The Chinese Emperor Wu from Liang asked Bodhidharma: The Buddha has taught that one will go to heaven if one donates robes and bowls to a monk. But I gave countless monks food and clothing. I have paid many times for copies of the sutras. Also I have founded many, many temples. Tell me sir, how much merit have I earned? Bodhidharma answered: None.

This is a very famous story in the Zen tradition, talking about generosity. It shows the ordinary understanding of what we think that generosity is: giving money for a charity or at least giving something of material value to somebody in need. This is not wrong, but it is a very limited aspect of generosity.

First, generosity is not limited to money or material goods. You can be generous with anything you have and that you can give. As Shantideva taught, nothing is of any use unless it is for the wellbeing of others.

If we want to practice generosity, then we make sure that those around us have everything they need to live and work. So we give material things, give compassion, give wisdom. If we want to be happy, we should refuse to tolerate suffering, injustice and inequality. We should take personal responsibility to create change. And we should learn how to eliminate anger and violence in our life and in our thoughts. If we want to have harmony we should learn to share resources and especially we should learn to share power, since trying to control others will fail anyway. So we can be generous with the time we spend with someone who is lonely or in need of someone to care about him. We can be compassionate when we feel with someone who is suffering. It can be the ear we open for someone's request. It can be our thoughts, thinking about how to help others. It can be the hands, feet, body and mind we are willing to offer for somebody's welfare.

To sum this up, there are four kinds of giving:

  • Giving material things
  • Giving protection or freedom from fear
  • Giving love and compassion
  • Giving wisdom or teaching

Second—and this is what makes the teaching of that story about the Chinese Emperor so much more precious—if you are giving because you want to get something in return, then it is not really giving anymore. It becomes wanting, and thus exactly the opposite of generosity.

For example, I work as a life coach, and I have some clients that have a Buddhist background and that want to apply Buddhist ethics to their work or businesses. Most of these clients are familiar with the concept of karma, which is basically saying that every effect has a cause. So for getting something (effect) you have to create the right conditions (causes) first, and this will make it more possible that your wish might come true. For instance, it is said that if you want to experience prosperity you have to give first. Or to look at it the other way: people that experience material welfare must have planted the appropriate conditions before in this or another lifetime. That understanding of karma is very basic and does not take into account the complexity of how karma truly functions, but le's keep it so simple to get the point of cause and effect. One big problem is: even when you plant a seed you do not know when it will ripen and grow. If we would experience all karmic results right away—for instance for stepping on an insect and killing it with intention, so that in reaction we would feel our chest crushing right away—than this lesson would be easily understood. But it can take this lifetime or even more until a karmic seed ripens. Since we often do not experience results right away, it can become something like a point of faith whether karma works or not. We can only investigate this thoroughly and examine our experiences.

I had clients that really wanted to be good Buddhist businesspeople and who were very generous to their employees and customers, hoping their generous actions would benefit them and their company. But if there were not such great results or even when something went differently than expected, they got annoyed, as if somebody had betrayed them. Then they did not want to believe in cause and effect anymore. This means they should look closer at the intentions behind their actions and the seeds—the causes—planted by those actions. This thinking is like wanting to make a deal with the universe: I pay and you pay me back ten times, OK? This is what the Chinese emperor had in mind too: I have supported so many monks. Where will your place be when you get to heaven if you have only supported one monk? So he needed some strong medicine because he was not acting truly out of generosity, but rather out of greed. So that is why Bodhidharma hit him by saying: None!


Bodhisattvas benefit sentient beings,

But do not see any sentient beings.

This is indeed a very difficult point,

Superb and ungraspable.1

So what makes generosity true generosity ?

The Brahmaviśesacintipariprcchasutra declares: Not reflecting is generosity. 2 That means to act spontaneously for the benefit of all beings without thinking or meditating about it. If we are in a state of mind where we are not attached to anything, our true nature can appear and express itself in so-called virtuous actions as the six paramitas. Our true nature shows naturally when we are not caught in dualism and we are not making any difference between me and others or between favorable or unfavorable conditions. In our tradition we call this correct situation, relationship and function. That means also that there is no such thing as the three spheres of the giver, the recipient and the act of giving, as it is taught in Buddhist scriptures explaining the action and function of generosity.

If we act like this spontaneously and without thinking then this is what is called perfection of wisdom or perfection of insight —that is, Prajnaparamita.

So we have to try, try, try for ten thousand years to just do it and stop checking for any personal results.


1. Nagarjuna, Bodhisambhara, verse 72, quoted in Karl Brunnhölzl, The Heart Attack Sūtra (Boston: Snow Lion, 2012).

2. Quoted in Heart Attack SÅ«tra, p. 26.