar in order to get rid of him would be considered a defilement of giving. Just try and reflect on the lesson in this story - Do You Have Any Change? - Ron Atchison http://www.inspirationpeak.com/cgi-bin/stories.cgi?record=70

Several years ago I was at a train station in Amsterdam waiting in line to buy a ticket. As I stood there I saw a young homeless man asking people for money so he could buy breakfast. It was early in the morning and most of the travelers simply ignored the young man or gave him a dirty look. There was one exception though - an older, well-dressed businessman who looked as though he was from the middle-east. When approached by the panhandler, the gentleman looked straight into his eyes and quietly asked "How much will you need?" I couldn't hear what the young man said but watched as the older man pulled several bills from his wallet and calmly placed them in the young mans' hands.

I don't know if the young man actually used this money for breakfast or for some other purpose. What I do know is that I witnessed two completely different reactions to the same situation. I saw people who were either afraid or annoyed or distrustful. And then I saw this man who was not afraid and treated the homeless man as though he were a brother. I decided then and there that, even though we have to be careful in this world, I would rather be like him.


The other answers are true, you should not give out of pity. This defiles the very nature of giving.

Rather you can do the follow before you give this guy a dollar:

  • Have him tell you a joke/story that entertains you.
  • Ask him what he will do with this money. If you deem it is for good, then give him a buck.
  • Ask for his advice on a specific matter. Have him be your therapist for 5 minutes. :-)

The overall idea is that you should try to get a little something out of him. This has great mutualistic effects namely, you will feel better about giving and the beneficiary will also learn something about what is valuable to others (who knows he may eventually start a joke-selling business).

Be creative. Everyone is useful for something even a baby who has no life experience!

Do not respond to pressure tactics of panhandlers. Stare them straight in the eye and do not be fazed by such subtle violence. Otherwise we would be feeding this.


I'm not sure what difference it makes whether the panhandler is aggressive.

If they weren't agressive, if they were just begging instead, what then?

Here's a line from the novel Kim, when he (the child protagonist) meets a Tibetan Lama who has come into India on a pilgrimage:

'And whom didst thou worship within?' said Kim affably, squatting in the shade beside the lama.

'I worshipped none, child. I bowed before the Excellent Law.'

Kim accepted this new God without emotion. He knew already a few score.

'And what dost thou do?'

'I beg. I remember now it is long since I have eaten or drunk. What is the custom of charity in this town? In silence, as we do of Tibet, or speaking aloud?'

'Those who beg in silence starve in silence,' said Kim, quoting a native proverb. The lama tried to rise, but sank back again, sighing for his disciple, dead in far-away Kulu. Kim watched head to one side, considering and interested.

'Give me the bowl. I know the people of this city - all who are charitable. Give, and I will bring it back filled.'

I realize this is just a novel but I found it a memorable phrase: "Those who beg in silence starve in silence".

There might be some good reason to withhold charity. When my parents visited Mali they were advised to give any gifts to the village leaders and not to give to children, because tourists giving to children would encourage children to skip school.

If I remember times when I've been charitable I basically don't regret doing that. That might be a consequence of having done a good thing; the Kimattha Sutta (AN 11.1) begins with,

Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, Ananda, and freedom from remorse as their reward.

You wrote,

I'm more troubled by the fact that I could've helped him, but I didn't simply because I didn't feel I should judge him differently from other salesmen and I really didn't need the small items he was selling.

... so if that troubles you, maybe try doing something different next time?

There's this video (actually an advertisement) from Thailand: Heartwarming Thai Commercial. It starts with,

What does he get in return, for doing this every day?

Here is a long article about "Dana: The Practice of Giving". Maybe the most relevant section of it from the point of view of this question is,


The suttas record various motives for exercising generosity. The Anguttara Nikaya (A.iv,236) enumerates the following eight motives:

  1. Asajja danam deti: one gives with annoyance, or as a way of offending the recipient, or with the idea of insulting him.[5]
  2. Bhaya danam deti: fear also can motivate a person to make an offering.
  3. Adasi me ti danam deti: one gives in return for a favor done to oneself in the past.
  4. Dassati me ti danam deti one also may give with the hope of getting a similar favor for oneself in the future.
  5. Sadhu danan ti danam deti: one gives because giving is considered good.
  6. 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.
  7. Imam me danam dadato kalyano kittisaddo abbhuggacchati ti danam deti: some give alms to gain a good reputation.
  8. Cittalankara-cittaparikkarattham danam deti: still others give alms to adorn and beautify the mind.

Favoritism (chanda), ill will (dosa) and delusion (moha) are also listed as motives for giving. Sometimes alms are given for the sake of maintaining a long-standing family tradition. Desire to be reborn in heaven after death is another dominant motive. Giving pleases some and they give with the idea of winning a happy frame of mind (A.iv, 236).

But it is maintained in the suttas (A.iv,62) that alms should be given without any expectations (na sapekho danam deti). Nor should alms be given with attachment to the recipient. If one gives with the idea of accumulating things for later use, that is an inferior act of giving. If one gives with the hope of enjoying the result thereof after death, that is also an inferior act of giving. The only valid motive for giving should be the motive of adorning the mind, to rid the mind of the ugliness of greed and selfishness.

To be honest there are Buddhist scripture which would be interpreted as recommending your being generous towards the Sangha more than towards agressive pan-handlers.

It may be surprising how much money (dollars per hour) some beggars can make, conversely it might also be surprising how poor some people can be. It's hard to assess others' needs.

Look at this story for example: Where is the story of the non-returner who “sold” pots on the side of the road?

I admire the sutta on Stinginess (SN 1.32).

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