The dark side of Charity….

The dark side of Charity….

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.  😦

10 thoughts on “The dark side of Charity….

  1. One of my guides always said that in any situation if we take second, breathe, and come into the moment the action needed will appear. I think that has become my belief system. Although sometimes we find that perhaps the actions we take don’t have the results we thought they would, if we were giving with the apposite intent to diminish suffering then we did the appropriate thing. Later with more information the appropriate thing may change.
    Begging has a long history in human misery. The Beggars Guild in Europe comes to mind. Nothing in the arena has changed for thousands of years. Human misery continues and is particularly at large in underdeveloped countries. In Mexico and Africa I was encouraged to “Keep walking” when dozens of street kids would converge. Most without any support net at all.
    I encourage those of us who want to help support those in need do the research. There are organizations who appear to be honest and directing efforts to institute a change.
    I give to the Vulnerable Children Project in Nbola, Zambia. I know the people at Living Compassion and I know the money is being used for what is intended. Digging wells, jobs, education, and food. They are not paying some so called administrator ridiculous fees for management.
    I volunteer at Starry Skies Equine Rescue once a week to help the project. I know they are honest and dong good work.
    I think Apposite Effort is pointing to a lot of this, we can’t be sure of everything but we can make some serious choices.
    I really appreciate the blog and feel that it makes some very serious points. But, as I continue to study, I am starting to understand that being comfortable with no answers is part of the path. We do our best, accept what is, and say Yes. Simple maybe but it works for me.
    Thanks again for this Blog.
    Keep Going!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bryan,

      Firs let me thank you for your comment. I actually get very little comments in general. When you don’t get many comments sometimes it feels like you are in an echo chamber and you are not sure that what you have to say is resonating with anyone. So your comment is very welcome indeed. I agree with you that contributing to different groups that help people in the situations I mentioned is one good answer. The problem is that it is helps the “group” of people that is in that particular situation but does very little if anything for that individual that is standing right in front of you. The same could be said for helping groups that rescue people that are caught up in this type of human trafficking. It can help many people in that same situation but not necessarily the person that you personally experienced. In the end maybe that is all we can do. Yes begging has been around since the beginning of human kind. It has a more obvious and simpler answer though. If someone has no food you can give them some food and at least your are temporarily reliving them of their suffering. In the cases I cited it is different because our attempts to do what seems so obviously right turns out to cause them more suffering. In the case of the boy selling flowers if I stop buying them from him others still will, so I have accomplished nothing. If I convince everyone else to stop buying them I cause his whole family to lose their means of support.

      So I think my purpose for writing and questioning this is two fold. First is that we all are looking for a overly simplistic view of the world where things are black and white. This is rarely if ever the case. The second thing is I am always trying t understand the underlying purpose of the various Buddhist practices. In my time studying and thinking about this I have come to the conclusion that the real purpose is something different than what most people take them as. If you read my post about the Precepts I came to the conclusion that they are not an exercise in right or wrong. They are tools to teach us the fallacy of our our notions about the “self”. I think that the practice of Dana falls into this same category. So in the end it is more about what effect the practice has on us and our understanding of the “self” then it does on the people we are being generous to. In the early Buddhist scriptures there is much said about the importance of intent. This would speak to that because clearly the factor that controls our level of generosity the most is our own selflessness or lack of it. So in the end that would say that our intent is the most important thing and not the actual effect that our actions have. Because if we realize the true nature of our “self” we will see that there is no separation between them and us. So if we are improving our “self” we are helping them at the same time. Thanks again for taking the time to provide such thoughtful comments! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your response. I enjoy your posts so keep going.
    In taking the precepts the training, at least in Zen perspective, is that the word Right is inappropriate and in fact Apposite would be closer to the Sanskrit meaning. We do what is appropriate to the circumstance. It always feels like the Buddhadharma, going from India, through Japan, through China, and then to the U.S.A has taken some serous hits in translation.
    Gautama was teaching verbally. No books, no web, no Pali cannon, no Buddhists because the brand name wasn’t invented, and I am forever fascinated by what the root message must be because a lot of people understood it and changed their lives.
    So I keep looking.
    I do return to Cleary and his Classics of Buddhism and Zen books. I highly recommend Vol.2. Anything related to Hui-neng. I continue to find grounding in Hui-neng’s no frills, no nonsense, views of the teachings.
    Must be my Zen background.
    Thanks again for the posts.
    Bryan Wagner

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If you haven’t checked out the Tiny Buddha Blog site they have a system for people to send in blogs. If accepted they post it. It helps get attention. Check it out.
    Be well


  4. Hi Ronin, long time no chat. I think that when talking about the buddhas teachings no one teaching is enough. It is a system. Just think what would the eightfold path be with out wisdom? Compassion without wisdom or wisdom without compassion. Either alone can be disastrous but together, wow….



    1. QP it is nice to hear from you! I totally agree that all of the Buddha’s teachings are totally interconnected. I think one of the things I have been trying to point out in my last few posts is our tendency to try to see things in an over simplistic black and white way. I think we need to look deeper to find the wisdom to see things as they really are. Take care!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes you could not be more correct. Wisdom is so often overlooked. One needs time to really see and go deep.

        Say have you noticed the blog from Dave Norris “exposing christian error” he writes some real crap about meditation and Buddhism. It’s actually quite absurd 😉 if you need a laugh.



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