This post is going to be especially heavy on massive blocks of quotes. Sorry – I’m mostly using this blog to organize notes. Though this touches on charity in the East generally, it focuses on Buddhism. And while Hinduism and Buddhism both have extensive ‘charity’ extended towards holy men and the monastic community, that is not my interest here, and instead am more interested in charity towards the poor, sick, orphaned, etc. However, it seems that in the East there was never such a focus on the lowliest of the low as in Christianity – and often exhortations towards good works involve such public-minded things as road building, bridge building, as well as helping the poor. So I will often consider them together.
From Buddhist commons and the question of a third sector in Asia:
“One of the most fascinating aspects of Buddhist charitable practice (in comparison with Judeo-Christian charity) is the ethically subordinate position which alms and acts of charity to the poor and needy assume relative to donations to the sangha. In the Buddhist heirarchy of giving, gifts to the sangha clearly bring the greatest merit: supporting a monk or building a pagoda, for example. To donate to a poverty-stricken widow or to build a school is meritorious, of course, but inferior (or less meritorious) dana. Although there may be other variations between Burmese and Japanese Buddhism, this priority order applies in the case of Japanese Buddhism also.”
Though this post is more specifically about Buddhist charity, than comparing it with Christian charity, I thought I would start off in this way. And it seems likely to me that a large part of the reason for this difference is in the nature of what is holy. People, clearly, want to give to holy people. In India the generosity to holy men is similar to that of the generosity of Buddhist laymen to the monastics. The point is it is very clear to them who is holy and who is not. And you are benefited by gaining a share in holiness. But Jesus, when he said that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” made the poor like himself, or the church, in holiness.
From Theories of the gift in South Asia: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Reflections on Dana:
What about the poor? It is crucial to note that a clear distinction is drawn between the religious dependant and the ordinary poor person, with the latter not typically regarded as the worthiest recipient. The emphasis on giving to the worthy encourages a keen eye for the moral qualities of the recipient. Charitable gifts made out of altruism and pity rather than esteem are generally not regarded as meritorious as giving to the religious, though they are not prohibited.
Nevertheless, and despite the quotes above, Mahayana seems to have in a way made a similar step to Christianity, which is perhaps why there is more indication of organized charity in connection to Mahayana Buddhism than with Therevadan Buddhism, or Hinduism, or etc. That step being the breaking down of barriers between monastics and laymen, and the focus on the salvation of all rather than salvation of oneself, and the identity of all beings.
I’ve found no evidence of charity pre-existing Buddhism in India. No doubt there was charity of the universal kind, but the lack of evidence is hardly surprising, as ancient Greece, Rome, China (before Buddhism), similarly lack any real traditions of charity (in the sense I’m interested in, mentioned before), though of course philanthropy did exist, as would have many individual acts of charity (I will discuss Middle Eastern and Greco-Roman charity/philanthropy in another post).
‘Field of Merit’ is an important concept in Mahayana charity, and is to be understood as the benefit that a Bodhisattva brings to those around them, like useful field yields crops. This concept exists in pre-Mahayana texts:
“…the concept of the field of merit appears in pre-Mahayanist texts of the third to second centuries B.C. The Mahsaghika Laws (Mohesengzhilu) explain that those who dig wells at the side of roads, plant trees and give away their fruits, as well as those who build bridges and provide shade for travelers will earn enough merit to be reborn as a heavenly being (tennin). Also, when Mahayana Buddhism became popular in China and Japan, field of merit became an ideal of the bodhisattva.”
– From: Buddhist Hagiography in Early Japan: Images of Compassion in the Gyoki Tradition
Ashoka (3rd century BC), of the Mauryan dynasty, has often been credited with setting up hospitals and dispensaries, but this is likely misleading.
During the period of Buddhism’s strength in India, and it’s early growth we get some glimpses of charitable works, and a concern with medicine.
Leprosy and the Buddhist Tradition:
“Indeed, monastics were required to study medicine (intended for self-help and care of fellow monastics), medicine being one of the ‘five sciences,’ including also language, arts and mathematics, logic, and Buddhist philosophy. Not surprisingly, monks and nuns gained popularity among the laity for their medical knowledge… as Buddhism spread from India throughout Southeast Asia, Buddhist abbots encouraged their disciples to study medicine as an excellent conversion tool; Buddhist temples established early ÒhospitalsÓ and related charitable institutions for monastics and also for laypeople.”
“In the Indian Buddhist canon, there are many accounts of Buddhist monks and nuns who worked among lepers, attending to their physical illness as well as preaching to them the Dharma. These hagiographic accounts detail how the monastics cared for and encouraged the leprosy patients, changing their bandages, draining their sores, feeding and bathing them.”
Tibetan Buddhist medicine and psychiatry: the diamond healing:
A number of Western scholars have noted the positive influence of Buddhism on Ayurveda, and, in fact, the high period or golden age of Ayurveda corresponds with the period of Buddhism’s ephemeral glory in India (from approximately the middle of the fourth century B.C. to the middle of the eighth century A.D.), also the period when India’s and Buddhism’s influence spread abroad.
From A short history of medical ethics:
“The rigorious laws of ritual purity, however, made it difficult for [Hindu] physicians to demonstrate universal concern. As one author remarks after praising the spirituality and high moral standards of Hindu life, ‘Doubtless, Hinduism lacks something of that spirit of charity which abounds in Buddhism… In his concern for purity, the Hindu tends rather to keep aloof than to give himself…
Buddhist medicine presents a striking contrast to the caste discrimination of Hindu medicine…
Medicine was part of Buddhist life from its earliest days. Although all life is suffering, compassion for the sufferer is Buddhism’s highest virtue… This teaching, which encouraged a life of compassionate benevolence toward others rather than a hermetic removal from society, counted care for the sick as a prime value. It is told that Gautama once encountered a dying monk who had been ignored by his brethren, who were intent on their own salvation. The Buddha himself nursed the sick monk and admonished them, ‘You, O monks, have neither a mother nor a father who could nurse you. If, O monks, you do not nurse one another, who will nurse you? Whoever, O monks, would nurse me, he should nurse the sick.’8 The same scripture describes the duties of those who care for the sick, instructing them to assuage their brother’s pain by attendance, motivated by kindly thoughts rather than greed, willingness to undertake even disgusting tasks, recitation of prayers, and cheering the sick one in his final hours. In accord with this teaching, the monastic community established a regimen for the care of sick monks and welcomed all in need of medical aid.
Interestingly that quote from the Buddha, though very similar to that of Jesus, is referring the the monastic community, as opposed to Jesus’ ‘the least of these’ – see discussion on this difference above.
There is further evidence of charity in India during the flourishing of Buddhism, though no doubt it is not exclusive to Buddhism:
An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics:
“One text says that, when people once realized the karmic fruitfulness of even a small gift, giving became widespread to ‘renunciant and brahmin, to tramp, wayfarer and destitute; they provided drinking water in their courtyards, they placed seats in their gateways’ (Vv. 1). Public works, such as the sinking of wells and the planting of medicinal plants, are also encouraged in Buddhist texts (S. 1.33), with the Chinese monk Puan Yinsu (1115-69) affirming that ‘building bridges is a Buddha act that brings peace to men and causes heaven to rejoice’ (Faure, 1991: 128). Tales of great givers of the Buddha’s day, such as Anathapindika, ÔFeeder of the Poor’, or the lady Visakha, are also popular. The Mahayana Upasaka-sõa Sutra, which has been and remains very influential on Chinese lay Buddhism (Chappell, 1995: 2), says that a lay disciple should always stop to look after a sick stranger on the road and find a place for him to stay (Uss. 83). As part of the virtue of dana, lay Bodhisattvas should engage in such social welfare activities as:
‘learning medicine, building hospitals, road repair, building guest houses, digging wells,planting fruit trees, building bridges, maintaining canals, protecting animals, massaging tired travellers, making shade with umbrellas, providing people with ear picks, consoling the grieving, etc. (Chappell, 1995:8)'”
Hospitals in Ancient India:
“Fa-hien (CE 405-411), a Chinese traveller who visited India during the times of Candragupta, provides us details about the charitable dispensaries in Pataliputra. According to Fa-hien the nobles and householders of this country founded hospitals within the city to which the desititute of all countries, the poor, the crippled and the diseased may come. Here, these people were treated freely and provided with every kind of help. After inspecting their diseases the physicians treated them with all their efforts and when cured, they depart at their convenience.
Hiuen Tsang (CE 629-645), another Chinese traveller contemporary to the emperor Harsha, also provides a description about the hospitals of that time. According to him in all the highways of the towns and the villages throughout India there were ‘hospices’ (punya-salas). These hospices were provided with food and drink as well as physicians with medicines that provide medical facilities to the travellers and poor people. These institutions that helped the poor and the needy people were also known by several other names such as punyasthanas, punasalas, dharmasalas, viharas and maths. These were the Indian counterparts of the western almshouses, monasteries and infirmaries of those times.
There are some epigraphical records that show the existence of dispensaries in the Deccan during the Pallava period between CE 574 and 879. Epigraphical records of the Chola period tell us about the allowances given to the physicians, village dispensaries as well as town hospitals… There were a large number of dispensaries in the village, most of which were maintained by a local physician of hereditary nature….”
Charity in Theravadan Buddhism
As far as I can tell, charity in Theravada (Hinayana) seems to be more like forms of Hindu charity, in that the merit gained is relative to the holiness of the recipient, so that people are ready to, and do, give much to holy men, the samgha, etc, but little to poverty, or as a side-thought. I’ve also read that the Hinayana precepts explicitly proscribe carrying medicine for anything but personal use.
But of course it was present to some degree, as we see in Sri Lanka:
From “Theravāda Buddhism and the British encounter: religious, missionary and colonial experience in nineteenth-century Sri Lanka” we get the view of an early 19th century European in Sri Lanka:
“Buddhism corrects ‘the inveterate prejudices of caste; and has even produced institutions of benevolence and mercy in different parts of the island’ (Harvard 1823:lxi).”
and from “An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics”:
In Sri Lanka, people also look back to medieval kings as presiding over a period of agricultural abundance based on extensive irrigation works, religious flourishing and charity. In the Culavamsa chronicle of Sri Lanka… it is said of King Upatissa I that ‘For cripples, women in travail, for the blind and sick he erected great nursing shelters and alms-halls’. Of King Mahinda II, it is said: ‘The poor who were ashamed to beg he supported in secret, and there were none on the Island who were not supported by him according to their deserts’ . Mahinda IV is said to have built an alms hall …and gave to beggars alms and couches. In all the hospitals he distributed medicine and beds, and he had food given regularly to criminals in prison. To apes, the wild boar, the gazelles and to dogs he, a fount of pity, had rice and cakes distributed as much as they would. In the four viharas [monasteries] the king had raw rice laid down in heaps with the injunction that the poor should take of it as much as they wanted.
As well, it’s monastaries have often served as orphanages, and refuges:
“Even today in Southeast Asia, many monasteries serve as free accommodations, retirement homes and homes for the homeless or chronically ill. Poor families frequently use it as a hostel. The monasteries frequently serve as the village library and news and information center and the surplus money is used to make schools.” (source)
“The Pilgrimage of Buddhism and a Buddhist Pilgrimage”:
“… Buddhist monasteries are the orphan asylums of the land; in all Buddhist countries the care of orphans seems to have been, since earliest times, one of the chief forms of Buddhist activity. Many of the novitiates, naturally, are drawn from the orphan boys who have been brought up in the monastery.”
What about the orphan girls? I’m not familiar with many Buddhist nunneries in the history of the Theravadan world.
Moving into Mahayana lands, we find the place with the most well documented history of Buddhist charity: China. Japan has a spottier record, and Tibet even more so.
Again on Mahayana “Buddhist Hagiography in Early Japan: Images of Compassion in the Gyoki Tradition”:
“…when Mahayana Buddhism became popular in China and Japan, field of merit became an ideal of the bodhisattva…Although the earliest sutras viewed a holy person as a field of merit, Mahayana texts seemed to have perceived charitable activities to be the most basic kind of field of merit. The Sutra on the Fields of Merit (Shudefutian jing) specifically lists seven kinds of fields-of-merit activities in which faithful believers should participate. They include (1) erecting pagodas, cloisters, and chapels; (2) constructing gardens and ponds and planting trees; (3) providing medicine for the sick; (4) building boats nd helping the masses to cross to the shore of enlightenment; (5) constructing bridges for the old and weak; (6) widening the roads and digging wells for thirsty travelers; and (7) building latrines and getting rid of the stench. Other sutras, such as the Brahma-net Sutra (Fanwang jing), list eight fields of merit, but most overlap with the Sutra on the Fields of Merit… The Mahayana bodhisattva ethic taught that performing various austerities for the salvation of the self was necessary, but leading other sentient beings to salvation was even more important.”
Charity in Tibet
There seems to be little written on charity in Tibet, whether it existed or not, so I’ll just give you this interesting passage from “An Account of Tibet: The Travels of Ippolito Desideri of Pistoia, S.J., 1712-1727” – written by a Capuchin monk on a mission to convert Tibetans in the 18th century:
“Besides being fond of work the Thibettans are by nature kindly, virtuous and devout. This is demonstrated in various ways.To begin with they are not only well grounded in their belief; but they speak about it often. with great affection and conscientiousness. Secondly, they have the greatest esteem , veneration and respect for their Lamas and monks; would to God that the Christian Catholics showed one hundredth part of such sentiments to the Prelates, Ecclesiastics and Religious of our holy Catholic Church! Thirdly they are most diligent in learning long prayers by heart, and never neglect to pray in the morning when they rise, or at night when they go to bed. Fourthly they are much given to reading and listening to religious and moral books. Fifthly they are most attentive… [in] making pilgrimages to holy places, and are most respectful and devout in their behaviour when they visit the temples. Sixthly they often tell their beads, even when engaged in business, or out walking, or on journeys. Seventhly and finally (not to be prolix) they show it in the liberal alms they give to the monks, the poor, and even to animals in the street if they think they are starving and in the care they take to bestow the first handful of their harvests on the poor, or to make offerings to their idols ere they eat or drink themselves.”
Charity in China
I can find no evidence of charity previous to the arrival of Buddhism in China, but it arrives in a big way at that point. I suspect due to a combination of Buddhist compassion and the general syncretism with the more pragmatic Chinese way of thinking.
“An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics”:
“In China, monks have followed both the full monastic precepts and a supplementary ‘Mahayana’ code consisting of the ‘three pure precepts’… and a set of Bodhisattva-precepts outlined in the Brahmajala Sutra… These consist of the ‘ten great precepts’… and forty-eight minor ones, which positively require such things as vegetarianism, preaching, caring for the sick and exhorting others to give up immoral behaviour.”
The height of Buddhist charity came during the Tang dynasty, which, not surprisingly, was also period in which Buddhism was at its most popular and wealthy. As we read in Critical moments in religious history:
“The financial power of Buddhist monasteries and temples, many of them tax-exempt, came largely from imperial and official grants of land and money. This wealth, amplified by land rental, moneylending, and slaveholding, made possible a wide range of social services. Throughout China, Buddhist monks established schools, hospitals and orphanages; they lectured in local communities, sponsored feasts, and observed a number of public festivals. The almost universal acceptance of Buddhism in China by the sixth century CE was assuredly a function not only of its successful adaptation to the Chinese cultural environment, but also its valuable social role.”
But even before that, charity was widespread: “…their are many examples [before the end of the sixth century] of charitable monks who cared for the sick or distributed help to the victims of famines. And the institutions of the samgha households, at the end of the fifth century, served in principle a charitable purpose.” (Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History)
Lepers were ministered to – From Leprosy and the Buddhist Tradition):
“In medieval China (5th to 9th Centuries AD) the official dynastic histories which date from these periods describe how Buddhist monastics cared for lepers, such as visiting pre-existing leper communities (in the countryside, or mountain areas, for instance) or within cities (in a special district of Nanjing, for example) and preaching the Dharma, giving emotional support, washing their clothing, even suck the pus clean from the lepers’ lesions (the last to show the depth of their compassionate commitment to healing the lepers). Some Buddhist temples maintained sanctuaries for leper patients, with separate dormitories for male and female patients: some were physically cured and some not.
The Abbot Dao-chi in seventh-century China opened his temple to many lepers. He lived and ate with them, dressed their sores and helped bathe them. Some of his disciples tried to avoid all contact with the lepers and wondered why the Abbot did not fear becoming infected himself? The Abbot explained, ‘What we call clean or dirty is the result of our discriminating mind. If we do not have any dislikes in our minds, how can aversions arise? When our mind is pure, everything and everywhere is pure. If a monk like myself cannot even let go of this bit of delusion and let compassion arise in its place, I should be ashamed of myself for not living in accordance with the Dharma.'”
From Chinese Buddhist and Christian Charities: A Comparative History:
“In medieval times, Buddhists in China and Christians in Europe observed an almost identical set of ‘coporal works of mercy’: feeding, clothing, hospitality, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, and burying the dead…
Although as early as the Western Chin a sutra had listed the dispensing of medicine as the third of seven merit fields the sangha should cultivate (Michibara 1957, 384), it is the Brahma Net Sutra that make ‘tending to the sick’ the first of eight merit fields (Michibara 1957, 385). This work appeared in the South around 500 C.E., when the Asoka Sutra, noting how Asoka had built the first hospitals, was also catching the eyes of kings. This coincidence of several inspirations could explain the appearance of hospitals in the South at the time…
To summarize Buddhist charity in the Tang – An Introduction to Buddhism: teachings, history, and practices:
“…in T’ang China (618-907), where Buddhist monasteries, and lay religious societies set up by monks, ran hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages, homes for the elderly and rest-houses for pilgrims; they fed beggars, did famine relief work, built roads and bridges roads and bridges and sank wells. In the lands of Southern Buddhism, charitable works other than running orphanages have usually been left in the hands of wealthy laymen or rulers.” Monasteries have, however, informally carried out a number of welfare roles.”
From Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History:
“In the twenty-second year of the K’ai-yuan period, Emperor Hsuan-tsung forbade begging within the walls of the capital and created hospitals where the beggers were to be fed. The commentary of Hu San-hsing adds that “the establishment at that time of Hospitals within the monasteries where the sick were supported thanks to the ‘field of compassion’ is of Buddhist origin…”
In any case, the situation changed after the major 845 AD persecution of Buddhism, the state closing down large numbers of monasteries and nunneries, sending back hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns back into lay life, and taking over operation of charities. The state run charities lasted into the Sung dynasty. Buddhism remained from that time on largely disdained by the Confucian elite. From “Chinese Buddhist and Christian Charities: A Comparative History”:
“Without necessarily intending it, the state charities competed with and undercut the Buddhist charities. The state also went after temple land. Aligned with the state was the rising gentry class, which was supporting a Confucian revival that campaigned against this ‘barbaric’ faith. In the end, the sangha lost out to the sate, on the one hand, and suffered a loss of patronage by the propertied class, on the other.
On paper, the state-run system of welfare under the Sung was impressive… It offered various types of relief from natural disasters and provided, during normal times, winter relief, free wet-nurses, free schools, and free burials, funded with rents collected from state land or granaries. Of hospital wards under the care of state doctors, there were two in the capital; then, during a severe winter, the number grew to four. Such services were provided nationwide, although the focus was on cities more than on the villages. They were run out of the central and the provincial offices, with state funding as well as private donations from the officials… A dichotomy between public and private charity would not have occured to anyone at the time. Such a thought would have damaged the substantial unity of charity that characterized the Sung efforrts. The dichotomy came later.
The name ‘field of compassion’ had also been changed to ‘field of merit’ – possibly as early as 845 under the Tang. This new, generic name diluted the meaning and the design of the original. The name underwent further sinicization when the wards housing the sick were called ‘wards to comfort and to aid,’ while those housing the singled and widowed were called ‘wards to house and to feed’. They could well be Confucian or Taoist wards; the uniquely Buddhist stamp was gone.
Orphans were provided with wet nurses and youngsters maids, and those under seven could draw half the adult stipend. Private philanthropy under the Ming several centuries later extended that generosity further.
From From Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasions: 1250 – 1275, some interesting secular examples of governmental and individual beneficence during the last days of the Southern Sung dynasty, one noted in fact by Marco Polo:
The frequency of such crises made it necessary to take precautionary measures. The court and the prefecture decided to make distributions of rice and cash at times when there was heavy snow or extreme cold, or following upon big fires, summer floods and autumn droughts. Thus, after the excessive rains in the Hangchow region in 1223, there was a famine in the town in the 3rd moon of the following year (about April), and the government had to distribute aid.
The great official ceremonies and the great annual festivals were also made the occasion for distributions to the poor: ‘At times when prayers for fine weather or for rain are offered by the Emperor and his ministers, when snow falls or when there are lucky omens, on the occasion of the birth of a prince or on the Emperor’s birthday, when there is an eclipse of the sun, or excessive rains, or intense cold, when the townspeople are in want or when the grand rites of the Sacred Palace are celebrated or ceremonies of congratulations offered to the Emperor are performed – at all these times , an imperial notice is published announcing the gift of 200,000 strings in paper money for the army and the same for the common people.’
Those in want could also look to private charity. To enhance their prestige, officials on being newly appointed or promoted would distribute cash to the poor. And we have seen how the rich shipowners who lived on Phoenix Hill in the south side of the town devoted a part of their immense fortunes to works of charity. But that was not all. Buddhism had, from the fifth century, introduced and developed in China various charitable institutions (hospitals, alms-houses, dispensaries, centres for the distribution of aid to the poor) which were supported by the income derived from the land with which they had been endowed. Following upon the widespread confiscation of property belonging to Buddhist communities in 845, the alms-houses and hospitals had been taken over by the public authorities. On moving to Hangchow, the court had established there a big dispensary which distributed drugs through seventy branch dispensaries scattered all about the urban area, and we have seen how the medicaments, which were supposed to be sold at a third of their price to the people of the town, were actually misappropriated by the employees and officials serving in these dispensaries. But other charitable institutions were run with greater honesty: hospitals for the aged and the penniless, orphanages for foundlings, free funerals and public cemetaries for the poor, homes for the infirm. This last institution still existed at the beginning of the Mongol invasion, if Marco Polo is to be believed: ‘… if in the daytime’, he says ‘they find any poor cripple unable to work for his livelihood, they take him to one of the hospitals, of which there are many, founded by the ancient kings, and endowed with great revenues. Or if he be capable of work they oblige him to take up some trade.’
The people in Hangchow who made the biggest fortunes, the merchants who had made money in the maritime and river trade, had a great propensity for works of charity. Charity for them was one way of making up for being excessively wealthy, a kind of tax paid to the gods. It is worth quoting what a contemporary tells us about this, if only because at the same time it reveals the extreme poverty of a large part of the population.
‘Among these people,’ he says, ‘there are some who like to acquire merit by being extremely charitable to the poor, the orphaned and the aged. Every time they see some unfortunate sitting sadly in front of his unsold merchandise, they take notice of him and give him a few coins. When a poor person dies and the family has nothing with which to pay the funeral expenses, they supply the coffin or contribute to the cost of cremation. When, after heavy falls of snow have blocked the streets, adults and children go about groaning, half naked, frozen and starving, these rich men go round from door to door to find out which families are worst off, take note of their distress, and, when night falls, push through the cracks in the doors some scrap gold or silver, or else cash coins or notes. So that when the people open their doors in the morning, they find these presents which seem to them to have dropped from heaven. Or again, our rich men may distribute quilts or clothing lined with floss silk. By all their acts of charity they gain the eternal gratitude of poor families.”
Buddhist charity in China eventually split up into various traditions. On the one hand, though Buddhism underwent a steady decline in prestige and wealth, it continued to be a charitable institution. But there was also the interesting development of secular, Confucian, charities. The previously mentioned imperial charity did not outlast the Sung, and in the Ming period, imperial neglect and a desire to make a name for themselves, drove the gentry to create the ‘benevolent society’ – which in some ways could be seen as a predecessor to the 19th century European ‘societies for the […]’. Again from Chinese Buddhist and Christian Charities: A Comparative History:
“In some remote sense, that stress on a general good or shan performed with other might be Buddhist. Buddhistm taught, ‘Do good, avoid evil,’ and, ‘Rejoice in the joy of another.’ But in the spirit of this new philanthropy, one should not even worry about which school – Confucian, Buddhist or Taoist – deserved the credit. That no longer mattered. What mattered was that all people do good – not the ‘where from’ but the ‘how.’ That is not unlike the Christian agape being now diffused into our general humanism…
The institution that emerged out of that sentiment was the t’ung-shan hui, associations to do good together, benevolence associations. Its hallmark was the shan-t’ang, the ubiquitous benevolence hall in any major city in China…
Fearing a popular rebellion of heterodox gropus, the Ch’ing ruler banned chieh-she activities in 1666. Fearing guilt by association, the early benevolence associations disappeared. Once the Sacred Edict of 1724 permitted and encouraged such types of charities, the associations reappeared, this time under the auspices of local officials and modeling their charities after the expressed concerns of the edict itself… Run cooperatively by the local elite, the notables, and the new mercantile rich, they organized poor reliefs, orphanages, and hospitals… In this second flowering, governors and local officials were always invited to give talks or to sit on board of directors…. Of the charities the societies hosted, the well-organized hospitals were the most impressive…
We ca see that both Buddhist and secular charity were co-existing and driven by different reasons as well. From Benevolent Societies: The Reshaping of Charity During the Late Ming and Early Ch’ing:
Both Ch’en and Lu Shih-i recognized that Buddhist charitable traditions were as alive as lineage organizations. In fact, benevolent societies and other secular organizations often used Buddhist temples as their base for charitable activities. Before its own hall was constructed in 1641, Ch’en’s benevolent society met in a temple and engaged monks to prepare tea for its meetings… And Lu Shih-i argued that grain should be stored in monasteries and monks should be employed to manage the granaries… Because Ch’en and Lu chose to sponsor secular activities rather than contribute to Buddhist charity, their benevolent societies must be understood as alternatives to available Buddhist institutions.
Ch’en explained his commitment to the alternative by distinguishing secular relief homes for the poor… from the Buddhist monasteries on several grounds. He argued that the relief homes took in only those who were verified to be genuinely needy, while the monasteries harbored vagrants who were unwilling to work, and that the relief homes gave out just enough aid to prevent the poor from dying, while the monasteries gave aid prodigally. In short, Ch’en concluded, the relief homes took in only the truly old and sick, while the monasteries failed to follow any procedures… Clearly, Buddhist facilities for the poor were available. But rather than improve upon or regulate them, Ch’en dismissed them as disreputable and chose to take over the responsibility for the poor.”
More on Buddhism as the root of Confucian charity, from Praying for power: Buddhism and the formation of gentry society in late-Ming:
“…historians have identified the movement to form lay assocations among the gentry as important to the development of Ming Buddhism. Indeed it was. Yet prior scholarship has tended to highlight the Buddhist undertaking of these associations at the expense of noting their social projects, with the result that other scholars who study the charitable activities of the late-Ming gentry have tended to overlook the religious origins of gentry charity…. Little or no recognition has gone to their derivation from lay Buddhist practices several decades before…. The cloak of Donglin self-righteousness that Confucians have thrown over late-Ming philanthropy has obscured the implicit intent of statecraft activists to create an alternative to the Buddhist charitable activities popular with the gentry. Although some activists were successful in organizing such Neo-Confucian groups, they appear to have been few, and were in any case much outnumbered by the Buddhist societies on which they were quietly modeled.”
Finally, even in the 19th century these charitable activities, though perhaps not as strong as had once been the case, were hardly non-existent. From The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China:
“Discouraging Western scholars from taking a good look at Chinese charitable traditions was the legacy of nineteenth-century Christian missionaries, who, though copiously documenting Chinese charity, marshaled their findings to spotlight deficiencies in Chinese practices, thereby to pave the way for their own, presumably worthier activies. When the direst famine of the Qing dynasty stuck North China from 1876 to 1879, Chinese at many levels of society valiantly sought to aid the starving. The emperor contributed funds; the governor of Shandong had grain imported for sale at reduced prices; local residents erected soup kitchens and orphanages; benevolent associations aided the needy and buried the dead; and gentry of other provinces, moved by the plight of victims in Shangdon, reached across administrative boundaries to help. Yet missionaries, who were then enjoying the strengths of a prosperous, progressive industrialized West, found fault in these efforts. The assistance from the imperial coffers was ‘a mere pittance,’ they claimed, observing that the careless distribution of grain had provoked food riots and invited false claims on resources.
Charity in Japan
Japan’s tradition of charity seems to be less somewhat less robust. The charitable history is patchy it seems, and when monks did, say, minister to lepers, it was rather against the tradition, which demaned priestly purity, at least for official priests. “Periodic revivals of enthusiasm for charity appear to have characterized Japanese Buddhism from the days of the Prince Shotoku until the Meiji Restoration…” (The Buddhist Charitable Commons in Japan and Asia).
Our record of charitable institutions in Japan is connected to the importation of Buddhism. from Children of the Japanese state: the changing role of child protection:
“Shotoku…is the man widely credited with bringing Buddhism to Japan, and Buddhism is seen to have been the driving force behind most of the early welfare activities in Japan, including the establishment of the first welfare activities in Japan, Shika-no-In, in the compound of Shitennoji Temple in Naniwa… [It] included four different types of welfare and medical institution, including a home (Hidenin) which catered to the poor and the needy. Most commentators describe Hidenin as the first precursor of today’s welfare institutions for both the elderly and the young… mainly children under 16 without fathers, and elderly people over 60 without children. This principle, it is said, became formalized in the Taiho Code of AD 702 (Japan’s first public assistance programme), which stressed that the welfare of the needy was first the responsibility of the immediate family, then of relatives, then of the community, and, only in the last resort, of the state.”
The bright period of Japanese period also seems to be the early part. From The nonprofit sector in Japan:
“By the eight century (Nara period), although Buddhism’s main goal was to promote a peaceful nation, Buddhist monks appeared who combined proselytizing with charity for the masses. Gyoki was the most representative of these monks. In addition to promoting such community-oriented services as building bridges and irrigation systems, he energetically led such relief and charitable works as building almshouses for starving or ill travelers. It seems that funds for the building of these almshouses and the provision of food supplies came from donations by the aristocracy. In addition to performing these public services, Gyoki was also said to have educated those who gathered around him.
As mentioned, there were monks who cared for lepers: “Japanese Buddhism is also filled with hagiographies of monks, such as Eizon 1201-1290, active in charitable works including concern with the welfare of lepers” (Leprosy and the Buddhist Tradition). However “Official monks were limited in their ability to work and save women and the sick (especially lepers)… because they were required to keep their distance from ritual impurities” (What is Kamakura New Buddhism? Official Monks and Reclusive Monks).
Children of the Japanese state: the changing role of child protection:
“During the late Kamakura and Muromachi periods, Japan split into a series of small, non-unified fiefdoms. The welfare of the needy was placed in the hands of local feudal lords, some of whom are recorded as having provided at least a minimal level of support to those most in need. In general, though, welfare activity in most commentaries is still associated during Japan’s Middle Ages with the actions of Buddhist priests such as Chogen (1128-1206), Eison (1201-90), and Ninsho (1217-1303), the last of whom is credited with the refounding of the Hidenin welfare facility for the poor and needy, including orphaned children…”
The Buddhist Charitable Commons in Japan and Asia:
“During the Tokugawa period… numerous urban relief organizations began to appear, including poor houses, charity hospitals and clinics. In fact, many Buddhist charitable efforts and activities actually slowed down during the Tokugawa regime, and at the Restoration those philanthropic organizations headed by Buddhist clergy were taken over by the imperial government together with the operation of all the Buddhist temples in Japan. After this move, Buddhist philanthropic zeal remained at low levesl until after the arrival of Christian missionaries with their orphanages and other charities. However health care for the poor continued to be one area in which local authorities were especially active. In 1870, the city of Nagoya established a charitable hospital and Fukui provided free medical care for the poor. In addition, many communites provided food and housing for the poor.”
On the lack of orphanages – Children of the Japanese state: the changing role of child protection:
“Some daimyo during the Tokugawa period attempted periodically to introduce legislation to try and control practices of child murder and abandoment in their domains, either by making them punishable, or by offering money to help parents bring up their children… Significantly, however, no welfare facilities specifically for the care and protection of children were built during this entire period… there was, as Collick (1988:205) puts it, a ‘long-standing conviction, based on traditional Confucian moral teachings, that the family and the local community were the proper organs for the relief of distress.”
And finally, “The work of Christian missionaries was drastically curtailed by the anti-Christian edicts of 1613…Nevertheless, they had in this time introduced the concept of Christian welfare work which they could refer back to when Japan was reopened to the outside world… Since that time, Christian groups have been one of the main providers of private personal social services until today, despite the fact that the actual number of Christians in Japan has never exceeded 1 percent of the total population.” (Children of the Japanese state: the changing role of child protection)
All those sources have much more detail if you’re interested.