Examining traditions of giving in Buddhism, Priyananda finds that charity begins in our heart and it is intrinsic to the path of freedom
It’s the end of a wet June evening and I’m at the end of my tether. I’m trudging the streets fundraising door-to-door for the Karuna Trust’s projects in India. This is the fourth night that I’ve had no results, and I keep thinking, ‘Why can’t the southern English just say “No, I’m not interested”, instead of going around the houses?!’. Almost before I can see the man standing in his newly papered hallway, I blurt out, ‘Have you had a chance to ... ?’ I don’t have a chance to finish. ‘Oh yes, we read it,’ he says. ‘We like what you’re doing. We’ll do a covenant. Come in’. Ten minutes later they’re back to putting the baby to bed and I’m out on the street once more and wondering about the magic of fundraising. Why do some people want to give to others who live thousands of miles distant, and at as great a cultural distance? And why is it that nearly all donors I sign up conclude by thanking me? Somehow I can’t get away from the truth that the giving has been two-way.
If I have any experience of the Buddhist perspective on giving it is the ‘door knocking feeling’ that many Karuna volunteers have come to appreciate. The experience tells me that giving and receiving are not fixed states. It is not simply that one person gives and the other receives. Buddhism teaches that we exist in a vast network of life, so we are continuously receiving the generosity of other people. This means we can choose to orient ourselves more and more towards others, developing loving-kindness for them and learning to give in all ways to all beings. This is the traditional view and the exhortation to practice. But there seems to be a discrepancy between the altruistic ideal and its expression through giving and volunteering. What is the tradition and why does this discrepancy exist?
The tradition of giving
When they begin to explore Buddhism, most people are struck by how ubiquitous is the practice of generosity. Activities in the Buddhist centre I am familiar with are funded mostly through dana (generosity) rather than from some wealthy central office, or through fees and tithes. Dana is a universal virtue, the typical example being that of the monastic community and its dependence on the lay community, reciprocated by the monks giving instruction and guidance.
Starting with the Buddha, the tradition has always emphasised that an open-handed and open-hearted orientation to life is essential if one is to make spiritual progress. It is no accident that dana is frequently given first in the systems of practice; it is emphasised by all schools, and precise instructions are given in how to become increasingly generous. The natural human tendency is to take, to draw to oneself, so we must reverse this deliberately. If we want to grow towards Enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism, we are instructed to enter into others’ lives sympathetically, to imaginatively identify with their pleasures and pains.
Giving by word and deed is a practical expression of this sympathy. Gifts are whatever is most needed by a particular person, and range from the simplest material things (food, clothing, shelter) to those that demand more of the donor, such as helpful communication, education, or even one’s life. Subtler and ultimately more valuable gifts include the gift of fearlessness, or of the Buddha’s teaching itself.
The tradition recognises that there is a range of motivations in our giving, from the transactional (when I get something in return) to the transcendent (when giving means overcoming selfishness). Each has validity but the mental and emotional state from which we act is of supreme importance. Buddhism prompts us to ask, ‘What is my motivation? What is the state of mind and heart that underlies my giving?’ We need to examine our motives and seek to purify them. In the final analysis we’re asked to give up attachment to everything, including attachment to our virtues, even to the idea that ‘I am a generous person’. In other words, it is not enough to give external things, material or immaterial. As the writer Walt Whitman put it:
‘Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity,
When I give I give myself.’
Through door-to-door fundraising I have experienced this practice of generosity for myself, in however limited a way. If I attempt to go beyond myself and develop the generous impulse in my own heart, this sparks the generosity of others. This experience is not the exclusive domain of Buddhists. To develop our generous impulses at deeper levels and in wider circles is to realise our humanity.
Examples of humanitarian giving abound in the history of the Buddhist community in Asia. Wherever Buddhism spread, the Sangha of monks, nuns and lay-people was responsible for the establishment of schools, hospitals and other institutions. Up until the modern era, Buddhism was a vigorous agent for social good in communities across Asia, and Buddhists today attempt to align themselves with the altruistic practice that vivified these cultures.
Unfortunately, despite the ideal, when we look at the activities of Buddhist communities in the world today, we’ll probably not be impressed by the scope of humanitarian activity, in comparison to that of the Christian churches, for example. Buddhists throughout the world are involved in their communities, and are active socially and politically; there are some remarkable examples of Buddhist social activism and humanitarian giving. The prevailing perception of Buddhism, however, is of a religion that encourages withdrawal from the world, that teaches that suffering (whether one’s own or others’) is to be transcended and not alleviated. And this perception often seems to be reflected in a lack of activity on the part of Buddhists worldwide to alleviate suffering. The Sangha , both monastic and the lay, in most Asian Buddhist societies is often mainly concerned with maintaining the status quo and this usually means the status unjust and unequal.
This discrepancy has both economic and social dimensions: most Asia Buddhist communities have been, until relatively recently, not only impoverished but also ineffectual in addressing the causes of poverty. One needs only to examine recent world history to see at least some of the reasons for this.
Buddhism in Asia in the past two centuries has been in decline, partly through internal ossification, partly through the attack of external forces the most powerful being Marxist totalitarianism and capitalism. In the past 50 years the portion of the human race influenced by Buddhism has shrunk dramatically. Where there were once flourishing societies based on Buddhist values, today we generally find communities either colluding with or in retreat from the forces that threaten those very values.
In its homelands, Buddhism is no longer the force for social cohesion and for humanitarian activity that once it was. As the western Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor puts it: ‘Neither Marco Polo nor the Jesuits in Japan [in the 16th century] would for a moment have perceived Buddhism as an ineffectual, otherworldly religion. But when Europeans came to “construct” Buddhism during the heyday of colonialism, it was no longer the force it had been. This was in part due to the isolationist and defensive policies adopted by many Asian countries in response to the military, technological and economic superiority of the West. These policies (which in most cases were strongly supported by Buddhist leaders) tended to make Buddhism conservative, introverted and increasingly powerless as a force for change.’
May all beings be happy and secure, may their hearts be wholesome! Whatever living beings there be; feeble or strong, stout or medium, short or tall, without exception; seen or unseen, those dwelling far or near, those who are born and those who are yet to be born, may all beings be happy! Let none deceive another, not despise any person whatsoever in any place. Let him not wish any harm on another out of anger or ill will. Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings.
From the Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata 1.8
A doctrinal misunderstanding often compromises humanitarian giving in Buddhist communities, and this is the most important cause of the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality of Buddhist altruistic activity. This is a view of the Buddhist teachings on karma and rebirth, which leads to the belief that all you are and everything that happensto you is a result of your actions, whether in this life or in previous ones. I was myself told by a Buddhist teacher that if a child is born in a war zone, that misfortune is its own fault. Actions in a previous life have borne fruit in the conditions of the child’s birth. Many Buddhists share this view, East and West; and it leads to an extreme form of fatalism.
There is an alternative Buddhist position, however, that is both more sophisticated and more compassionate: what I am and what happens to me in this life comes out of a complexity of cause-effect processes, from the simple physical or biological to the volitional and ethical. What I do, my willed actions and their result (known as karma and karma-vipaka), form only a part of this greater whole. So it may be that a particular event in my life is the result of karma, but not necessarily.
Whatever conditions we are born into we are still human, and subject to the opportunities and frailties of the human state. An important corollary follows from this: not only am I not fated to live out a particular destiny, but also it follows that I can alter my destiny. I can change and the conditions in my world can change.
Both the traditional Buddhists in Asia and the ‘new Buddhists’ in the West are beginning to find new and radical expressions of the altruistic dimension in their tradition. Taken collectively they amount to the beginnings of a renaissance: the peace activism of Thai Buddhists, the heroic work of Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers in Burma, the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, the movement of social uplift inaugurated in India by Dr Ambedkar, and the Dalai Lama’s stance on Tibet. To develop these new expressions, to make them more effective and to mobilise more resources and support from their own communities and from the wider non-Buddhist world Buddhists need honestly to examine their outlook and how it may be distorted by the fatalistic misunderstanding outlined. They also need to look increasingly to institutions outside the Buddhist community for examples of best practice, for funds, resources and organisational models. And there will need to be more pan-Buddhist cooperation, more linking up for humanitarian giving at national and international levels.
If living beings knew the fruit and final reward of generosity and the distribution of gifts, as I know them, then they would not eat their food without giving to others and sharing with others, even if it were their last morsel and mouthful. If they should meet a person who is worthy of receiving a gift, selfishness would not abide in their hearts.
The Karuna Trust
Since 1981 the Karuna Trust UK has funded projects run by members of a new and rapidly growing grouping of Buddhists in India, recently converted to Buddhism and drawn mostly from the Dalit community (once known as ‘untouchables’). Their conversion was inspired by the example of Dr BR Ambedkar, himself born into untouchability, who worked throughout his life for his people, becoming independent India’s first law minister and the architect of her constitution. At the end of his life he turned to Buddhism and encouraged his followers to do the same as a way to escape ‘the hell of caste’.
Despite the outlawing of untouchability and the increase in wealth in some sections of Indian society, the vast majority of Dalits, numbering over 150 million, still live below the poverty line. It is to these people that Karuna largely directs its care through its chief partner, the NGO Bahujan Hitay (which means ‘For the welfare of the many’). It was founded in Maharashtra but is now active in seven other Indian states. Although the staff of Bahujan Hitay are recruited from the new Buddhist community, its social activities reach out to all people afflicted by discrimination and poverty. The root causes of these ills are addressed mainly through educational and health projects.
Merit grows for one who gives; No enmity builds up for one restrained; One skilled abandons evil deeds; With greed, hate and delusion exhausted, One attains release, final Nirvana.