Buddhism acknowledges that we exist in a vast network of life, continuously the recipients of the generosity of others. Recognizing this fact, we can choose to orient ourselves progressively to others, developing loving-kindness towards them and learning to give in all ways to all beings. That 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?
When they begin to explore Buddhism, most people are struck by how ubiquitous the practice of generosity is. Activities in a Buddhist centre are funded mostly through dana (generosity) rather than from some wealthy central office, or through fees and tithes. Dana is a universal virtue, the strongest example being that of the monastic community and its dependence on the lay community, reciprocated by the monks giving instruction and guidance.
The act of giving
Starting with the Buddha, it has always been emphasized that a progressively open-handed and open-hearted orientation to life is essential if one is to make spiritual progress. The natural human tendency is to take, to draw to oneself, so we must reverse this deliberately. If we want to grow towards the human state of Enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism, we are instructed to enter into others’ lives sympathetically, to identify imaginatively with their pleasures and pains.
The act of giving is a practical expression of this sympathy. Gifts are whatever is most needed by the particular person, and range from the simplest material ones (food, clothing, shelter) to the more self-demanding (helpful communication, education, personal time, even one’s life) to the subtler and ultimately more valuable (fearlessness, Buddhism itself).
Moreover, the tradition recognizes that there is a range of motivations in our giving, from more to less self-oriented, from gaining of personal merit to purely selfless giving. Each has validity, but of supreme importance is the mental and emotional state. The tradition asks, ‘What is your motivation? What is the state of mind and heart that underlies your giving?’ You need to examine your motivations, and seek continuously to purify them. In the final analysis, what you are asked to give away is attachment to everything, including attachment to your 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. What you are asked to give is yourself.
‘Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity,
When I give I give myself.’ (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, part 40)
Examples of humanitarian giving abound in the history of the Buddhist community in Asia. Wherever Buddhism went the sangha (community), both monastic and lay, was responsible for the establishment of schools, hospitals and other institutions. Up until the birth of the modern era in the West, 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.
That door-knocking feeling
It’s the end of a wet June evening of door-to-door fundraising for the Karuna Trust’s projects in India. This is the fourth night that I’ve had no results. Suddenly, a friendly couple are opening the door. ‘Oh yes, we read the booklet you left,’ they say. ‘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 other people 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.
Discrepancy between ideal and practice
Unfortunately, despite the ideal, when you look at the activities of Buddhist communities in the world today, you will probably not be impressed by the scope of humanitarian activity, in comparison to that of, for example, the Christian churches worldwide. 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. However, the prevailing perception of Buddhism by the wider world 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.
This discrepancy has in part economic causes: Buddhist communities are often poor. One needs only to examine recent world history to see at least some of the reasons for this: Buddhism in Asia in the last 200 years has been in decline, partly through internal ossification, partly through the attack of external forces, the most powerful being Marxist totalitarianism and capitalism. 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 these very values. In its homelands, Buddhism is no longer the force for social cohesion and for humanitarian activity that it once was. A Buddhist teacher and writer sums it up very well:
‘Neither Marco Polo nor the Jesuits in Japan [in the sixteenth 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.’ 
The doctrine of karma misunderstood
There is a doctrinal cause for the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality of Buddhist altruistic activity that is more important than the economic. The Buddhist teachings on karma and rebirth are often understood to mean: all that you are and all that happens to you are a result of your actions, whether in this life or in the previous. To give a sad but actual example, quoted to the author by a Buddhist teacher: if a child is born in a war zone, that misfortune was its own fault because actions in a previous life have born fruit in the conditions of the child’s birth. Many Buddhists, east and west, share this misunderstanding; to subscribe to it is to labour under a fatalism of the most extreme form.
The true Buddhist position 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/biological to the volitional/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. An important corollary follows from this: not only am I not fated to live out a particular destiny, but 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 to 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 Ambedkar, and the Dalai Lama’s stance on Tibet. To develop these new expressions, to make them more effective and to mobilize more resources and support – from their own communities and from the wider non-Buddhist world – Buddhists need to honestly 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 organizational models. And there will need to be more pan-Buddhist cooperation, more linking up for humanitarian giving at national and international levels.
1 For more about Buddhist humanitarian aid, see for example Christopher Queen and Sallie King (1996) Engaged Buddhism, Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia State University of New York, and Queen (2000) Engaged Buddhism in the West Wisdom. For websites see, among others, Dharma Net International (http://www.dharmanet.org) and Buddhist Peace Fellowship (http://www.bpf.org).
2 Stephen Batchelor (1994) The Awakening of the West Aquarian, p360.
3 For a useful discussion, see chapter 3 of Dharmachari Kulananda (1997) Western Buddhism Harper/Collins.
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 Buddha, Avadana Jataka)
May all beings be happy and secure, may their hearts be wholesome!
Whatever living beings there be; feeble or strong, tall, stout or medium, short, small or large, without exception; seen or unseen, those dwelling far or near, those who are born or those who are 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 to 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. (The Buddha, Sutta Nipata 1.8)
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.
(The Buddha, Udana 8.5)
‘For the Welfare of the Many’
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 B R 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 (For the Welfare of the Man’), which was founded in Maharashtra but is now active in seven other 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.