A Call to Charity, will Buddhists in the West Answer?

“Heedful at administering
or working at one’s occupation,
maintaining one’s life in tune,
one protects one’s store of wealth.
A person of conviction,
consummate in virtue,
magnanimous, free of selfishness,
constantly clears the path
to security in the lives to come. “
The Dighajanu Sutta (Pali Canon, AN 8.54)

When people first bring Buddhism to mind, the first thing people often imagine are monks in an idyllic monastery, or people sitting in meditation attaining blissful states of Oneness. Where is the reputation for Buddhists and their generosity? When people think of charity work, what do they think of? It’s certainly not Buddhism or the Buddhists, is it? When they do think of Buddhism, they think of Zen, the Dalai Lama, $4 non-GMO organic beverages, tree-huggers and a bunch of white guys trying to “act Asian”.

Is it any wonder that Buddhism is still very much a minority religion in this country? Have we become a small community of affluent, self-satisfied arm-chair philosophers?

Irish pub, wall

I guess this post is a kind of call to charity, and a wake up call to the convert community of so-called “Western Buddhists”.1

While we grind our teeth at the thought of the Chinese Communists who oppress Tibet, pine for the next meditation retreat with our favorite guru, or sit back in our nice warm homes enjoying exotic tea and our favorite overpriced periodicals (retreading the same subjects over and over), there are people in our neighborhood, hundreds if not thousands who are hungry, abused or freezing in the cold. There are kids who go to school every day without adequate jackets and school supplies, who come home to drunk abusive fathers, or simply don’t have one. There are elderly people who live in sterile and unfriendly retirement homes, abandoned and condemned to die alone. There are even more elderly living on the streets with mental illnesses or just depression, and have no future.

A long time ago, the founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan, Saichō once wrote ichigū wo terasu (一隅を照らす), which means “light one corner of the world.” Why aren’t we doing more of this?

In the traditional Buddhist path, as taught by the Buddha himself, generosity is the first step, followed by wholesome conduct, not meditation. Meditation comes toward the end of progress, when one’s moral conduct is under control, and one has opened their heart to others, but here in the 21st century, with our ready-access and convenience, we go straight for the self-help and peace of mind and generosity comes grudgingly later.

There’s so much potential in one’s own neighborhood to affect good in the world, and we’re wasting our time arguing with one another about Enlightenment really means with other nerds on the Internet, or who’s the right Dharma Heir for such-and-such school. We dump all our money into over-priced seminars where we pat each other on the back and makes ourselves feel better as Buddhists, or funnel it into crazy boondoggle charity projects that have no practical value to people around us.

Just look in your own neighborhood. Here in Seattle, there are so many local charities who do so much to help people in various ways:

  • Food Lifeline – Feeding hungry families and children.
  • The Urban Rest Stop – Providing clean showers and laundry facilities. I walk past this place every day to and from work, and I know their efforts help.
  • Orion Youth Care – Providing a safe haven, clothing and company for teenagers, off the mean streets.
  • Puget Sound Blood Center – Providing much needed blood donations to save lives.
  • And let’s not forget all the hospitals, women’s shelters, nursing homes, food banks, public-school teachers, clothing donation centers, child mentorship organizations and so on that struggle to meet the needs of the community.

When I was young, I was the son of a single parent with three kids. I remember getting free school lunches because we were low-income. I remember getting teased for second-hand clothes and not having cool toys like my friends. I remember visits to the food bank, those hideous food stamps, and even visits to the pawn shop when my mom had to sell her deceased mother’s wedding ring to pay our bills. I remember applying for grants in college for low-income students like myself, so I just get in and have a chance at a better life.

But you know what? Thanks to the generosity of so many people over the years I was able to graduate from school, get a nice degree, travel to Asia, Europe and beyond. I could have been a statistic, but I wasn’t and it’s because people donated their money and time to the community around me.

The system works when people contribute to it.

But generosity and lighting our corner of the world isn’t limited to helping the poor. There’s so many little things we can do to make life better for others:

  • Clean up your neighborhood.
  • Donate your time at your local library, hospital, city council, school board, wherever.
  • Do your civic duties for your country.
  • Volunteer in the armed forces or national guard.3

Any Buddhist reading this can do any of these things right now in their own neighborhood.

Speaking from experience, things like donating blood, or helping out a stranger with the last dollars in my wallet may be scary at first, but it is something that brings people together and gives one’s life meaning, where before it was just selfish, vain indulgence. It is one of the best ways to overcome misery both for yourself and others, and overcome your self-infatuation.

As Rev. Tagawa explains in the book Living Yogacara (emphasis added):

When we first begin to practice donation, all our offerings are contaminated by this quality [self-centeredness], as the practice of donation is always bound with those things that are offered, and because the self, as the focus of our awareness, makes it extremely difficult to carry out donation in the unattached mode of the three pure rings [doner, donee, offering]. However, it is precisely because of this that it is considered to be such an important practice in Buddhism.
(pg. 65, trans. Prof. A.C. Muller)

So put down the meditation cushion for two minutes, will ya? There are hungry, sick, lonely and hopeless people right outside, and you along with the Buddhist community could really make a difference even by giving just a little. :)

Namo Tassa Bhagavato, Arahato, Sammasam-buddhasa

P.S. Photo was taken by me in the little Irish Pub on Thomas Street in Dublin, Ireland last year. It was a frequent place to chat with co-workers and enjoy the good chips (fries). I never really indulged in the fresh Guiness from the Brewery down the road though, as I was by and large content with my Cokes and Sprites. The food and company was enough for me. :D

P.P.S. While on the subject, don’t forget the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Methods of Winning Over People:

  1. Giving either the Dharma or other gifts.
  2. Speaking kind words.
  3. Acting for their welfare or benefit.
  4. Physically working alongside them.

1 Respectfully excluding the Asian-immigrant Buddhist communities here, who luckily do not always fall under the same kinds of traps us converts do.

2 Speaking from experience. It certainly tastes like ashes to know what a fraud I can be sometimes.

3 Like it or not, the young men and women who defend your country probably sacrifice a lot more than we do. The Buddha had generals and soldiers among his disciples too. The path excludes no one who is genuine in their pursuit of the truth.

8 Comments on “A Call to Charity, will Buddhists in the West Answer?”

  1. Ron says:

    Posts like this are a big reason I like this blog so much. Those things that are kinda hard to hear (read) because they are true and hit so close to home. Makes me realize just how lazy I have been in actually contributing something to my community. I feel bad for that, but that is just the thing I needed to sort of “kick start” me into doing something.

    My wife teaches 6th grade here where we live, and she tells me about kids that come to school that not only don’t have basic school supplies, but don’t even have electricity in their homes! The teachers band together and supply these children with what they can such as bottled water, soap, toothbrushes, food and so on. Right here in our town there is such poverty! To my own shame, I didn’t even realize there were people living here in our community who didn’t even have electricity because both parents have lost their jobs.

    This is the slap in the face I needed to get off my backside and try to do something, anything to help another.

  2. Doug says:

    Hi Ron and apologies for the late reply. I was hoping to jar people into turning their Buddhist faith outward more and in the local community more as opposed to turning inward and bickering or obsessing over things that look really trivial on the outside. It’s not aimed at anyone in particular but a whole community. :-)

  3. wolfram says:

    great post! i am often frustrated with “western (i.e. white convert) buddhists” for the reasons you ennumerate here. so much “buddhist” content strikes me as little more than navel gazing and disputes that seem to solidify the notion of a separate, permanent self…i would also agree that in my experience asian buddhist communities often avoid this, although of course they can have problems of their own.

    i think the best course of action is to balance the “three trainings” of sila, samadhi and prajna in our lives, although as lay disciples we probably all need to devote more attention to sila.

  4. Doug says:

    I think you hit it right on the head, Wolfram. :-)

    P.S. Apologies for the late reply.

  5. Marcus says:

    Great post Doug – needs to be widely read. Thank you.

  6. Doug says:

    Thanks much Marcus. Now if I can only practice what I preach (more on that in a later post).

  7. amanda w says:

    Great blog!! It was just what I needed to read today! :)

  8. Doug says:

    Hi Amanda and welcome to the JLR. Glad you found it useful. :)

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