In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dāna

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Buddhism Dāna
Maria R. Heim
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0215


Dāna (Sanskrit and Pali, gift, gift-giving, generosity) is a practice, ideology, economic feature, ethical virtue, and topic of intellectual inquiry across Buddhist traditions. Dāna can refer variously to alms to monastics, royal largesse, patronage to temples, gifts of ritual payment for services, hospitality to the stranger, and charity to the poor and needy. Ample material is available for the scholarly study of this term: gift-giving was extolled and reflected upon in traditional Buddhist textual sources, pious gifts and royal patronage were recorded in inscriptions, and contemporary practices of almsgiving have been studied by anthropologists and discussed by modern Buddhists. As a moral value, dāna occurs on many lists of ethical and soteriological virtues, as both a duty of lay people as well as an exalted “perfection” of the Bodhisattva. Traditional sources offer teachings on dāna as a practice of lay renunciation for relinquishing attachment to material possessions and supporting the saṅgha, and as a moral ideal that, in some cases, was intended to supplant older paradigms of religious sacrifice. At times it comes to be the merit-making activity par excellence, as it offers a seemingly quantifiable and tangible practice of beneficial karma. In their theoretical reflections on dāna Buddhists argue about such questions as to whether it is more meritorious to give to a needy recipient or esteemed one, whether any expectation of reciprocity is appropriate, what an ideal motivation for giving might be, what constitutes the best kind of gifts, and so on. Stories of givers are pervasive in Buddhist literatures and art and comprise another substantial source of ideas and models of dāna; in particular, jātaka stories of the Bodhisattva’s previous lives, when he fulfilled his “perfection” of dāna, provide often extraordinary ideals of generosity. Since the saṅgha and other Buddhist institutions depend upon financial support from pious (and often wealthy) donors and kings, the moral value of generosity is reinforced by economic considerations. Work on social and economic history, making use of a broad range of archaeological and inscriptional evidence, has shed light on the economic implications of dāna ideology. Finally, because the gift has long been a central category in anthropology, gift-giving relations have captured the interest of anthropologists doing work in Buddhist cultures as a lens to trace variously the social hierarchies and inequities involved in unilateral giving, the tensions and circulations in the reciprocal gift, the complexities of charity and philanthropy, and the intersections of piety and wealth.

General Overviews

Few monographs focus solely on dāna, despite its importance in all forms of Buddhism. Ohnuma 2005 gives a smart and concise overview of the topic and its problematics in relation to other theoretical reflection on the gift. Findly 2003 is a systematic exploration of what the early Pali sources say about dāna while attentive to the sociological dimensions of gift-giving practices and ideologies. Heim 2004 discusses Pali reflections on dāna in relation to other medieval South Asian reflection on this topic. Dāna has not been treated thematically by scholars of East Asian Buddhism to the same degree as in South Asian scholarship. Although not a monograph aiming to be comprehensive, Adamek 2005 can serve as something of an overview to dāna in medieval Chinese Buddhism because of the variety of sources the author considers and her sophisticated engagement with theoretical work on the gift.

  • Adamek, Wendy. “The Impossibility of the Given: Representations of Merit and Emptiness in Medieval Chinese Buddhism.” History of Religions 45.2 (2005): 135–180.

    DOI: 10.1086/502698

    Treats the complexities of dāna as a merit-making practice in medieval Chinese Buddhism based on inscriptions, Mahayana texts such as Huiyuan’s Dasheng yi zhang, and Dunhuang paintings; the author engages with theorists of cultural practice (Bourdieu), economic history (Gernet 1995 [cited under East Asia]), postmodernism (Derrida), and classic Mahayana doctrines of emptiness.

  • Findly, Ellison Banks. Dāna: Giving and Getting in Pali Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003.

    This is the most exhaustive investigation of the dynamics of dāna in early Pali Buddhism currently available. The author studies the social history and ideologies of the reciprocal relationship between the monastic and householder communities, based on Pali canonical as well as early Brahmanical sources.

  • Heim, Maria. Theories of the Gift in South Asia: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Reflections on Dāna. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    An exploration of dāna ideology in Theravada Buddhist texts alongside Dharmaśāstra and Jain ideologies of gift-giving, as part of broader Indic civilizational values and ideals. The book also brings medieval dāna theories into conversation with anthropologists and modern theoretical work on the gift.

  • Ohnuma, Reiko. “Gift.” In Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. Edited by Donald S. Lopez, 103–123. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    Brings Indian Buddhist thinking on various kinds of gifts in conversation with theoretical work and ethnographic research on reciprocated and unreciprocated gift relations.

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