Is selfless charity to the non-monastic poor and needy, recommended for Buddhists as part of their practice?

How do the different Buddhist traditions differ from each other on this topic?

Quotes from scriptures to support this, would be appreciated.

The target recipients include the hardcore poor, the homeless, victims of natural disasters, abandoned old folks, orphans, shelterless disabled persons, victims of human trafficking, refugees of war, victims of oppression and other displaced persons. Animals can also be included.

"Selfless" here means "concerned more with the needs of others than with one's own".

  • Charity may be recommended more strongly elsewhere, but SELFlessness is definitely emphasized a lot in Theravāda:)
    – Gotamist
    Nov 19, 2017 at 11:13
  • I know what you meant. I was just joking with the word. More serious answer below.
    – Gotamist
    Nov 19, 2017 at 11:23

4 Answers 4


Charity is recommended as a practice as it cultivates Metta(kindness), Karuna(compassion) in the mind. Buddhism does not say to be selective when you are giving for charity. It just mentions that giving to virtuous beings is more meritorious and the way one should give gifts.

"Selfless" here means "concerned more with the needs of others than with one's own".

In an ultimate sense the goal of charity in Buddhism is to cultivate a wholesome mental quality that helps to attain enlightenment. It's not about fixing what's wrong with the world. There are no others or 'oneself' involved in that sense.


In my past browsing of the suttas, I do not recall any teachings about giving & generosity that emphasize giving to the poor, apart from the duties of the Universal Monarch, which states:

And whosoever in thy kingdom is poor, to him let wealth be given.

DN 26

Generally, most sutta teachings about giving are about giving to family, relatives, monks, deities, noble beings, etc. For example, well-known suttas about giving & benevolence, such as AN 4.61, AN 8.33, AN 8.35, AN 9.5 & DN 31 do not mention giving to the poor.

Since Buddhism emphasizes personal responsibility, including responsibility for society by earning income ethically, righteously or blamelessly, which includes responsibility towards employees, servants, local community, etc, it seems an emphasis upon the existence of a pool of chronically poor people is something Buddhism would prefer not to encourage.

For example, since Christianity strongly emphasizes giving charity to the poor for rebirth in heaven, it seems Christians have a vested personal interest in maintaining a pool of poor people, otherwise they would have no path to heaven; in the same way many left-wing government bureaucrats have a personal vested interest in maintaining social need in order to maintain their jobs.

The above said, after searching & searching just now, I found this sutta:

Now what, bhikkhus, is the kind of person who rains everywhere? Here, a certain person gives to all. He gives food, drink, clothing, vehicles, garlands, scents, ointments, beds, lodging, and lamps to all recluses and brahmins, to the poor, destitute, and needy. This is the kind of person who rains everywhere.

A person renowned for his bounty, Compassionate towards all beings, Distributes alms gladly. “Give! Give!” he says.

Like a great storm cloud That thunders and rains down Filling the levels and hollows, Saturating the earth with water, Even so is such a person.

Iti 75


"Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, 'May whatever animals live here feed on this,' that would be a source of merit."

AN 3.57

The proper time, the proper occation for gifts:

Kaladana Sutta: Seasonable Gifts

"There are these five seasonable gifts. Which five? One gives to a newcomer. One gives to one going away. One gives to one who is ill. One gives in time of famine. One sets the first fruits of field & orchard in front of those who are virtuous. These are the five seasonable gifts."

In the proper season they give — those with discernment, responsive, free from stinginess. Having been given in proper season, with hearts inspired by the Noble Ones — straightened, Such — their offering bears an abundance. Those who rejoice in that gift or give assistance, they, too, have a share of the merit, and the offering isn't depleted by that. So, with an unhesitant mind, one should give where the gift bears great fruit. Merit is what establishes living beings in the next life.

One does good to remember that aside of normal ways of thinking of gain, own merits are ones person support for ones future.

So if one can inspire and move others to make deeds of generosity, moral conduct and reflextion on Dhamma, such is of real support for others, aside of the proper occations for material gift.

Generaly, which might be the question underlying thought, the Buddha does not encourage in ways of social actions and material support, which if done in improper ways, leads to bonds and often not really to support, like in Chritian or western popular ways of actions, often also with the religion string for the receiver.

Aside of the needed, the focus to nurish good tendencies and virtue, is much effectiver long time support, at least the gift of virtue excells material gift by far since material gift are at least not gained from nothing, might make other beings suffer and poor.

Therfore, (but not to use as an excuse of not giving if one has possibilities to give!! Which is actually a popular excuse under many Buddhists, a trap of defilements, supporting stingyness. Its good to be sure to be a "perfect" giver of outwardly things, one has, fist.)


This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: "There are these two kinds of gifts: a gift of material things & a gift of the Dhamma. Of the two, this is supreme: a gift of the Dhamma. There are these two kinds of sharing: sharing of material things & sharing of the Dhamma. Of the two, this is supreme: sharing of the Dhamma. There are these two kinds of assistance: assistance with material things & assistance with the Dhamma. Of the two, this is supreme: help with the Dhamma."

The gift he describes as foremost & unsurpassed, the sharing the Blessed One has extolled: who — confident in the supreme field of merit, wise, discerning — wouldn't give it at appropriate times? Both for those who proclaim it and those who listen, confident in the message of the One Well-gone: it purifies their foremost benefit — those heeding the message of the One Well-gone.

It always recommended to give to those with virtues, those free of fetters and those stiving for freedom of the fetters (greed, aversion and delution) first, at least for the long time benefit of all beings. Other might use ones gifts at least not for the benefit of many. So a good amout of wisdom is required to make one a skilled person of giving.

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma and not meant for commercial purpose or other low wordily gains by means of trade and exchange.]


From Itivuttaka 1.26

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: "If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness 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 selfishness overcomes their minds.”

Ajahn Sucitto, in his travelogue, Rude Awakenings, also mentions putting out a small quantity of food for some creature before starting his own meal.

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