Bhikkhus, there are these five timely gifts. What five? (1) One gives a gift to a visitor. (2) One gives a gift to one setting out on a journey. (3) One gives a gift to a patient. (4) One gives a gift during a famine. (5) One first presents the newly harvested crops and fruits to the virtuous ones. These are the five timely gifts.”
At the proper time, those wise,
charitable, and generous folk
give a timely gift to the noble ones,
who are stable and upright;
given with a clear mind,
one’s offering is vast.
Those who rejoice in such deeds
or who provide [other] service
do not miss out on the offering;
they too partake of the merit.
Therefore, with a non-regressing mind,
one should give a gift where it yields great fruit.
Merits are the support of living beings
[when they arise] in the other world.
AN 5.36, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
If we’re looking for ways to be generous, a useful list is provided above. In some cultures, gifts are exchanged as a matter of form whenever visits happen, official or informal. If we are invited to someone’s place for dinner, we automatically ask, “what can I bring?”, and even if nothing is needed, some gift of food or drink or flowers is an important signal that we appreciate being invited.
Giving in times of famine can be thought of as giving to those who are suffering hunger, locally or far away.
Giving to the virtuous – what does that mean? In the time of the Buddha, it meant giving food, clothing, medicine or other necessities to a great teacher or an exemplar of admirable behavior. What does it mean to us today? Here we need to use our creativity. If you received a windfall, some unexpected gift of money or goods, what would you think of as possibilities for you to share it with? We might think of who is in need, but we could also reflect on who has helped us or someone we care about; who inspires us, to whom do we feel gratitude? Is there someone who has shared their time, wisdom or other resources in the past? Great satisfaction can be gained from giving to an individual or organisation we respect and admire.
“…given with a clear mind,
one’s offering is vast.”
This is an important point. If we give from worry or with resentment, the value of the gift is diminished. If we give with an open heart, with joy, the gift is boundless.