The “Ten Paramita’s” play a big part in Buddhist practice. One of the ten is Dana (generosity) or giving freely. This can be giving alms to the monks, monetary support of the monastics, giving of the teachings of the Dhamma, or charitable giving. The point behind Dana is that it is supposed to be where you give freely without any expectation of a return. It is supposed to be a “selfless” act.
When I first came to Southeast Asia I was struck by the readily apparent poverty that is rampant in the rural areas but most visible in the cities. One thing I quickly learned is that we in the west generally take for granted our social systems. In most countries in Asia there isn’t a social welfare system provided by the government. What they tend to have instead is the reliance on families. People often live together in extended families in which a married couple may have their parents or grandparents living with them. Sometimes it even extends to their siblings and their siblings children so that you actually have multiple families under one roof. There are some very good things that come out of this sort of arrangement. We have much to learn from societies that have substantially lower income and means of support than in western countries.
First of all the older generation, grandparents, are not put into old folks homes and left to fade away as we so often see in the west. Instead they work in the home cooking and cleaning and generally take care of the very small children so that those able to work can do so without having to worry about paying for child care. Who better to take care of them at this point in their lives than their own family? All of the people in the family work to provide but the fruit of their labor is shared among the group. This way if one person loses their job or is sick they can be carried by others in the group until they are able to earn an income again.
When I first came here there was a family that was on the corner of a busy street selling Mali (a sort of Lei that they hang on the mirror of their car as an offering to the Buddha). There was a young boy, about ten years old that would come up with a big smile and a handful of Mali for sale for about 75 cents each. I almost always had music on in my car and he seemed to enjoy listening to the western music I played. So I would buy the Mali for it’s intended purpose, because I enjoyed the fragrance of the flowers in my car, and because I felt I was helping a poor family out by buying them.
The down side to this family system is that if you do not have a family or if you have had some sort of serious falling out with them you do not have any support system at all. This means that if you do not have work for whatever reason you will likely be living on the street with begging as your only means of support. On several trips to Bangkok I would come across mothers sitting out in busy walkways begging with very young babies. In Bangkok if it isn’t sweltering hot then it will be raining. In either case it is hard to pass by these babies and not give them something. Because even if it very hot or pouring down rain they will still be sitting there. Going to the larger markets you will often see someone pulling themselves across the ground on their stomach pushing a cup (to put money in) because they are missing both legs. Seeing sights like these is gut wrenching. Anyone with even just the smallest amount of compassion in their heart cannot help but moved by overwhelming feelings of empathy for these suffering people.
So since we are supposed to practice Dana as Buddhist and it is just a basic human reaction to seeing others in these conditions then we should just give generously right? What could possibly be wrong with doing that? Well I am afraid that nothing in our world today is that simple. Remember the ten year old boy selling flowers? Well I have lived here for six years now and he is still out there selling flowers eveyday. He has a younger brother out there with him now who is about six. You see, they don’t go to school. They are out there working very day ( I actually mean every day, yes 7 days a week!) selling flowers. It turns out that people feel sorry for these young kids out there selling flowers so they are much more likely to by flowers from them then they would be from their parents. So when we feel sorry for them and by the flowers we are actually insuring that they will never go to school and get an education that could possibly get them out of their cycle of poverty. We are also ensuring that they will never actually have a childhood and do the things that kids should be doing because they are working every day. Once I realized this I stopped buying the flowers from him. Then I couldn’t decide which was worse; the family not having enough money to live on or the boy missing out on his childhood and not getting the education that could get him out of this cycle. I do not know the answer to that question. 😦
Remember the mother and her baby out I the heat and the rain that pulled so strongly on your heart strings? Well I found out later that many of them are put out on the street by someone and made to sit there all day in the heat and the rain. What little money they make is taken from them at the end of the day and they never actually see the benefit of your generosity. Lastly and the worst of all is the ones you see sliding on their stomach because they have no legs. As I was going to put some money in his cup my father in law stopped me. I asked him why he didn’t want me to give him the money. He told me that actually these people did have legs until some gang in Burma had cut their legs off. They put them out here to beg to make money because people are more likely to give them money because they feel so sorry for them. If you saw the movie “Slum Dog Millionaire” there was a seen depicting this very same thing. These people often fall into these circumstances because they do not have the family support system that people here rely on so heavily. How can you even begin to wrap your mind around the idea that someone would cripple another human being just so that they could make a profit off them being that way? 😦
What are we supposed to do? I don’t even pretend to have any answers. In this case instead of our generosity bettering someone’s life it turns out it is contributing to their misery! To further complicate things there are “legitimate” beggars out there that need your generosity to survive. The problem is you don’t know which ones are which. I am very troubled by this situation and cannot logically think of a solution to the problem. It just proves to me that our actions will always have an effect and that the difficulty is that the effect can be completely opposite of what we intend. It makes me wonder if the Buddha’s teaching on “Right action” is a little more complicated than we think. Maybe it is the result of an action that makes it right and not just what our intent is? All I can do is ask the question, sadly I cannot provide an answer. 😦