It is difficult to overstate the centrality of generosity and gift giving (dāna) in Buddhism. Dāna is a supreme virtue perfected by bodhisattvas, a key practice of providing economic support to monks and nuns and the Buddhist establishment, and a means of generating religious merit.
Dāna is first in the lists of the pĀramitĀ (perfection) that a bodhisattva cultivates through the many eons of lives that culminate in buddhahood. Giving in this context is not only an instance of renunciation of material possessions, it also illustrates the bodhisattva's infinite compassion and regard for others in need. One of the best-known stories in the Buddhist world is the tale of Siddhārtha Gautama's penultimate life in which he completes the final perfection of generosity as the bodhisattva Vessantara (Sanskrit, ViŚvantara). Vessantara's extraordinary perfection is the gift of his children and wife to a greedy brahman, a gift so magnificent that it causes the earth to quake. Other celebrated acts of the bodhisattva's generosity include occasions described in the jĀtaka literature in which he offers up his limbs, his eyes, and even his life to those in hunger or in need.
In addition to being a moral ideal of a bodhisattva, dāna is also a practice with considerable social and economic significance in Buddhist cultures. Basic to the Indian traditions in which Buddhism first developed is the distinction between householder and renouncer. Dāna, a term broadly employed in South Asian religions, should be understood within the context of the relationship of complete economic dependency of monks and nuns on royal gifts and the alms of lay householders. The laity give food and other requisites to monks and nuns through daily ritualized alms rounds or through the making of offerings at monasteries. Although monks and nuns are not expected to reciprocate these gifts, they can offer the gift of the Teaching (dharmadāna), which is often exalted as the highest gift.
Laypeople are motivated to give dāna in part because it provides them with religious merit. Dāna, when given joyfully and graciously, generates karmic merit that results in worldly benefits in this life, as well as a fortunate rebirth in the next life. Important factors determining the merit one earns by making a gift are the motivations of the donor, the propriety and suitability of the gift, and the worthiness of the recipient. The logic of this last variable ensures that laypeople will want to give to the worthiest "field of merit," ideally a learned and pious monk, to earn the most merit from the gift. While some traditions within Buddhism, particularly within the MahĀyĀna, extol giving without discrimination to the poor and needy, there is in dāna ideology a general preference for ensuring support for esteemed monks and nuns.
While texts on lay morality stress the generosity of the laity, donative inscriptions across the Buddhist world record gifts given by pious monks and nuns, as well laypeople, to building and supporting Buddhist institutions. Gifts of kings, such as those of King AŚoka (third century b.c.e.), of almshouses and monasteries to Buddhist communities, record the importance of royal patronage in the establishment, development, and preservation of Buddhism.
Cone, Margaret, and Gombrich, Richard F., trans. The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara: A Buddhist Epic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
Endo, Toshiichi. Dāna: The Development of Its Concept and Practice. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Gunasena, 1987.
Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
Sizemore, Russell, F., and Swearer, Donald K., eds. Ethics, Wealth, and Salvation: A Study in Buddhist Social Ethics. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.