Did the Buddha say anything of the value of mundane acts of generosity which may temporarily alleviate the suffering of others in a temporary, worldly way, but do not free others from from suffering?

For example, helping someone get what they desperately "need" will not free them from craving, nor will curing a disease free someone from old age, sickness, and death. The following quotes support this point, i.e. how mundane work or acts of generosity - which give material comfort but are not the gift of the dhamma - do not free anyone from the causes of suffering.

Dalai Lama:

Science and technology have contributed immensely to the overall development of humankind, to our material comfort and well- being as well as to our understanding of the world we live in. But if we put too much emphasis on these endeavors, we are in danger of losing those aspects of human knowledge that contribute to the development of an honest and altruistic personality.


No one can deny the material benefits of modern life, but we are still faced with suffering, fear, and tension— perhaps more now than ever before.

Bhikku Bodhi:

The pāramitās begin with dāna-pāramitā, the perfection of giving. Social engagement can certainly be included under this category, as it involves giving others material gifts and the gift of security. But these gifts, as worthy as they are, do not equal in value the gift of the Dharma, for the gift of the Dharma leads to the permanent extinction of suffering.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche:

How many scientists do you know who have become enlightened? Have you heard of any? Well, if a scientist trains in this, he becomes enlightened. That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? These days scientists are praised as being the most eminent people in this world, because they make devices through which you can instantly talk to someone on the other end of the world, or you can fly through the skies. Well, with this practice you can go beyond being a scientist. Actually, what science can create is pretty amazing, but still, all science is on this side of the shore of knowledge. The profound samadhi means the other shore of knowledge, having transcended dualistic mind. Right now, if we compare ourselves with a scientist, a scientist seems to be better, right? But once the scientist arrives on the other shore, any mental doings is of no use at all! At that point, as far as we are concerned, it is much better to arrive on the other side at transcendent knowledge. Here’s a question for all of you: exactly how much benefit is there from scientific knowledge the moment you are in the bardo? Think about it well. When a scientist is in the bardo he no longer has any gadgets to help him, no spy satellites or jet planes to move around in. In the bardo isn’t whatever one created of absolutely no use? Scientific knowledge is not transcendent. The knowledge that we are supposed to train in is transcendent knowledge, prajnaparamita.

Honestly, whatever mundane, unspiritual actions we do show themselves to be a total waste at the end of this life. They are good for absolutely nothing. Any work that one bothers to complete is pointless unless it is connected with a virtuous outcome.

Upasika Kee:

Don’t think that you were born to gain this or that level of comfort. You were born to study pain and the causes of pain, and to follow the practice that frees you from pain. This is the most important thing there is. Everything else is trivial and unimportant.

What acts of compassion and generosity were considered worthwhile to the Buddha?

  • I would argue that no act of compassion is mundane.
    – m2015
    Jun 18, 2018 at 3:45
  • Are you only asking "which acts were meaningful/worthwhile to the Buddha?" (i.e. a reference request), or are you also asking people for their own experience/understanding as implied by the question in the title?
    – ChrisW
    Jun 18, 2018 at 18:36
  • Yes, certainly asking for references, but not excluding others' understanding of what the Buddha said.
    – user8619
    Jun 18, 2018 at 23:33
  • There will be confusion over your use of the term 'mundane acts'. What you said as 'for e.g. helping someone get what they desperately "need" ' this I won't consider mundane. 'desperate need' isn't mundane, I would appreciate if you can give a literal example of what you are asking by mundane.
    – user13135
    Jun 19, 2018 at 3:33
  • 1
    @BodhiWalker I guess the OP's definition of "mundane" includes giving food, money, and/or medicine or other necessities ... and that "supramundane" could only be the gift of dhamma.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 20, 2018 at 20:34

5 Answers 5


Yes. Generosity, kind words and helpfulness are all meaningful to the Buddha, however small.

From Vaccha Sutta:

"I tell you, Vaccha, 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, to say nothing of what is given to human beings. But I do say that what is given to a virtuous person is of great fruit, and not so much what is given to an unvirtuous person.

From Itivuttaka 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."

From Sangaha Sutta:

"There are these four grounds for the bonds of fellowship. Which four? Generosity, kind words, beneficial help, consistency. These are the four grounds for the bonds of fellowship."

Generosity, kind words, beneficial help,
& consistency in the face of events,
in line with what's appropriate
in each case.
These bonds of fellowship [function] in the world
like the linchpin in a moving cart.

From Sigalovada Sutta:

"Young man, be aware of these four good-hearted friends: the helper, the friend who endures in good times and bad, the mentor, and the compassionate friend.

"The helper can be identified by four things: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, and in various tasks providing double what is requested.

"The enduring friend can be identified by four things: by telling you secrets, guarding your own secrets closely, not abandoning you in misfortune, and even dying for you.

"The mentor can be identified by four things: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you towards good actions, telling you what you ought to know, and showing you the path to heaven.

"The compassionate friend can be identified by four things: by not rejoicing in your misfortune, delighting in your good fortune, preventing others from speaking ill of you, and encouraging others who praise your good qualities."

From Dullabha Sutta:

"Monks, these two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world."

From Itivuttaka 75:

"And how is a person one who rains everywhere? There is the case where a person gives food, drink, clothing, vehicles, garlands, scents, ointments, beds, dwellings, & lights to all brahmans & contemplatives, to all of the miserable, the homeless, & beggars. This is how a person one who rains everywhere.

A person responsive to requests,
sympathetic to all beings,
delighting in distributing alms:
"Give to them! Give!" he says.
As a cloud — resounding, thundering — rains,
filling with water, drenching
the plateaus & gullies:
a person like this is like that.
Having rightly amassed wealth
attained through initiative,
he satisfies fully with food & drink
those fallen into the homeless state.

From Itivuttaka 100:

"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.

"There are these two kinds of mass-donations: a mass-donation of material things & a mass-donation of the Dhamma. Of the two, this is supreme: a mass-donation of the Dhamma."

  • The quote from Itivuttaka 100 really gets to the question, doesn't it :) Any suggestions for further reading on how, in the Buddha's words, to be compassionate or of service to others?
    – user8619
    Jun 19, 2018 at 22:11
  • 1
    @avatarKorra You may find this question interesting. These articles may also be of interest: Educating Compassion (Thanissaro), Detachment and Compassion in Early Buddhism (E. Harris), The Balanced Way (Bodhi), The Four Sublime States (Nyanaponika)
    – ruben2020
    Jun 20, 2018 at 15:22
  • @avatarKorra I also updated my answer to include a quote from Itivuttaka 75.
    – ruben2020
    Jun 20, 2018 at 15:24
  • Thank you @ruben2020, although I don't know how many of us here are on the path to amassing wealith. But a quote about the value of doing good, worldly deeds for people (e.g. service moreso than giving out wealth or food) would be highly relevant and appreciated.
    – user8619
    Jun 21, 2018 at 1:37
  • The quotes for which compassion indirectly supports the spread of the dhamma make sense to me, but for the others, similar to Ananda's line of questioning, I ask 'what is the reward/function/purpose' of fellowship (Sangaha Sutta), or hard to find people (Dullhaba Sutta), or friends (Sigalovada)?
    – user8619
    Jun 21, 2018 at 3:34

I'm also thinking of dana. It's the first of the parami (10 perfections). You could check these sources: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/index-subject.html#dana

One thing that I experience when practicing parami, what I can notice, is that the inclination of the mind changes towards the wholesome. So, mundane acts of generosity might not help out the receiver a lot in the sense that this generosity will not get rid of this persons suffering permanently. But it will help a bit, for a moment. Plus the mind of the giver is aligned towards the wholesome. Therefore I do think it counts for something.

Also, it will increase your happiness. That, in turn, will lead to concentration and more stillness in the mind.

Note: This is from Theravada point of view and practice.


Are mundane acts of compassion meaningful?

They certainly are. All actions based in the 3 wholesome roots are of great value. They will lay the foundational work (Sila) for meditation practice and move the practitioner closer to Nibbana.

The 10 Paramis (Dāna pāramī), are often described as "bowls" that are filled with one droplet a time. It may take a long time to fill the bowl but small droplets will eventually create a river.

Acts of compassion/generosity will slowly fill the bowl. One droplet a time, until one has perfected the Parami.

  • So you're saying that of mundane acts of generosity are meaningful not so much because the material help will end the causes of suffering for the recipient, but really because the practice of generosity is meaningful towards the giver's inner cultivation - is this correct?
    – user8619
    Jul 7, 2018 at 2:58

Yes the mundane acts are good as pointed out by other answers, but you took a narrow view of the Tulkus following words,

Honestly, whatever mundane, unspiritual actions we do show themselves to be a total waste at the end of this life. They are good for absolutely nothing. Any work that one bothers to complete is pointless unless it is connected with a virtuous outcome.

Here, he is pointing at something much profound than a trivial intrepretation that mundane acts are unimportant.

The good deeds leads good karma, that good karma leads to a better life...and so the cycle of samsara prepetuates. You have been doing such useless mundane acts lives after lives...with no avail.

Contemplate on the story of Bodhidharma and the Emperor. When the Emperor asked Him, does his act of generousity produce any merit, Bodhidharma said 'Mu' and left the palace.

So I will say the Tulku is right, and I will disagree with the above answers and say those mundane acts are not meaningful, given that you are considering the bigger context of Nibbana and Human suffering.

  • 1
    Doing good or bad things brings good or bad results, and perpetuates samsara, so stop doing anything new that is not neutral and hasten the burning up of all previous karma - this is the Jain view that was refuted by the Buddha in MN 101.
    – ruben2020
    Jun 18, 2018 at 17:51
  • 1
    To Buddha it was absolutely critical to do good and avoid evil as selflessness crushes Self.
    – user13383
    Jun 18, 2018 at 18:55
  • 1
    @ruben2020 [2/3] If you indulge in mundane acts, the merit acquired will not be as such of any huge value. It will on the other hand bloster your ego of doing something for someone. This is where I see the Hindoos around me stuck into, they build temples, donate to priests and make offerings all inorder to acquire merit to gain higher birth which will get them Moksha (a hindoo version of Nibbana). It takes them nowhere. You have to understand the emphasis here is on the word 'Mundane'. On the bigger context of atainment of Nibbana, mundane is useless.
    – user13135
    Jun 19, 2018 at 3:23
  • 1
    @BodhiWalker If relevant and supporting your answer, you can put your explanation directly into your answer, instead of having it in comments.
    – ruben2020
    Jun 19, 2018 at 3:25
  • 1
    @ruben2020 [3/3] He has asked, is it 'meaningful' not 'useful'. If he would have asked useful, then may be its useful, but the term meaningful changes the gist of the question given the context here is Buddhist where the supreme goal is to eradicate the suffering through Nibbana. Our time here in one life limited. Nibbana is not mundane. Mundane acts are meaningless.
    – user13135
    Jun 19, 2018 at 3:26

In the suttas, THe usual order of dana, from most beneficial for the person who gives to the least beneficial, is first gives to the buddha, then to what some people call ''solitary buddhas'', then to arhants, then to puthujjanas who want to stop being puthujjanas [those are the typical bhikkus] then to other puthujjanas and other living beings. Of course, what is given matters a bit but not that much, typically, it is usual food, some basic goods for hygiene and that's all for the puthujjanas who want to stop being puthujjanas and the people called ''aryas''.

Yes toxic puthujjanas have faith in materialism and feeling compassionate to appease conflicts. THose puthujjana crave an abundance of goods and what they call ''opportunities'' and what they call ''meanings'' to please themselves and people and they think once puthujjanas are fed, they will be nice to each other. Those toxic puthujjanas love to give materials goods to craving puthujjanas and once they are satisfied with their fantasy of being good puthujjanas by giving material stuff and telling other puthujjanas and themselves that they are good people, they stop here and leave the craving puthujjana with the given good.

To be clear the fantasy of being compassionate as being a good behavior is natural for any puthujjana. It is part of their nature of fantasizing the negation of what they despise has being good. For instance, they love to claim ''that caring for oneself and one's desires all the time is bad, therefore it must mean that trying to cater to other people needs and worrying about other people is good''. Some even claim that dying for other puthujjanas or animals is a good thing... . Those people cannot stop caring about needs, about desires, about senses. Those people cannot think beyond the present suffering.

For instance, a puthujjana wants a blanket to spend the night with warmth and some compassionate puthujjana comes along, hear about this claim ''I know not having a blanket at night sucks, god poor little you, I totally know your plight and I am sadden by your situation'' and gives the other puthujjana a blanket. The other puthujjana accepts the blanket and will delight in it, thinking warmth is good and there is nothing wrong with delighting in this blanket, which pleases the toxic puthujjana who stay at the level of loving to think a beneficial action has been done.

These people even speculate about the ''origin'' of this lack of goods and opportunities and they usually come up with their fantasy of ''lack of money'' and ''lack of respect'' and ''discrimination'' or ''lack of equality''. These people do not understand pleasures nor consciousness nor death.

Of course, once you learn about the dhamma, you learn that this caring about ''needs'' is the recipe for bad karma, for being more obsessed with goods, for more suffering and even more dramatically, trying to satisfy the desires of puthujjanas is not the way to stop their suffering.

The little quoted rant about scientists is not relevant to this and it is badly phrased, so there is nothing wrong about forgetting it.

  • 1
    This seems quite negative: I think it says "worldly so-called 'compassion' is selfish and toxic and worse than useless." It might be easier to understand if you added something about the opposite: when is dana good (or what type of dana, what circumstance, what mind-state associated with dana) -- and why, what's the difference in cause or intention or effect. Or maybe distinguish between generosity (dana) and compassion (metta) if that's important.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 18, 2018 at 11:32

You must log in to answer this question.