Once, Sakra, the king of the devas, after futile efforts of getting the answers to some questions at a meeting of with other devas in Trayastrimsa heaven, brought them to meet the Buddha at Jetavana monastery to seek his opinion. The questions were –  Among tastes, which is the best?  Among gifts, which is the best?  Among delights, which is the best?  Why is eradication of craving said to be the most excellent? The Buddha replied that ‘the Dharma is the noblest of all gifts, the best of all tastes and the best of all delights. Eradication of craving leads to the attainment of Arhathood (self-liberation) and is, therefore, the greatest of all conquests.’ Thereupon, the Buddha uttered Dharmapada verse 354 – ‘The gift of the Dharma (truth) excels all gifts; the taste of the Dharma excels all tastes; delight in the Dharma excels all delights. The eradication of craving overcomes all ills (suffering).’
Next, Sakra requested that the devas be invited to take a share of the merits created whenever gifts of the Dharma are made – since giving it is so meritorious. Consenting, the Buddha asked the monastics to share the merits of all their good deeds with all beings, as a practice of generosity. In the perfection of generosity, there are two broad kinds of gifts we can give – the material and the immaterial. Material gifts include wealth (e.g. money for charity), energy and time for volunteer efforts in helping the needy. Immaterial gifts include fearlessness (e.g. comforting and advising the fearful or anxious) and the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings that lead in/directly to liberation). Of the three major gifts of wealth, fearlessness and the Dharma, the last is the most excellent because it is the most enduring, being able to last lifelong and from life to life, while having unsurpassable beneficial effects when given, received and practised well, culminating in Buddhahood.
The teaching that ‘the gift of the Dharma excels all gifts’ is itself a great gift of the Dharma from the Buddha himself, that reminds us to treasure the Dharma for its supreme worth. Incidentally, when contributing to the production of Dharma materials that also impart fearlessness, it is a 3-in-1 gift! All other gifts, worthy as are, are however susceptible to change and liable to expire – money gets spent; clothes get torn; shelter gets worn; food gets eaten… However, this does not mean they ought not be given to those in need, as the basic necessities of life are required before the Dharma can be learnt well for practice. Understanding this, the Buddha once requested food be given to a hungry man, who had rushed after a long day’s work to meet the Buddha. After waiting for him to be nourished sufficiently for learning the Dharma, he was able to listen intently and attained stream-entry (the first stage of enlightenment)!
[When] the wheel of the Dharma turns well,
the wheel of [supply of] food turns itself.
- Extended Buddhist Saying
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Once the Buddha was sitting in meditation in a dense forest near Uruvela when a band of villagers chanced upon him. The company was composed of thirty married couples, plus one well-to-do young bachelor. The night before, while the young man slept, his favored courtesan had found the money hidden beneath his bed and had made off with it.
When the theft was discovered, all his friends and neighbours had set off in pursuit, finally stumbling upon the Enlightened One deep in the jungle. After they had recounted their sad tale to the sage, the Buddha asked, “Instead of roaming around in this dangerous jungle seeking a woman and money, wouldn’t it be far better to seek your true self?” Buddha’s peaceful, shining countenance and simple allegorical insight made such an impact on the young householders that they forgot their chase and became his followers. The young bachelor later became a monk and a sage.
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