I'm currently reading In the Buddha's Words by Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi. In the introduction to The Way to a Fortunate Rebirth he states that the roots of what make an action unwholesome (akusala) are:

"greed, hated and delusion"

Well that confirms a hypothesis I got from reading Dawkin's The Selfish Gene that 'there are no truly altruistic actions'.

People often give to the needy to feel better, to get good karma, to get into heaven. Whatever the case may be they are giving for "greedy" reasons. They're own gratification in some form or another. There is no such thing as kusala. Unless you have a complete lack of self awareness and/or do it purely on instinct.

Therefore I ask: Is this not a paradox?

Is it even possible under the Dhamma to commit a wholesome act (kusala) like giving, without it being rooted in "greed"? Therefore making all positive actions such as donating to charity, giving to homeless, giving gifts, anything positive is actually unwholesome (akusala)?!

In summary: It's impossible to gain good karma without it being routed in your greed for good karma

I'd appreciate your ideas, discussion and/or answers?

8 Answers 8


there are no truly altruistic actions

I think that is an 'extreme' view (and therefore 'wrong') -- Buddhism tries to discern a 'middle way' i.e. which avoids extremes -- see also right view.

I believe it's sometimes possible to be kind, benevolent -- to someone you don't know, to a beggar, a child, an animal -- without expecting a personal reward. You do it because you can, because it's the right thing to do, because of compassion (you are "moved by compassion") -- perhaps you see the other as being "like yourself", more specifically you imagine that you feel (or you want to avoid) their pain or need -- perhaps because not doing so would be unthinkable, wrong, something you'd regret, just something for which there is no good reason.

People often give to the needy to feel better, to get good karma, to get into heaven.

Perhaps you're right -- I think there is some doctrine somewhere, that "giving is virtuous and rewarded in heaven", and perhaps some people act on that doctrine expecting it to be true, and so the intention when giving is "transactional".

That isn't my experience, though (if you read my attempted description of motive, above).

See also this footnote to SN 12.22 (my emphasis added):

This provides one of the two main answers to ignorant suggestions that Buddhism is "selfish": (a) since, in terms of absolute truth (cf. SN 1.20, n. 8), all things are "self-less" (anattaa), there is no real basis for selfishness; and (b), as here, since in the relative sense according to which "selves" can be said to exist, the Dhamma is of benefit both to oneself and to others.

Unless you have a complete lack of self awareness and/or do it purely on instinct.

You seem to be saying that it isn't enough to have some awareness of others -- that you have to be "completely lacking in self-awareness" -- which I think is another "extreme".

Also and I don't know about you but I think I do tend to be aware of mostly-only one thing at a time, my capacity for attention is kind of simplistic in that way.

And I think that this (observation or experience of mine) might be "justified" by some Buddhist doctrine -- see for example Awareness of two things -- but I think it's doctrine that I'm not really familiar with i.e. detailed in the Abhidhamma (see "mental phenomena are momentary" or for example Is the determining thought moment (vottopana) based entirely off of past karma?) -- so it's actually quite easy to (at least momentarily) "lack self awareness".

Is it even possible under the Dhamma to commit a wholesome act (kusala) like giving, without it being rooted in "greed"?

Yes I think so. As you quoted, there are "three poisons" i.e. greed hatred, and delusion ... and of the three it's delusion (not greed) that's the "root" i.e. the hardest to uproot or the last become uprooted.

You might see that for example in the Four stages of awakening where "ignorance" (which is akin to delusion) is one of the last "fetters".

But the fact that "desire for rebirth" are also listed among the final fetters might vindicate your proposition too, i.e. that it's hard to do away with that kind of greed and that it's unwholesome.

But according to ibid. one of the first stages of awakening is understanding anatta i.e. abandoning the fetter of "identity view" -- see also the answers to this topic, How are 'conceit' and 'identity-view' not the same?

Not that even greed is easy to uproot, but remember how monks live.

It's impossible to gain good karma without it being routed in your greed for good karma

I think the doctrine of kamma is quite complicated -- or quite abstract, so difficult to understand except when it's related to personal experience.

If you try to study it, for example Kamma: A Study Guide, I think that in summary there is good and bad, or "bright and dark" kamma, kamma (or the fruit of kamma) experienced in heaven and hell -- and that the "noble" path leads to the end of kamma or cessation of kamma (see also What does "ending karma" mean?).

And maybe that (i.e. "cessation") is a simpler or more tractable type of view in Buddhism -- for example, that (according to the "noble truths" and other suttas) there is "suffering, and the cessation of suffering" -- that's related to the cessation of greed (and more specifically attachment).

Also "that which tends towards the cessation of suffering" is I think the definition of "skilful".

  • Thank you so much. I appreciate your answer more than you may realise.
    – RustyFluff
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 10:45

The Buddha explains the spectrum of "greedy and wholesome wishes" like this:

AN4.95:1.1: “Mendicants, these four people are found in the world.
AN4.95:1.2: What four?

For the foolish heedlessly pursuing gratification of the moment, suffering is inevitable, but the selfish gene blunders on:

AN4.95:1.3: One who practices to benefit neither themselves nor others;

For the noble prairie dog who risks her life to save her offspring there is indeed the benefit of the martyr in a gene's self-expression:

AN4.95:1.4: one who practices to benefit others, but not themselves;

For the clever and greedy we have somewhat better:

**AN4.95:1.5: one who practices to benefit themselves, but not others; and

Yet the best evolution is giving up greed, hate and delusion, practicing for the "win-win"

AN4.95:1.6: one who practices to benefit both themselves and others.**

So, yes, we could simply sit back for eons and let Richard Dawkins' selfish gene blunder its way to eventual contentment in a dynamic balance with other selfish genes.

Or we could more expediently investigate the nature of suffering and cut to the chase in this very life by jettisoning the identity view that causes suffering.

And that is indeed the paradox, that careful investigation of the limitation of greed would lead to the end of limits and greed:

SN41.7:6.2: Greed, hate, and delusion are makers of limits.

The skill lies in the investigation, not in the desire for the end of suffering. Without that investigation there is simply endless suffering as desire chases suffering.


A bit of a riddle first... Did the Buddha give the dharma to the world because he was trying to create good karma for himself?


The question as asked is rooted in an egoic understanding of karma: a personal karma in which our actions have consequences, and 'good' consequences produce rewards for the self. Fine as that is for its purposes, it isn't quite right and isn't quite wrong. It is merely one of an assortment of understandings that happen to lie within the grasp of the egoic mind: understandings about something the egoic mind isn't actually capable of grasping.

While I don't normally like to use Buddhist jargon, I want to note here that one of the criteria of 'stream entry' (sotāpatti-magga) is that we break the fetter of self-view, recognizing that there is nothing (no self) contained in the five aggregates that could be considered permanent or eternal. This forces a new view of karma that is depersonalized and de-centered:

  • Before stream entry, karma is a (metaphysical) reward and punishment for the self, and one tries to choose for merit.
  • After stream entry, karma is the (metaphysical) flow of the world around and through us, which we now see, and perhaps try to guide into new paths.

After stream entry it stops making sense to think about merits and demerits, because there's no permanent self to earn or enjoy merits. The idea of merits and demerits merely become another form of suffering we see people inflict on themselves in their earnest desire to be free of suffering. Ideally, when a stream enterer gives (or does some other wholesome act) it isn't out of some expectation of reward. They do the wholesome act because it makes the world different from what it would have been. One sees a choice between more suffering and less, and one chooses as best one can.

Dawkins is an intelligent man with a distinct anti-Christian agenda and no clue whatsoever what it means to release the self. It makes for an interestingly conflicted intellectual position: someone who absolutely denies the 'truth' of religion and absolutely affirms the 'truth' of the self, and must coldly face his own extinction in his work. But that's his suffering; you shouldn't take it on without reflection.

  • Thank you Ted. I wish I could tick all of the answers here because they all helped me equally in slightly different ways to understand. It's given me a lot to think about.
    – RustyFluff
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 10:48

It's all about intention. I help the person who needs help because of compassionate & I want to absolve them of suffering like I would for myself. The good karma is incidental, and the resultant merit I get from it is simply the fruition. If your intention to help is "so that I can attain good karma", then the motivation doesn't come from bodhicitta & a genuine desire to alleviate all from suffering, it comes from greed like you mentioned.

If I give out of loving-kindness, the result doesn't matter, the compassion in and of itself is the reward (my mind won't be clouded by negative emotions, by the 8 winds). If I give so that I can 'get good karma', then the action is tainted by the clinging for a particular outcome (tanha). If action comes from bodhicitta, there can be no tanha.

Basically, you're asking this question because you think all seemingly altruistic actions are inherently 'selfish'; self-serving or gratifies the self. In that case, examine what Buddhism has to say about the word 'self', understand the concept of bodhicitta & the paradox dissolves.


Sounds like this sort of thinking could deter you from endeavoring to do good and participate in virtuous deeds, so you'd basically be a human, come across the dharma, and leave "this island of treasures" empty-handed because of wrong view.

In the ultimate view there is great equanimity. Our karma is constructed from action and intention. We will reap the results of all the karma we create, later or sooner, and in proportion kind and exponential to how we have treated others.

This is a huge obstacle in this era of degeneration because people live in their conceptual mind. They are not rooted in their bodies or in their senses as much as in they are dancing in their concepts and thoughts. Body scans work as a strong antidote for anti-doting.

If one was truly separate from the world, seeking liberation from pain and suffering might be selfish because it might be possible to be an independent, enduring, unchanging "self" that extricates (itself) from suffering and pain. But, as we are interconnected and interdependent with the world and one another, the only thing that resembles a "self" is actually our attachment and our mis-identification with the skandhas as a self.

So, when we increase our karuna (compassion) and weep for all the suffering beings of the world and all the realms, we tap in to our natural abode which is a selfless abiding of awareness. It's not possible to get to it without compassion. Basically, we are obsessed with being a leaf on a tree, and when we remember all the other leaves we start to furnish our embodiment back into a whole tree, not just the leaves and branches. In this analogy, other beings are the other leaves and branches.

Shantideva said "we are all petals on the lotus of life"

Think like this.

Remember that for something to truly exist it needs to be independent, enduring, unchanging. Can we point to anything that is truly independent of its context, environs, surroundings, interactions and so forth?

Wishing for freedom from suffering or pain is not selfish, it is intelligent. There cannot be selfishness for a magnanimous mind that has empathy for all. It is simply "the best path forward." Until one has compassion that encompasses all sentient beings, one will be operating on a smaller level with smaller ambitions, but even then one will inadvertently help other beings through their own minimization of kleshas and adverse negative emotions and so forth.

I think this sort of question is very self-righteous and arrogant, for it assumes: there is a self, the self does whatever it can to feel good, and therefore anything that is done for the self to feel good is "selfish." This is based on a faulty premise, so naturally the result is faulty.

Yes, there are three vehicles in Buddha's teaching. It takes great understanding and great compassion to foster and engender the mighty and noble mind that wishes to liberate all sentient beings. This comes through study and reflection, and understanding that all beings are just like ourselves, wishing to be free of pain and suffering and wishing to have happiness and bliss and freedom. In this way we are all very congruent, very near in modus operandi.

At any rate, it is not selfish to want to free oneself from pain, because this is endemic to all sentient life. It is more selfish to think that the extreme of nihilism or eternalism is valid and to act according to those ideas as if there was no such thing as continuity. That would be "selfish" because it would truly be unhelpful. One must be helpful.

In teaching that way, it's clear why one ought to practice and engage in right action and right livelihood. You gotta get people interested somehow, gotta get the foot in the door so-to-speak. Then, when people see the benefits, they grow full of ease and comfort and joy. But they are also confronted with many other beings in their daily lives, who are not happy, who are discontented, who are in pain and suffering from afflictions both self-inflicted and not. Then, compassion and empathy grow. Then, the bodhisattva ideal takes root. One is not doing it just for oneself, but one knows that there are beneficial results to practice -- the best possible results for our Experiential Reality (that is interdependent with all Life) come about only through practice and when there is an opening one can access the depth of honesty, the depth of real experiencing.

So in my opinion, it is mainly a matter of mis-identification. Mis-identification with the skandas as a self that is permanent and unchanging and independent from the rest of the cosmos/matrix. And mis-identification with an idea as somehow superior to the infallibility of cause and conditions and effect.
If I give someone water to drink because I think I will be rewarded in the future -- firstly, that's true, secondly that's skillful means on the part of the teacher. I help someone, they are truly helped, suffering in the universe is diminished, everyone wins. Plus, it is good for the giver. "The giver always goes to a better place." It is true, it is flawless knowledge, it is genuine and real Dharma.

But then one says "Oh pish posh you are only doing that to benefit yourself in the future."

Well, think about it. Who is going to benefit? If I am broken down and unable to help others, I must receive help or endure the suffering. If I am in a good position, I can help more people. I have been clinging to a material reality and the skandhas for so many go-arounds that I perceive my skandhas to be independent, enduring, unchanging, and fail to see how there could not possibly be an actual "self" in them. That said, I must liberate myself before I can liberate others, and what we have come across here is a stepping-stone to the heart of great empathy and great karuna and great love. Yes, do so out of a wish to help yourself at first, and then see the equality of self and other. See the equalness in wishing to be free of pain and discomfort in the smallest fly and the largest whale. It is not something that requires magical thinking, it is from our true, lived experience.

So yeah, don't conflate pop psychology with skillful methods of a realized presence. The first wil lead to hardened and intractable notions of a "self" versus the "world," the latter will lead to freedom for self and other - which, when discerned with wisdom, are found to be equality.

When you give, you'll feel better, and your ride will ultimately be much smoother.
At first, this can seem like a call to help oneself. But really, it is a call to help those around you while recognizing that there is a benefit not just for one, but for two, for all. We must crawl before we walk, and walk before we fly. Do not make jest of that which frees beings from bondage suddenly or gradually.

  • Thank you so much for your answer. It's helped a lot with my understanding and given me a lot of food for thought. If I could tick all three of you I would because all the of you have me a different but ultimately perfectly combined answer.
    – RustyFluff
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 10:45

The sutta below (AN 8.33) lists 8 reasons for giving. According to AN 7.52, adorning or ornamenting the mind is the best reason for giving.

It's clear that in the second best case in AN 7.52, reward is explicitly expected and is therefore greed-based (‘When giving this gift my mind becomes clear, and I become happy and joyful.’ - translated by Ven. Sujato).

In the other case, reward is not expected, and giving the gift is simply treated as a requisite (or support or tool) for the mind.

The Pali words here are "citta ālaṅkāra citta parikkhāraṃ". "parikkhāra" is translated as support or requisite, while "ālaṅkāra" is translated as adornment.

Why adornment? Adornment makes something more beautiful. There is a reference to beauty in AN 3.94 (or AN 3.96 according to the numbering of SuttaCentral), which equates beauty of mind to virtue.

So, this means that the highest purpose for giving a gift is to make the mind virtuous. The purpose of virtue is explained in AN 10.1 i.e it is conducive for liberation.

This is not greedy because it is not for the purpose of expecting gain that leads to sensual enjoyment or becoming.

“Bhikkhus, there are these eight grounds for giving. What eight? (1) One gives a gift from desire. (2) One gives a gift from hatred. (3) One gives a gift from delusion. (4) One gives a gift from fear. (5) One gives a gift, thinking: ‘Giving was practiced before by my father and forefathers; I should not abandon this ancient family custom.’ (6) One gives a gift, thinking: ‘Having given this gift, with the breakup of the body, after death, I will be reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world.’ (7) One gives a gift, thinking: ‘When I am giving this gift my mind becomes placid, and elation and joy arise.’ (8) One gives a gift for the purpose of ornamenting the mind, equipping the mind. These are the eight grounds for giving.”.
AN 8.33


To approach good housegholders selfish question, so that he might chose a skilfull and wise real selfish (for ones own and all others benefit) one:

Without desire one does not arrive anywhere. Yes, this path, to an end of suffering, requires desire, requires determination, requires effort, requires persistence... for an end of actions, kamma, good householder, and isn't a practice of 'non-action', the way of sectarians. And the Sublime Buddha teaches of what should be done and what not, to archive the noble goal of freedom from all desires.

As from kind of actions, there are four: good, bringing good results, bad, bringing bad experience, mixed, bringing this and that, and the kamma (actions) leading beyond, the kamma of the Noble Eightfold path (the truly alturistic one, one not discoverable , unseen, by common man, having not heard the Sublime Dhamma). It's right that all not reached Arahatship act 'selfish', most for 'no benefical use' some for a Noble aim, a real loberal one.


Like all deeds, it is possible to do it for many reasons, many internal motives.

It is possible to do an action that helps and heals, such as guve to those in need, for a selfish reason. To look good. To "virtue signal" (in the modern phrase). To gain status. To feel good. To win good for oneself in future.

But if one truly feels, truly cares, truly knows suffering and the wheel of life, then one may give because it is ones nature. Because to not give simply was not thought of, in that situation. Because of a deep compassion. Because it is right within this world that some deeds be done, regardless who is the doer.

There is no paradox. A reductionist approach says all deeds are ultimately selfish, but the heart of a person - and that which matters most in a person - can know which motives called the action forth, or can lie to oneself about it.

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