The ethics and implications of giving and receiving alms

This is a difficult post for me to write, and I hope you will not be offended by my thoughts and what I say.

I have accepted Buddha’s teachings ever since I discovered them as a child, when an uncle took me to a temple and gave me a book called “What Buddhists Believe”. Reading the book overnight was a revelation - it answered questions that I had but also confirmed things that I had suspected. But the feeling wasn’t that I was discovering truth for the first time, it was more like being reminded of something I had forgotten and had always known. I suspect it is not the first time I have traversed down this path.

In the 50 odd years since then, I have tried to live a life guided by Buddha’s teachings. I have tried to be kind to others, and contain my cravings, wrong views, desires and anger (not always successfully).

But I have never wanted to join the Sangha or be ordained. The other day, in a different thread, I said I was unwilling to be ordained because I can’t accept the Vinaya rules, particularly as they pertain to bhikkhunis. I feel the rules are created when the status of women was different from today, and I don’t believe they are appropriate today (although I understand there they can be interpreted in a modern context, I believe they fundamentally were created for a different society).

However, I have since reflected on this and believe my reasoning for not willing to be ordained is incorrect. Regardless of the rules and whether they are acceptable to me or not, I would be unwilling to accept the monastic life.

Digging deeper, I think I am uncomfortable with the whole notion of begging for and receiving alms. I understand that in Buddha’s time, this was already accepted practice for ascetics and the tradition survives today in Buddhist countries.

On the surface, it seems innocuous enough. It is a solution to allowing a monk or nun to renounce ordinary life but at the same time have their basic necessities catered for. It enables a lay person to practice generosity and support a spiritual quest indirectly. As I understand it, a Sangha also provides an education to youths and help them along on their journey, whether they stay on or leave. Many families have a tradition of having one child be ordained as they feel it brings merit and fortune to the whole family.

However, I am also concerned that this practice creates a burden on society as a whole and a “debt of kindness” on the recipients. Whilst I won’t go so far as to say this “debt” is a future obligation to be repaid, I am concerned about the long term karmic implications of receiving and depending on generosity.

I do understand monks and nuns do provide a service to society, by giving blessings to those that ask, spiritual guidance, and perform important ceremonies.

However, I do wonder whether these blessings may have a less innocent or beneficial side. As I understand it, some lay people believe giving alms and receiving blessings confer good fortune to them, and may cure illness or ward off evil spirits etc. And that some monks and nuns giving these blessings may be aware of the context or attitude of those receiving the blessings. As we all know, illness and bad fortune isn’t averted by blessings, it is the karmic resultant from past actions. And whilst giving alms may address some of that karmic burden, it’s not a simple balancing scale and it’s not necessarily cause and effect.

So I wonder whether the whole practice is a bit of a lie and deception, and how one deals with that. Does one just close one’s eyes and say it’s all tradition and common practice, so just go with the flow?

I am also aware that receiving a blessing can bring comfort and solace to someone, and this is a real benefit that cannot be ignored. The other day, I sat next to a woman, and we started chatting. Suddenly she said she was a spiritual person and she could sense I was also “spiritually inclined” and that I was an “old soul.” We talked about the importance of progressing on our spiritual journey and awakening. I used very generic words as I was not sure what her beliefs were and I carefully avoided any Buddhist specific terms. She held my hands, and as she did so she started crying, and I can see they were tears of relief and happiness. I was glad I was able to comfort her in some way, but at the same time I wondered whether this was an appropriate thing for me to do. This is not the first time it has happened either, for most of my life I’ve had people comment to me that they see something special or spiritual in me, even as a child.

So I can understand that the benefit the community receives from monks and nuns may be substantial.

However, I also notice that Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand are also some of the poorest and under-developed countries, and that these countries have received more than their fair share of violence, suffering and political upheaval. I can’t help but wonder whether the practice of giving and receiving alms may result in a net deficit to society as a whole. Karma has a way of balancing out in the long run.

If this is true, then the practice of someone from a foreign (non-Buddhist country) being ordained in a Buddhist country may add to that burden, causing even more stress on the society. I understand such a person is simply following their own spirtual path, and I well understand how difficult it is to follow the traditional Buddhist way of life in a non Buddhist country.

What are your thoughts on this issue? I welcome your comments.


Giving to monastics is good kamma, it is very fruitful. On that topic, one can read AN 6.37, AN 9.20, MN 142, Iti 26, and Dhp 356-359.

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Well, if you look over a longer span of history, I don’t think we can say that any one country has more than their fair share. That said, if a country is dominated by greed to the point of empire and colonization, then it would not be surprising that in the short term they would have wealth. But of course that doesn’t last.

Also the Buddha talks frequently about material wealth vs. spiritual wealth and which one is more important. As a Buddhist I would have to say that those countries that still have the teachings of the Buddha are some of the spiritually wealthiest of all.

The discourses are bursting with teachings on the benefit of giving, so it’s hard to imagine that the Buddha had a problem with it. But of course if one doesn’t have faith in these teachings and just looks at it from a material perspective, then sure one can point out issues. And the Buddha gave many, many teachings to his monastics to try and reign in the burden they placed on the lay community.

If one is following the monastic life as taught by the Buddha, then any one individual monastic is not going to present a burden to the lay community.

We can always find excuses to not do good things. Whether that is giving or going forth.


I think my concern wasn’t about the giving, it was about the receiving, particularly over a longer term.

Of course, there is concern over the giving as well, particularly if it comes with expectations of being rewarded (with good fortune, etc.). I am not saying everyone has these expectations, but I have encountered them.

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Actually the Buddha agreed with you, saying that a monastic lives as a debtor until they gain insight and become ennobled, at which point their debt is paid off (and then some, I might add)

I guess it comes down to the question of what is society (and life) for?


The giving is framed in the stock term…

"May Ven ___ please accept < item being offered > out of compassion for me. " (eg MN88)

The noble ones do not ask for anything. It is we who ask them to receive - our action is rooted in craving and creates kamma. They accept out of compassion for us. Since the basis for their action is rooted in Right Intention, there is no kamma created for them.

“Mendicants, is this what you think of me? ‘The ascetic Gotama teaches the Dhamma for the sake of robes, almsfood, lodgings, or rebirth in this or that state.’”


Thank you. I was not aware of this (I think I may have to revise my description of myself from a “relative beginner” to a “complete beginner”).

Although in my thinking the debt is not necessarily repaid when one reaches true cessation and liberation, but only if one then repays that debt to society (through teaching, or good deeds, or otherwise).

I think I will stop here because I am probably dangerously close to potentially articulating Mahayanist doctrine, which will surely get me into trouble. I am not a Mahayana follower, but I have a friend who is and keeps urging me to read the core Mahayana texts. I do understand the Mahayana concern for compassion, and why some think the EBT represents a “selfish” conception of Buddha’s teachings (I don’t necessarily agree, but I appreciate the thinking).

Monastics do not beg.

Receiving what is freely offered is part of right livelihood for monastics.

Giving alms is about developing wholesome qualities, practicing kindness, generosity as well as reducing unwholesome qualities such as miserliness and notions of me/mine/I. Receiving alms really is just about being an opportunity for people to cultivate these things, but also of course to keep living the holy life and to hopefully make ourselves worthy of such generosity by progressing in the Dhamma enough to help others.

People give according to their faith/conviction in the triple gem.

“There are three grounds, mendicants, by which a person with faith and confidence can be known. What three? They like to see ethical people. They like to hear the true teaching. And they live at home rid of the stain of stinginess, freely generous, open-handed, loving to let go, committed to charity, loving to give and to share. These are the three grounds by which a person with faith and confidence can be known…" (AN3.42)

It is people with faith who offer alms to the sangha, and those people are more likely to be taught the Dhamma and reap the benefits of the teachings now and in the future, as we see in the Saddha Sutta AN . 5.38

Not sure about that… Generosity is so often linked in the suttas with the development of numerous qualities that benefit oneself and others. I often marvel at how perspicacious the Buddha was to have made generosity and almsgiving such an integral part of the path. The Saddha Sutta says a person with faith is like a great tree, who benefits many:

Suppose there was a great banyan tree at a level crossroads. It would become a refuge for birds from all around. In the same way, a faithful gentleman becomes a refuge for many people—monks, nuns, laywomen, and laymen.

And it is those people who by practising alms encounter good teachers who help them understand the Dhamma and be liberated from the big picture suffering of samsara.

You’ve said on the forum a few times that you don’t have any faith/conviction in the triple gem. Perhaps that lack of faith makes it difficult to understand the practice of giving alms and other aspects of Dhamma.

However, there’s many opportunities to practice kindness and generosity. But sure, if you don’t want to practice that towards the Sangha, don’t! And also if you don’t want to receive alms, don’t ordain! Simple :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Some unscrupulous people may do such things but it would be both cynical and incorrect to suggest that most places are so bad.

In fact, most of the time, at a Buddhist meal or event, when monastics chant what in English is commonly and mistakenly called a “blessing”, they are in fact chanting the Anumodana, the rejoicing along with others generosity. This is not a blessing as such but a reminder to the donors of the natural results that come from practicing generosity.

The real blessing is of course that the donors are kind and generous people who care about others, and that they are making progress on the spiritual path.

PS folks reading this might be interested in the Sutta below on the 8 factors of giving compared to a field - which is what the is Ariya Sangha is likened to - as in a field of merit.


Maybe, alms doesn’t make sense from a secular point of view, especially in a society based on ideas of equal (material) exchange and paying one’s “debts”. Incidentally, for there to be any social relationships at all, there have to be some debts or obligations among people.

In any case, from a buddhist point of view, I would think alms makes perfect sense since any Buddhist theory of value has the practice of the eightfold path on top. Nibbana is the ultimate goal, after all. Supporting the practice of others would also be fairly close. Also, I believe there is a sutta in the AN, where the Buddha says the highest kind of generosity is when one gives with the intention that the act of giving would support one’s own mental development (to paraphrase). So, giving is not solely for the sake of blessings etc. Other activities just lead a person on and on, wandering up and down in their samsaric career, filling up oceans of blood and all that.

Wholeheartedly practicing the path is therefore the best way to earn livelihood, unless of course a person has doubts about the teachings or the scope of samsara, which is perhaps quite understandable and common.

Perhaps, society does owe everyone a living.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossesed


It is important to give with the whole body and mind physically, how else does one make the mind bend?

Discussions with the ego are as usual a total waste of time. The ego needs a reason for letting go.

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I’d say this is why we go for refuge to the Buddha and the Dhamma. If our own ways of thinking led to Nibbana, then we’d all be doing just fine. The Buddha gives a very good path. Why not follow it?

One of the most common synonyms for Nibbana is “nothing more to be done.” Therefore nothing more to repay.

Attaining Nibbana is the absolute best “good deed”. So if that is what you are asking for, then from that perspective, the Arahant has repaid.

Regarding repayment of debt, you may also be interested in the opening part of the MN 142 Dakkhiṇāvibhaṅga Sutta. It talks about repayment of debt towards the Sangha, so it’s not exactly what you are talking about, but it’s still somewhat relevant.

Also, if you believe the Buddha, then the results that come to someone who makes a gift to the Sangha are immeasurable (See above sutta). So if you help someone to get those results by being part of the sangha and receiving the gift, then you have done more to help someone (in terms of the gift) than anyone else could.


In Buddha teaching, you give because you are happy to give and the receiver also happy to receive. You have extra to give that you know will benefit the receiver. Not for wanting something back. You give because it doesn’t create more suffering to you. So giving need to be win-win situation.

If you are giving, but it make you suffer or feel more suffering. Well i think that type of giving is not that great. Buddha probably would not approve it, hence there is some Vinaya about these. This teaching is about reaching finer and finer happiness. Not to create more and more suffering or burden for lay supporter.

So giving needs to be done with wisdom. However, nowadays people give because they want something back (ex: born in heaven, or become rich etc) without thinking about their own situation first. This type of giving usually is very crude and yield little result unfortunately.

Try to check more about dana in Sutta. You will get more understanding about Buddha teaching. Unfortunately the dana part sprinkle around randomly in Sutta.

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Thanks everyone for all your comments. I apologise for not responding to each one of them individually, but I will reflect on all of them going forward.

To those that are extolling the virtues of giving and following the Buddha’s path, I am afraid I have probably not made my personal circumstances clear, and maybe it is worthwhile describing them briefly to avoid future misunderstandings.

In my own way, I have renounced the worldly life to pursue a path of realisation. I don’t have any income other than my savings. For the last few years I have lived below the poverty line. The computer I am typing this on is over ten years old and no longer runs the latest OS.

As I mentioned before, I am uncomfortable with the idea of receiving alms, particularly as I live in a non-Buddhist country where this is not the norm. I have asked my parents not to leave any inheritance to me, so when they died all the money and property has gone to my brother.

So I have decided to “go forth” without the support of a Sangha. I hope people will understand the Sangha will also have to survive without my assistance.

Although I am not consciously trying to follow the footsteps of the Buddha, I am aware that my personal circumstances are not unlike his when he chose to renounce. Like him, I have decided to avoid being dependent and influenced by other teachers, and I have decided for better or worse my path needs to be my own. Luckily I do have his teachings to guide me, but I am not taking anything for granted and use his advice to question everything and progress based on direct experience.

Also, like him, I have decided to take the middle path, so I consider myself neither a layperson nor an ascetic.

Although I am not deliberately trying to practice abstinences, I have lost over 15 kg. Recently, I have not been feeling well, and my doctor is concerned I am malnourished. So, reluctantly, I have started eating solids in the evening again, as otherwise my stomach produces too much acid and I throw up or have diarrhoea. I realise the Vinaya rules are not appropriate for me, and I need to find a middle ground.

I understand when the Buddha decided to choose the middle path, he was heavily criticised by his former fellow ascetics for abandoning the path. Likewise, I understand why some choose to criticise me in their comments, and I realise not everyone appreciates the path I have chosen.

Anyway, I wish all of you nothing but the best in your own quest and journey, and I hope you will forgive me for not necessarily agreeing with you or joining you.

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There was once a person named Potaliya, who went forth in a similar manner. This is the advice the Buddha gave Potaliya…

:rose: :rose: :rose: :pray: :pray: :pray: :smiley:


What makes you think there are similarities?

It sounds like a lonely and difficult way, but I hope you’re finding happiness in relinquishment. Your story reminds me a little of the Rhinoceros Sutta.

I distinctly remember a sutta that mentioned exceptions in the rules for those who become sick because of the rules, but it’s so hard to remember when you’ve only read a sutta once. Or it might have been in Madhyama Agama… don’t feel like you have to be ashamed of eating.

Keep in mind that there are many ways to “ordain”. Some for instance take the ten precepts, and some people take the eight precepts as anagarikas. Or else, there have been many well-known and accomplished upasa/ikas like Dipa Ma and Kee Nanayon. Personally I’m going to take advantage of the currently favorable conditions in my lay life while it lasts, and maybe go forth as an anagarika if things change.

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Thank you. It may seem like I have chosen a difficult path, but in reality is I am studying the suttas in Pali, and then trying to validate them by direct experience. In my mind, this is no different from what everyone should be doing. And I can see many other people doing the same, so I don’t consider myself to be lonely. I have certainly learnt a lot from the discussions on this forum - they are not always views I agree with, but sometimes the shock of considering a completely different point of view helps clarify my own view, and in some cases change it.

A classic example is the notion of a self - I think over a period of time I went from believing there is a self, to there is no self, and now I am finally grasping that neither is true. I don’t think I would have progressed on this journey without the sometimes heated discussions on this forum.

The reason I am emphasising that I am pursuing an independent path from the traditional (eg. ordination) is my ethical concern for the long term impact of the monastic system on society as a whole, which I have already articulated. I understand not everyone agrees or acknowledges my concern, and that’s fine.

Plus I am not really convinced the monastic way of life is necessarily the best way to achieve realisation. I understand the Buddha himself created the Sangha and it is (was) optimised to enable a disciple to progress.

But the reality is thousands of years have passed. The Buddha himself noted at some point his teachings will be corrupted and will no longer be effective.

If the Sangha and the Dhamma was still effective, then we should have hundreds if not thousands or more living arahants. The reality is very few can name even one arahant, let alone a hundred. Many people actually believe that there are no living arahants, and there hasn’t been one since 1BCE. Buddhagosa himself admitted he was not enlightened, despite having written the Visuddhimagga. He can only hope that he will be reborn as a deva where he can await the next Buddha in order to reach enlightenment.

So therefore we have a community where possibly no one is enlightened, being taught by teachers who have never experienced enlightenment, based on books written by someone who was not enlightened. Therefore it is no surprise attaining enlightenment is not possible in this scenario, and indeed this has been the case for centuries.

I don’t want to wait for the next Buddha. In the absence of having a recognised teacher who is enlightened, the only option I have is to try to replicate the Buddha’s path, using his teachings as a guidance. I wish there was an easier option, but I have long suspected the existing approach via the Sangha does not work.

I wish you the best in your journey, whatever it may be. As long as we try to follow the eightfold path, we will make progress no matter what our personal circumstances may be.


I’m totally on the same page. On one hand, there is the fact that probably more arahants have existed than we know of, because of seclusion and the prohibition against claiming enlightenment. The latter is well meant and good for preventing false dhamma from arising, but then, there indeed has been much decay in the Buddhist teaching since the Buddha’s time, as outlined in the future dangers sutta, and false paths have also come to exist. When I do figure out how I’m not going to freeze or starve to death I would like to live in the forests to follow the paccekabuddha or bodhisattva path, whatever I decide on. Who knows? Maybe one of us will end up a Metteyya.

I’ve read your piece on alms again and it sounds as if a major concern is about deception via misunderstanding of kamma. Right? But that should be mostly a problem in majorly Buddhist countries?

I have my own concerns relating to food too. Specifically, since agricultural societies conquered the world we have been relying on a paradigm in which, in order to eat at all, someone (not necessarily us) must break the first precept a lot (tillage, weeding) and do a lot of generally unethical things besides. One might ask, Should we really maintain equanimity while putting this pressure on people? This hasn’t changed since the Buddha’s time, but the idea of Natural farming seems to offer hope.

May your journey go well and end in awakening as well.

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It is possible, but if such arahants are unknown to us, then they can’t assist us in gaining enlightenment.

I like to think that the situation is not as dire as I previously pointed out, however it is a common belief that enlightenment is not possible without a Buddha, and certainly many have been waiting a while.

My concern is at multiple levels, as I’ve tried to explain in my post. My original thinking was really a concern travelling to a Buddhist country, receiving ordination, and then imposing an additional stress on that country. I also have a concern about being “ordinated” in a non-Buddhist country, with no tradition of giving alms, and the practicalities of that. I understand monks/nuns in such countries may survive on donations, but that then involves handling money.

So the simplest solution for me is simply to rely on my accumulated savings, and not on any other external source of income. This still involves handling money, but I think that’s unavoidable in a non Buddhist country, and in any case I feel this is another Vinaya rule that will be very difficult to enforce.

I have other concerns regarding how monasteries may operate, ethical dilemmas they may face, and how monks/nuns behave and are treated by society, but that’s probably not worth publishing here (as I suspect I’ll incur even more wrath and criticism from those who must surely feel I am attacking their personal choices and way of life).

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I think I understand your approach now, and appreciate it.

Let’s hope no one speaks with wrath here!

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