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I'm very fortunate to live in an affluent part of the world. Even so, it is a common site to see people begging for money in the street. In our town there are posters up asking people not to give to beggars as it just encourages people to beg more. However habitually walking past people begging does not feel like the compassionate thing to do.

Is it possible to bring Buddhist ethics and philosophy to bear on this? Should one give to beggars in this circumstance? It would be good if answers could include textual references to illustrate the point however all answers gratefully received.

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    Have you considered noting the encounter mentally, and then giving money to a homeless charity? They are far better placed than you to assess need and get the money where it needs to be, and will get far more value for your money than you do (via arrangements with companies for discount food etc). Compassion doesn't have to be blind guesswork, you can always apply intelligence to compassion. – Jon Story Feb 10 '15 at 15:48
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    I think @JonStory's answer is the best. Giving to beggars means being partly responsible for what they do with it. You need to ensure that you're being wise with the money you're giving. And hence, an organization that utilizes it best. – 0fnt Feb 11 '15 at 4:10

14 Answers 14

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I have worked with homeless persons through non-profit agencies for over twenty years, therefore my answer is based on much experience. You are wise to seek the compassionate response. There is tremendous judgement about people who beg: assumptions are made that they are addicts, or unwilling to work (prefer to beg), or uninformed about available social services, or simple-minded, or mentally ill, or lazy, or falling through the cracks, or __________ (fill in the blank with your thoughts about them).

You know what? Any or all of these things might be true of the next beggar you see. Or none of them might be true. Which is why it is wise to just rest in your compassion. The beggar you see is a human being first. Say hello. Smile. Give that person your full respect and do not assume for a minute that you know what is best for them. Do not assume you can gauge their capacity. Do not assume that you know anything About their past or present, or that you can predict their behavior (such as assuming they will buy liquor if you give them money). Compassion validates human worth. Compassion listens. Compassion sees each beggar as an individual human being who is a very important person.

I believe that when you embrace your compassion, you will see the person. The person. And when you see the person, and have some conversation (or just simple eye contact and a nod), that your compassion will direct your actions. When you see the person, and listen, and pay attention to them, you will be positioned to help should you choose to do so. Perhaps Money. Perhaps bus fare. Perhaps food. Or perhaps a handshake and small-talk well-wishes.

There is no one-size-fits-all when we talk about people and their needs. It is wrong to put up a sign that points to a group of people as less-than, which is the essence of the "don't give money to beggars" sign... It is giving the message "do not feed the animals". It is taking away their human dignity.

  • This is an excellent response to a complicated question. If I could add, however, the first precept is "I will refrain from harming the life of others." If one cannot engage the beggar to the extent suggested by @LynnSuzanne, perhaps not giving just money might be appropriate. Many (not all) begging in our USA society use the proceeds to feed harmful addictions, so you might be harming them without understanding it. So, I believe, in those circumstances, giving to organizations which help lead such out of these addictions might be a better path in really helping them. – GVCOJims Dec 13 '18 at 18:46
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Dakkhina Vibhanga Sutta is the one you want to have a look at.

Ananda, there are these fourteen individual gifts (cuddasa pāṭipuggalikā dakkhi). What are the fourteen?

  1. One gives a gift to the Tathagata, the arhat [worthy one], fully self-awakened one—this is the first individual gift
  2. One gives a gift to a pratyeka Buddha—this is the second individual gift
  3. One gives a gift to an arhat disciple of the Tathagata—this is the third individual gift
  4. One gives a gift to one on the way to realize the fruition of arhathood [an arhat-to-be]—this is the fourth individual gift
  5. One gives a gift to a non-returner—this is the fifth individual gift
  6. One gives a gift to one on the way to realize the fruition of non-return [a non-returner-to-be]—this is the sixth individual gift
  7. One gives a gift to a once-returner—this is the seventh individual gift.
  8. One gives a gift to one on the way to realize the fruition of once-return [a once-returner-to-be]— this is the eighth individual gift
  9. One gives a gift to a streamwinner—this is the ninth individual gift
  10. One gives a gift to one on the way to realize the fruition of streamwinning [a streamwinner-to-be] —this is the tenth individual gift
  11. One gives a gift to one outside (the path) who is free from sensual pleasures—this is the eleventh individual gift.
  12. One gives a gift to a virtuous worldling—this is the twelfth individual gift
  13. One gives a gift to an immoral worldling —this is the thirteenth individual gift
  14. One gives a gift to an animal—this is the fourteenth individual gift

In this regards, Ananda, having made a gift to an animal, one may expect a hundredfold gift. Having made a gift to an immoral worldling, one may expect a thousandfold gift. Having made a gift to a virtuous worldling, one may expect a hundred-thousandfold gift. Having made a gift to one outside (the path) who is free from sensual pleasures, one may expect a hundred-thousand times a hundred-thousandfold gift. Having made a gift to on the way to realize the fruition of streamwinning [a streamwinner-to-be], one may expect boundless, immeasurable gift. What more to speak of a streamwinner? What more to speak of one on the way to realize the fruition of once-return [a once-returner-to-be]? What more to speak of a once-returner? What more to speak of one on the way to realize the fruition of once-return [a non-returner-to-be]? What more to speak of a non-returner? What more to speak of one on the way to realize the fruition of arhathood [an arhat-to-be]? What more to speak of an arhat disciple of the Tathagata? What more to speak of a pratyeka Buddha? What more to speak of the Tathagata, fully self-awakened arhat, ripen in an incalculable way?

#12 and #13 are the ones relevant to your question. So whether it is encouraged by the community or not, you will get merits(thousandfold/hundred thousandfold) if you give to beggars.

ps: n-fold could mean a gift 'n' times bigger or a similar gift for 'n' number of lives.

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    What a great answer. I've run into many self-righteous people who would avoid giving to a #12 for the risk he may actually be #13. My claim is that I can't judge the difference, literally, it's not my place to do so. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Feb 10 '15 at 17:00
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    Yes, you can still make the giving very meritorious if you are a virtuous person, regardless of the standards of the receiver. – Sankha Kulathantille Feb 10 '15 at 17:22
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    Today I was in a situation where I was walking downtown and gave a dollar to a beggar, but being downtown I was literally asked at almost every corner. Do I keep giving to my wallet is empty, I didn't but I made me think, certainly have more than them, I had it, but when is it or is it ok to say no? – m2015 Apr 17 '17 at 1:27
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    @m2015 Your capacity for charity is something for you to calculate depending on your income and budget. Giving is always meritorious. – Sankha Kulathantille Apr 17 '17 at 11:47
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Of course you should give to the beggar... because the act of giving, isn't for the beggar, it's for you. The same goes for forgiveness, love and the removal of hate and judgment... it's not for them ( even though it impacts their life) it's for you, it's for your peace of mind, happiness and love!!

What we see in the world, it reflects our own minds and hearts. If you want to see more love in the world...then give to beggars and love all unconditionally, regardless of how they treat you!

Metta.

  • I don't deny that all human actions have at least some self-interest mixed in--there is no truly 100% altruistic act. However, to baldly state that "it's not for them, it's for you", insofar as this statement is faithful to Buddhism, to me reveals something seriously wrong with Buddhism: it destroys true compassion. Acting only to alleviate your own suffering, not theirs, is knavely and base. Being wholly self-focused (through the mechanism of giving to others) isn't, in my opinion, actually going to increase the love in the world.. – ErikE Feb 10 '15 at 23:24
  • You are obviously entitled to your opinion... and that is what makes this world so amazing! I wish you great success with your practice, my friend! – user476 Feb 10 '15 at 23:27
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    Actually, increasing the love in the world is not the goal of Buddhism. The goal is to attain enlightenment. With regards to that, the intention of the practice of giving is to reduce your greed. Also to practice love and compassion to counter hate and cruelty. When one attains enlightenment, he or she automatically increases love in the world by annihilating aversion. And that person can help others attain enlightenment as well. That is the only permanent solution. Giving things will never remove true suffering of others. – Sankha Kulathantille Feb 11 '15 at 1:35
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    @ErikE is a selfish act that increases the happiness of both individuals involved actually a selfish act? Or is it just a more intelligent act that realises the situation is not zero sum? ;) – iain Nov 4 '15 at 5:22
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    @ErikE Without a higher authority there is no need for proof. Without such authority there is no central "truth" to find, no doctrine to follow. There is also no need for cost/reparation/penance as there is no concept of sin and no one to pay. There is also no evil because there is no absolutism, no soul, no essence. Buddha Gotama did go through a period of severe asceticism but he rejected this as extreme, and advocated the middle way between pleasure and pain. Without a creator god as a starting point, the concept of love you outline does not make sense and is, hence, misapplied to Buddhism. – iain Nov 4 '15 at 7:48
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You should give because it is possible they are in a life-threatening situation so in giving you are potentially saving a life. If they are lying then God sees everything, you are covered! But as previous poster mentioned, you are really giving for yourself.

  • Much as I commend your compassion, this is Buddhism Stack Exchange, "God" (uppercase G) is part of the Abrahamic tradition (usually Christian if you're going to call Him God), and there is no creator god(s) at all espoused as part of any Buddhist religion I know of. You may think of Buddhism as radical atheism, if that helps. – iain Nov 4 '15 at 5:28
  • @iain would the statement of Katyne be more consistent if it were written as "If they are lying then their karma would even things out without you having to understand the entirety of everything. Therefore you need not know everything, just trust that your right action is enough for you to know". Is this the space between what K wrote and what you did ? – Mishtook Apr 20 '18 at 15:10
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First of all, God bless your heart for even caring and contemplating on this. There are several different reasons why people ask for money, and, therefore, there are several different reasons why you would be asked not to give them money. On one hand, and as have some kindly suggested, you can resort to donating your money or service to a charity organization, just to make sure that whatever you are giving is channeled correctly. On another hand, and if you can, you may ask the person about what is it that they need, and bring it to them, if you can. I have friends that kindly approach the person and ask them why they need the money. When it is for food, clothing or something they can afford buying for them, they buy it and bring it to them. An act of kindness that brightens their day.

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The Brahman Net Sutra says

  1. Being Stingy “Buddha-Sons, one should not be stingy or incite others to be stingy, through any causes, conditions, methods, or karmas. “A Bodhisattva should give to those who come to him all that they need. If, out of malice or anger, he instead refuses to give to the poor even a coin, a needle, or a blade of grass, or refuses to say a verse or a stanza to those who request the Dharma, scolding and insulting them, it is a parājika sin.

But a good percentage of the beggars on the street have chemical dependency problems. So giving them money (sometimes they ask for the exact amount necessary to buy a bottle of malt liquor) violates this precept:

  1. Selling Alcohol “Buddha-Sons, one should not sell alcohol or incite others to sell alcohol, through any causes, conditions, methods, or karmas. One should not sell any kind of alcohol because it can cause one to commit sins. “A Bodhisattva should bring clear wisdom out of sentient beings. If he instead causes them to muddle their minds, it is a parājika sin.

Enabling people to drink alcohol in the BNS is worse than consuming it yourself! (A major vs a minor precept)

Anyhow, it was a document written in China in the middle ages, when begging probably had a different dynamic, different circumstances (maybe they're peasants from the country side during time of drought!). In many jurisdictions where I live, giving to beggars is illegal as is the begging and beggars that stand in the middle of the road get hit by cars from time to time.

A beggar who receives a $1 will spend it sometimes on food, sometimes on drugs. He will pay retail prices. A beggar that goes to a food bank, soup kitchen or the like will be eating food and no drugs. The food bank pays wholesale prices.

Your dollar is better donated to the soup kitchen.

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There are some great answers here. I would also like to add the following comment by Buddha which emphasizes the importance of giving to anyone in need.

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.
Iti 1.26

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I cannot give any specific insight into the ethics of Buddhism , as I know little about it but I hope this answer will be of use to you nonetheless.

As a human being (Religion is, I believe, irrelevant in this case) I believe that it is not compassionate to pass a beggar (or anyone else asking for help) when I have the means to help them.

My own philosophy is that even if you suspect that the person begging doesn't really "need" to beg, let it be on their conscience, not yours; after all, who are we to judge others on face value?

If you're not entirely sure that giving money is a good idea (for example - if the person shows obvious signs of substance addiction and you believe the money is going towards their next fix, etc) then I would recommend instead offering (if you feel it's safe to do so) to buy them some food, or a cup of coffee, etc - you'd be surprised how much difference even this simple gesture can make to someone who's down on their luck.

I don't have any professional experience dealing with beggars, but I have talked to quite a few of them, and although I will admit that many aren't particularly savoury characters, a lot of them are just people like you and I who "fell through the cracks" in the system; it can happen pretty easily, even in places like the UK and Ireland (where I live).

  • I don't care if they use it on drugs/alcohol. As you stated that's on their conscience, not mine. And as you stated, it's an opportunity to show compassion, so if you have the means then you should. If you don't have the means, then don't. – noobsmcgoobs Feb 10 '15 at 7:44
  • @noobsmcgoobs well yes that's kind of my point,I don't really mind but someone else might hence "if you're not entirely sure" :) – Stephen Byrne Feb 10 '15 at 17:00
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I don't know about the UK.

In France, some people work (volunteer) for e.g. the Restaurants du Cœur; or in Canada, for the Daily Bread Food Bank.

There are some benefits to an organization like that:

  • It's communal (sociable, friendly) work
  • It's affordable (time not money)
  • As well as helping 'beggars', food banks also help e.g. children who are living in poverty
  • People who are there to distribute food are sometimes also able to offer other types of help
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The quote given by Sankha is a great one and I love to read such things but the 1st training is very time-dependent and we have to learn to think critically and live our lives with good, highly informed, moderate principles of the Buddha considering relativities of our day.

Anyway... here is my time-and-place sensitive solution to the issue of seeing beggars everywhere:

We pay taxes that go to welfare so beggars... they should take opportunity of that welfare instead of just begging!

If anything IMO, you should explain the above to a beggar and see if they need help being taken to the social security office (so that they can apply). Also provide them with busfare to go back.

It really might be that easy to completely help a homeless person.

I have done an experiment and claimed homelessness before and received enough money to feed myself far more than amply and could actually live very comfortably so long as I stayed in a homeless center (or some other place) at night. It would be very easy to live as a monk on welfare... meditating in the jungle at day and finding shelter by night. I have thought about it and experimented with it somewhat... I can verify that the system in the U.S. is very generous with food stamps program.

The homeless life that Buddha praised is much easier to do than people think! [I'm glad I experimented with homeless survivalism because I always have that as a backup to compare to working 40 hours a week and straining to make house payments and bills.]

The reason homeless people suffer is entirely mental: they suffer from the mental dis-ease of scarcity and self-victimization.

I don't believe in donating money to help beggars though. It is quite naive to do so for a lot of reasons...

  • It's one thing to be a tourist claiming homelessness, another thing to be truly homeless. There are other mental diseases beyond self-victimization such as schizophrenia and depression that would make homelessness difficult to get out of and survive. There are people who grow up not having the education or socialization to thrive and end up homeless not as a choice. – noobsmcgoobs Feb 11 '15 at 0:20
  • Yes.. Thanks for adding that.. I only briefly touched on this at the end but really the problems are endless and i have been almost attacked by an angry homeless lady... Who i determined after hearing her story likely schizo or highly delusional (she thought the cia was taking nude pics of her daughter and prostituting her and her husband left her cuz of that).. Its important to understand and see if you can "feed a man for a lifetime" and at least be a little like a bodhisattva listening to their pain. – Ahmed Feb 11 '15 at 0:31
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Instead of giving to beggars (which most likely would use money to buy alcohol), I give regularly money to few nonprofits helping causes which are important to me. I believe that such giving is more effective (accomplishes more good), and if someone ask for money, I can say: I already contributed $10 today.

I even read the article how ineffective is collecting food. If you give money instead, charity could:

  • (1) buy food for wholesale price, or even at discount from wholesale instead you paying retail
  • (2) volunteers would not waste time moving, sorting and packing it - could buy what is needed, when needed.

As a result, $10 in cash donation is about same value as $100 in kind.

Of course, politicians prefer moving boxes, because it makes better photo opportunities.

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    Interesting point about wholesale vs. retail. However casting beggars as alcoholics and politicians as cheaters (whether or not I agree) does reduce the professional tone preferred on this site. – Anthony Feb 10 '15 at 15:21
  • OK I agree that some beggars do need the help - but do you have time to investigate which is which? Or will you spend your limited time and resources to give to organization which has the time and did the research? – Peter M. - stands for Monica Feb 10 '15 at 15:30
  • Your question is valid on a conventional level, but on a Buddhist level, why should one have to decide such things? Within the scope of Buddhist teaching, does it benefit one's morality, concentration and wisdom? – Anthony Feb 10 '15 at 17:34
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    But I know that contributing in kind is less effective help. Should I ignore such knowledge? I understand that giving immediately might feel more rewarding. Of course I am far away from any Buddhist level. But I want to do right things, contribute positively to the world. – Peter M. - stands for Monica Feb 10 '15 at 23:59
  • I have to eat my words. By calling your answer unprofessional I'm being rather unprofessional. :-) but sure, don't ignore your knowledge about society if you want to benefit others. There is ascriptural reference I will give shortly, which reflects my original intention. – Anthony Feb 11 '15 at 0:49
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It is the thought or volition that counts underpinning the action.

If you do not give to baggers with good intention then this is acceptable. If you choose not to give may be you can be of more service to them by helping them make a living and also perhaps find employment.

If you give to beggars with good intention then this is also acceptable are you are practising generosity.

Generosity is not limited to material giving. It is a will and volition to the benevolence and betterment of others and acting upon it.

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To add to Sankha's answer above - it is not as much whether to give or not to give, as it is about the right factor of prioritization. When you give to someone/anyone - person or organization - you support a certain program, certain idea, you help it go on, you help it do its thing, you help it affect the world in whatever way it affects the world.

According to Buddha (interpreting his words broadly, Mahayana-style), sponsoring the more virtuous programs is of greater benefit than sponsoring the less virtuous programs - therefore if there is competition for our sponsorship, if we have to choose - we should choose sponsoring the more virtuous programs, the more enlightened programs.

Of course, providing for the less fortunate is supporting a virtuous program already - no doubt about that. The question is, are there more virtuous programs that could benefit from our resources?

According to Buddha (again interpreting broadly, Mahayana-style), the programs that spread virtue and wisdom, and help reduce greed/hatred/confusion locally or globally, are a better long term investment of our resources IF we have to choose. That said, simply giving to beggars is still much better than doing nothing at all.

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there is a simple answer to your question.

Lord Buddha said....

  • One should give when he has more
  • One should give when he has a lot
  • One should give when he has some
  • One should give when he has little

Lord Buddha said these four in an one sentence to inform the value of giving.

And asked to give in this manner.....

  • Plan to give with happiness in your mind
  • Give with happiness in your mind
  • Be happy about the giving afterwards and forever
  • Happily memorize what you gave

And went on to say these...

There is only one help to beings who roam in Samsara/Sansara,That is the good karma they have done.No good karma is small.

"Like a pot getting filled with small drops of water any good karma is an aid for one's path!"

Let me tell you a strange story....

One day people in a certain area planned a beautiful festival.A festival to worship a "Stupa" with flowers.

A stupa

(A stupa)

Everyone found some to offer but a one lady.She could not find any because everyone has taken flowers so none was left.all she could find was a flower of an vegetable plant so she took it even though it was a bit unorthodox.She offered it and time went by.She died and when she opened her eyes she was in the "Deva Realm".When asked she was bit shy to reveal how she came there and to this day her story is the model story to explain to power of good deeds.

No matter how so unimportant or small something good you can do would appear just do it because no one knows when such a good deed would come in handy.

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