The Merits and Virtues of Alms Giving


Building temples

A friend asked, “What merit and virtue is there in building a temple? Has anything been written in the scriptures?”

According to tradition, in the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, an elder in Sravasti named Sudatta searched for a scenic spot to build a fine monastery for Buddha to better promote the Dharma. Sudatta received assistance from Prince Jeta, who donated a big piece of land, and together they built a monastery with a total of 1,200 rooms.

While they were measuring the plot, Sariputra smiled to them and said, “As I observe with my deva eye, when you are still doing the foundation measurements before even breaking soil, your future blessings have already been set. The merits and virtues of creating a Buddhist temple are truly great!”

According to Avadana Sutra, the stupa of Kassapa Buddha had been in disrepair for a long time when one day, an elder told everyone, “It is a rare opportunity to be living in the time of Buddha, and a rare opportunity too being born in a human body. Although we all possess a human body now, we may yet sink further, so we must not miss this great opportunity to repair the stupa.” Thus he led 93,000 people in mending the structure. Later, upon their deaths, they were all reborn in the heavens to enjoy the blessings. And when Sakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment, they were all born again in the kingdom of Magadha, where King Bimbisara was the elder who had led the repair work on the stupa and all the 93,000 people he had worked with became part the royal family. After hearing the Dharma, they all cultivated bodhicitta and attained their own enlightenment.

The Sutra of An Assortment of Parables says that once, a farmer in India built a small hut for a monk who had attained wisdom. He also removed the thorny undergrowth around it so the monk could sit and rest. When the farmer died, he was reborn in trayastrimsa as a reward for building a dwelling for the monk. There he lived in a gorgeous palace which was 2,000 kilometres around. After his rebirth, he flew back to the sky above the hut and scattered flowers all over it. With deep gratitude he said, “I built a mere cabin for the monk, and had the blessings of being reborn in the devas. I am now spreading flowers in adoration!”

And according to Samyuktaratnapitaka Sutra, another elderly person in Sravasti paid for the construction of a Buddhist temple, and upon his death was reborn in the devas. His wife, who missed him dearly, often went to the Buddhist temple he had built to do cleaning work. One day, he appeared in the sky saying to her, “I am your husband. Because of the virtue of building the temple, I was reborn in the devas. If you continue to clean the temple while keeping a vow to be reborn in the devas, I shall meet you there in future.” When the woman died, she was born into trayastrimsa. And when Sakyamuni Buddha preached the Dharma there, she and her husband became his converts. Buddha personally taught them the Dharma and the couple soon attained the wisdom of Srotapanna.

A life-long philanthropist

In China, Fan Zhongyan (989-1052) was a loyal minister for the Song dynasty and a talented writer. His “Notes on Yueyang Tower” fully expresses his ambition and loyalty to the people. Its famous quote “Be the first to worry but the last to rejoice”, praised by Confucian scholars, has become a lofty goal for righteous men throughout the centuries. In old age, Fan Zhongyan donated his own residence to be converted into Tianping Temple, for the promotion of Buddhism. Many of his descendants were prosperous and some became accomplished ministers.

As a lay Buddhist, Fan Zhongyan devoted the whole of his life to charity. The most admirable thing about him is his selflessness. Qian Gongfu, one of his contemporaries (1021-1072), had this to say,

“The philanthropy of His Reverence, Mr Fan, started before he became known, but for a time he was not influential enough. Once he became Commander-in-chief in the western expedition and began to participate in state affairs, he had the resources to complete his charitable work on ‘social farming’ as a relief for the poor (see Note 1). The revered Mr Fan was a high-ranking official with a good income, but he was always frugal to himself. By the time he died, he had spent all his money helping the poor, and could not afford his own burial. (His government colleagues raised funds for his funeral.)”

Fan Zhongyan’s loyalty to the people and compassion for all fellow beings, a fine Confucian model, embody Buddha’s compassion.

The Lamp Light Buddha

In Sakyamuni Buddha’s time, a poor orphaned girl by the name of Nanda also lived in the city of Sravasti. All her life she had a wish to afford an oil lamp for Buddha. An oil lamp was an ordinary offering, but it was a luxury for a poor girl like Nanda who had to beg for food.

One day, Nanda was given an old piece of clothing. She sold it for a penny, and with the penny bought a small oil lamp. Nanda was excited because she finally got what she had wished for, an oil lamp to offer to Buddha! That evening, she came to the front of Buddha and respectfully bowed to his feet praying, “May the light of this lamp illuminate my ignorant heart, enable me to gain wisdom and eliminate all my evil karma. Merciful Buddha, please accept my humble offering.”

At the time, many people in Sravasti made offerings to Buddha with oil lamps, praying for fortune, good prospects and longevity. Thus, many lamps, big and small, shone in front of Buddha, and the bright light was non-stop. The tiny oil lamp offered by Nanda was in the middle of a sea of lights. It was truly insignificant like a drop in the ocean.

At dawn the next day, Maudgalyayana on his patrol found that after a night’s burning, light from many of the lamps offered by aristocrats was becoming dim and weak. But strangely, the tiny lamp offered by Nanda was shining brightly and radiantly. Surprised, The Great One asked Buddha, “Lord, there is this little lamp among the lamps. I don’t know why, but it shines!”

Buddha replied, “You don’t know it, Maudgalyayana. Even if you do try to put it out using your hand, by blowing with your mouth, with a strong wind or pouring a sea of water over it, you will not extinguish it.”

“But, Lord, this is just an ordinary oil lamp. There is nothing special!”

To this Buddha said, “The reason why this lamp shines strong and won’t be extinguished is because its owner has made a vow for bodhicitta with utmost sincerity. While she was making the vow, her heart was calm and pure, with a thorough, three-wheel emptiness (see Note 2). Her sincerity and true mind have combined to produce an incomparable power, so it shines brightly!”

Just then, Nanda came to worship Buddha, who reached out gently to caress the crown of her head and gave a prophecy, “Good woman, in the future asamkhyeya kalpas, you are to become a Buddha whose name will be Lamp Light. You will offer salvation to millions of sentient beings. Their number will be immeasurable and your grace will be boundless.” As a result, Nanda joined Buddha’s sangha as a nun, and soon attained arhatship.



Note 1:  Fan Zhongyan invented the so-called “social farming” by purchasing land to grow crops, the proceeds of which went to clothing and feeding the poor. This poverty relief scheme later became popular in China.

Note 2:  A three-wheel emptiness in making an offering means emptiness on the part of the offeror, the receiver and the object being offered.  Emptiness on the part of the offeror means that the person making an offering is aware of the emptiness of the self and is not wishing for rewards. Emptiness on the part of the receiver means that since the offeror is bound by emptiness, the person receiving an offering is likewise bound by it. Emptiness on the part of what is being offered means that it is as well, like both offeror and receiver, bound by emptiness lest it became an object of avarice. The word “wheel” is used here to convey the power of an emptiness that bulldozes all klesa avarana, i.e., the obscuration of conflicting emotions and desires.


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