Freedom through almsgiving
Christians throughout the world journey through the season of Lent by emphasizing prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Often we interpret such practices as exclusively Judeo-Christian, and indeed they are common to the Abrahamic faiths. Yet Buddhism and other Eastern religious traditions, too, call believers to dāna (almsgiving or charity). Dāna has been called the foundational and most important principle of the Buddhist’s spiritual journey, leading to greater inner freedom and ultimately to nirvana — the hoped-for release from the cycle of rebirth.
In Buddhism, alms are frequently offered to Buddhist monks, usually in the form of food. In exchange, the monk offers a blessing. The exchange of alms and prayers initiates a spiritual connection. As the Buddha himself related, the almsgiver and the monk should be in “mutual dependence.” The almsgivers provide the monks with the “requisites” of life, and the monks in exchange “teach them the Dhamma admirable” (right path of life) (Itivuttaka, §107).
While the almsgiving places the givers and receivers in a form of mutual dependence, the charitable act impacts the spirit of the giver, helping to spiritually purify and transform. Dāna, according to the Buddhist understanding, offers freedom, a healthy detachment from the world, and helps the person live for the sake of others, while its opposite, selfishness, begets pain and suffering through self-absorption.
Within the Christian tradition, Jesus’ calls to offer alms are numerous. In Matthew 25 the Christian’s salvation is linked to loving those most in need, seeing charity as a response to Christ himself:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. (v. 34–36)
This call to charity — from the word caritas, meaning “love” — remains one of the most significant marks of Christianity, spurring both individual and communal efforts.
For the Christian as well as the Buddhist, almsgiving is viewed positively as a practice of spiritual merit. For the Christian, charity is a response to God’s call and is enlivened by his grace. Similarly, the Buddhist understands almsgiving as a form of sacrificial charity which is meritorious — maybe even salvific in a Buddhist sense — by building up spiritual wealth to eternity. According to a text sacred to Buddhists, the fruits of giving include the affection and esteem of others, self-confidence, and a good reputation, and after death the soul “reappears in a good destination, the heavenly world” (Anguttara Nikaya 5, 34). Buddhists believe that the practice of dāna can contribute to breaking the cycle of rebirth and lead to the attainment of nirvana. While the afterlife for the Christian is different than that envisioned by the Buddhist, the path to spiritual freedom, culminating in the afterlife, bears some similarity.
Christianity and Buddhism both focus on differentiated almsgiving — which is to say that alms should be distributed according to situation and need. The notion of the “holy poor” in Christianity, based on the witness of the apostles, views widows and orphans as particularly deserving of alms. In more recent times Catholics have called this the preferential option for the poor, a response to those in society most in need of charity.
Yet charity and dāna are about more than what is received by the one in need; they recognize that there is receiving in giving. For the Christian, charity is the path to true freedom. Detachment from this world allows one to focus on higher things and ultimately, through faith and Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, to experience the world to come: heaven.
The Buddhist idea of dāna can remind us Christians of one of the foundational principles of our faith, witnessed to by Christ and practiced by the first Christians and people of faith today: What we give in alms here will be repaid. As the Gospel tells us:
Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. (Luke 12:33)
For Christians and Buddhists, through charity is found freedom, release from attachment to self and the things of this world, and an openness to the life to come.