A Zen Approach To Deciding Whether To Give To Beggars (Or Anything Else)featured

In my role as a senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um Zen tradition, I sometimes get asked to respond to student questions that come in through the Internet (you can find our “ask a question” feature here). This is a modernization of a long tradition of students corresponding with teachers that goes back thousands of years.

In this case, a Zen student had travelled to India and had become overwhelmed when he gave to beggars there. At first he wanted to help, then he got angry and stopped giving, then he felt confused. On the one hand, he had an intention to help in the world. On the other, he wondered if he was incentivizing begging. He wanted to know what to do.

In my reply, I did not want to give him “advice,” but instead to offer an approach to decision making that does not depend on the concepts and stories we tell ourselves but that instead arises from our True Self. The approach involves trusting our intuition and then adjusting our actions over and over as we get new information…


Dear Friend,

How are you? By way of introduction, my name is Colin Beavan and I am a Senior Dharma Teacher in the Kwan Um School. Questions that come in through the Internet get forwarded to different teachers to answer and yours got forwarded to me.

You said that you are traveling in India and have encountered a lot of beggars. Your first reaction was to give them money but then you heard that some of them are professional beggars and even teach their children to go on in their footsteps.

You had some unpleasant experiences, stopped giving money, and even feel angry with them. On the other hand, you feel that your vow to help all beings is getting destroyed. You wonder what should you do?

This is a question that is best answered for yourself. But I will offer some observations.

You say originally your impulse was to give, but then you made in your mind a story of “professional beggar” and other ideas that confused you. You stopped giving and in stopping giving you feel your vow to help is being broken.

My advice to you is to put your stories down. In our school, we call this returning to “don’t know mind.” You can even put down your stories about helping or not helping. Then, when someone asks you to help them, cut through the stories and just allow an answer arise from the wise, “not knowing” part of yourself.

Then, take the arising action. Once you take the action, again, cutting through your stories, let your eyes, nose, tongue, ears, body and mind tell you the results of your action. Do you feel you were true to your vow or is there something you should do differently next time?

(Stopping giving money so far seems to be out of line with your vow, according to what you have said. Is there another action or an adapted action you could take?)

Then, next time, try that. And ask yourself the questions again. But always keep a “How may I help?” question in your consciousness. By taking this Bodhidharma “fall down seven times get up eight” you will soon learn how to respond to beggars and maybe can even help them.

(This, by the way, can be an approach to making many decisions: Put down your stories, let action arise from your not knowing mind, pay attention as the situation unfolds, let a new action arise from your not knowing mind in response to the now-changed circumstances and repeat and repeat.)

In the Tao Te Ching it says, “What is a good person but a bad person’s teacher? What is bad person but a good person’s student?”

Don’t make good and bad people. Be a teacher when it is your turn. Be a student when it is your turn. Follow your vow intelligently.

And always stay curious about what it is that is following that vow. What am I? Don’t know. I hope you really let yourself don’t know, find your True Nature (which was never lost), and continue to help all beings.

I hope this has helped.

Best wishes,


Join the Good Life Conversation