You may intend to cause benefit through offerings made to evil people, but you will only cause more harm; making such offerings is like feeding a savage beast; everyone is hurt by the deed.

— Sutra on the Principles of the Six Paramitas

Merit Gained from Helping the Virtuous

In Buddhist sutras, generosity is often compared to farming; if a farmer’s fields are fertile, his harvest will be large and good. It is much the same with people; if you plant your generosity in the right place, you will receive great benefit. If you are generous toward virtuous people, then both you and others will benefit greatly from your action.

This is why the Sutra in Forty-Two Sections says, “Feeding a hundred evil people is not as good as feeding one good person. Feeding a thousand good people is not as good as feeding one who upholds the precepts. Feeding ten thousand people who uphold the precepts is not as good as feeding one srotapanna. Feeding one million srotapanna is not as good as feeding one sakadagami. Feeding ten million sakadagami is not as good as feeding one anagami. Feeding one hundred million anagami is not as good as feeding one arhat. Feeding one billion arhats is not as good as feeding one pratyekabuddha. Feeding ten billion pratyekabuddhas is not as good as feeding one Buddha of the past, present and future.”

To Whom Should We Be Generous?

Buddhist sutras mention three kinds of people to whom we should be generous:

  1. People who are suffering. We should expend great effort in trying to help those who are suffering.

  2. People who have been kind to us. We should repay in abundance the kindness shown to us by our parents, our teachers and our elders.

  3. The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. All offerings and all respect shown toward the Triple Gem will bring unlimited merit and benefit to all of us.

How to Be Generous Toward Wrongdoers

Clearly we should not completely abandon people who have done wrong, but we must think carefully about how we are going to help them once we have determined that our help is needed. If we are not careful about how we decide to help them, our generosity may end up causing more harm than good. When we help someone, we must be sure that our help does not become a means for that person to bring even more trouble on himself and others.

People do wrong out of greed, ignorance or anger. These three defilements are the root causes of all problems in the world. When we seek for ways to help someone who has acted from the promptings of one of these three defilements, we must be sure that our help will lead the person in question toward a deeper understanding of the cause of his transgression. If our “help” only humiliates him or makes him angry, we will not have succeeded in being truly generous. If our “help” only smoothes over deeper problems and allows the wrongdoer to continue in his ways without correcting them, then our generosity may ultimately become the cause of a third person’s suffering.

The fact that it is difficult to offer aid that will truly benefit others does not mean that we should not try. If our intentions are pure, there will be good results in the end. For the most part, true generosity should lead the wrongdoer toward greater wisdom and understanding.

Everything has its time. If the time is not right but still you force your will on events, then you will bring trouble to yourself. For this reason it is said that everyone should know the difference between the right time and the wrong time.

— Sutra of One Hundred Parables

How to Be Generous Toward Children

Generosity should never produce or encourage sloth, depravity, insensitivity, irresponsibility or meanness. If parents are lax with their children under the guise of being generous with them, they will only bring harm to themselves, their children and society. There is a fine, but very important, line between discipline and affection, between what is good for our children and what harms them. Children who are given lots of money but not directed in how to use it too often lose touch with other people. Since their emotions have been nurtured in a protective and unnatural environment, they misunderstand the needs and feelings of others and bring harm both to themselves and to those who are around them.

Ideally, generosity directed toward children should nurture their higher moral qualities. Generosity should teach children how to be unattached to material things and how to place the well-being of others above their own.

The Three Kinds of Generosity

Generosity properly is an aspect of compassion. Since true compassion seeks only the well-being of others, all acts of generosity should be directed toward increasing the well-being of others. Buddhist sutras speak of three basic kinds of generosity:

  1. Material generosity: By giving things to others we give them joy and comfort. In the highest sense, our generosity should be a gift of kindness that nurtures the moral nature of others as it shows them, very simply, that we care about them.

  2. Emotional generosity: When we are generous with our time and our emotions, we help others overcome the hardships of life. Our laughter will help them endure, our kindness will keep them from fear, while our sensitivity will help them realize the oneness of all sentient beings.

  3. Dharma generosity: In the end, the highest form of generosity is giving the Dharma. Only the Dharma can give others the means to stand on their own and truly understand life in this world. Whenever we speak about the Dharma, or teach it or encourage others in it, we are giving the highest gift of all.

When a bodhisattva is generous, he contemplates that the giver, the gift and the recipient of the gift are completely empty. His contemplations carry him beyond all obstructions, all greed and all defilement. This is what is called the “Accomplished Generosity” of the bodhisattva.

— Rain of Treasures Sutra