Giving the Buddhist Way


Artist: Saw Chucil

The rewards of giving

Nature gives without expectation of return _ and we should too, says noted monk Phra Santikaro

“I helped her with her work when she asked. Now that I need help, she brushes me off …” “I’ve given my children everything they wanted, but they are still disobedient …” “I’ve always made merit and given lots of donations _ why was I robbed? Why do bad things happen to good people?”

These sentiments are not at all uncommon, and they speak of the frustration, anger and suffering of those who feel their kindness, generosity, and love for others has gone unappreciated, unreturned, unrewarded.

Why were the recipients of their good acts so ungrateful? Was our altruism given to the wrong persons? Did we not give enough?

Ask such questions of Phra Santikaro Bhikku, and the monk would probably reply that the problem is rooted in our own ignorance.

“Today, consumerism has shaped the way we give. Our giving has become an act of exchange, or an investment,” said the outspoken American-born monk.

“True giving must be free from expectations of anything in return. If you expect to get even a word of appreciation like ‘thank you’ from receivers, then it is not a free giving, but an exchange.”

Gratitude must be voluntary, he added. So must an act of giving.

Sadly, many people today believe in the “no free lunch” or “good begets good” maxims. We give alms or donations to monks with a belief that the boon (merit) will reserve us a place in heaven and bestow on us happiness, success, and luck in the present lifetime.

More often than not, we give material goods, support, and help to others with certain expectations: either to be noticed, to be repaid, or at the very least to be appreciated.

When done this way, Phra Santikaro said we have used giving as a tool to put others in our debt, or control others to suit ourselves and our own desires.

Consequently, both givers and receivers will not feel free, and will subsequently suffer, the monk said.

Phra Santikaro urged us to weed out the consumerist spirit of giving that is based on the sense of self and accumulation for the self, and to cultivate the genuine value of giving. He suggested that we take a close look at nature and how it works.

“Observe our breaths,” the monk wrote in a booklet called Dana: The Way of Nature. “We breathe in and we have to breathe out, otherwise we will die. Likewise, life is about give and take.”

The natural law of interconnectedness works on a give-and-take basis.

We live and feed on the “free and unconditional” giving of Nature _ the sun, water, wind, trees, rocks, animals and our fellow beings.

“Giving is indeed a duty in nature. Without giving, there would be no living,” he said.

“Accordingly, we should give as we are given to. Giving should be free and unconditional. Trees give us air without being forced to or forcing us to repay their gratitude.”

Phra Santikaro suggested that we give more consideration to the recipient of our giving, that we give what is really needed.

Phra Santikaro

“We should give food to those who have none to eat. Give medicine to the sick. Or give time and care to the elderly, for example.”

Giving things that receivers do not need is a waste, he said. This can be seen at many temples: Huge amounts of surpluses from donations, especially the yellow “sanghadana” buckets with food and daily consumer products, which collect dust at monastic residences.

Giving plays a key role in keeping our social relations alive and healthy, he said. “Like blood circulating in our body, giving helps nourishing our society.”

In practising right giving, we are naturally following sila (the Buddhist precepts that prohibit killing, stealing, adultery, lying and reckless intoxication), the monk said. “Sila is a code of conduct contributing to communal livelihood and peace. So is giving.

“Communities where people are generous and kind to one another will be happy places to live and violence will be scarce. In such a society, youngsters will be taught to give at an early age.

“But in today’s market-driven society, we take more than we give. Competition is high, be it in education or career. In this social climate, people are in search of power, money and higher status, thus violence is easy to come by,” he said.

The Lord Buddha always placed an emphasis on Sangha (monastic and lay community), so much so that he said that “sanghadana” _ a sort of indiscriminate giving which is intended to benefit a group rather than a specific individual _ was the greatest form of giving, higher than giving to the Buddha or the enlightened ones, said Phra Santikaro.

“Giving that benefits people at large will definitely be better than that given to specific individuals,” he said.

But today, many prefer to make donations to famed monks or influential people. Also, they believe that sanghadana only refers narrowly to giving to those wearing the yellow robes.

“Sangha refers to a group of people, which should include groups of lay people, too _ families, communities, organisations. Therefore giving, or making donations, to organisations that work for society can be considered sanghadana,” he said.

Ultimately, cultivating right giving will lead us on the path to Nirvana, he said.

The Jataka story about Prince Vessantara is a case in point. The last reincarnation of the Lord Buddha, Prince Vessantara, pointed to the significance of giving as a way to find the path to enlightenment. The prince gave away everything, upon being asked, even his beloved wife and children (though people today question his right to do that _ the point was his ability to give, without attachment to his self, his wife and children considered extensions of that self).

In giving freely, as Nature does, we learn to let go of our possessions and selfishness and to be detached from expectations, he said, adding that how we give teaches us the virtue of modesty too.

“The act of giving should be polite and gentle, showing our respect to other beings. Givers should not feel they are of higher status than the recipients. For example, if they throw some change in a beggar’s bucket, it reflects their egoistic arrogance _ that they think they are better,” said Phra Santikaro.

Ultimately, it seems that practising giving as a duty and as the way of Nature should help to end suffering. “In the end, we will see that there are no givers, no receivers, but the natural duty of giving and taking, rotating in society. Just like our breaths that recycle and circulate in nature. If we can rise to this virtue of giving, there would be no suffering.”


How then shall we give?

Phra Santikaro suggested eight kinds of giving that we should embrace in our daily lives. They are:

GIVING MATERIAL THINGS : This kind of giving is quite common. Phra Santikaro urges that we give only when there is a real need, and not just to follow tradition. Giving water to people who are working under the scorching sun is recommended. But giving bottles of water to monks as alms deserves a rethink.

“People believe that they must add water in giving alms, otherwise there would be no water for them in the afterlife. So the monks have to carry this belief _ a heavy load of water _ when they go for an alms-round. And plastic bottles end up piling at some corner in the temple,” the monk said.

GIVING KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS : More sustainable than giving material things is to give others knowledge and skills they need to improve their lives. As the saying goes: “Teaching people how to fish is better than giving them fish.”

GIVING OPPORTUNITIES : Each of us has knowledge and skills but we also need an opportunity or a place that allows us to exercise and practise those skills. One prime example of people in need of an opportunity are prison inmates. Many suffer a hard life after serving time. Having a criminal record, not many are willing to give them jobs, thus resuming a normal life becomes an ordeal. Consequently, they are likely to return to their bad habits.

GIVING TIME : There are two kinds of time giving. The first is to spend time with others, especially those who need our time. Also, giving time means that we give others time to do their task, or to think their work through, according to their skills and the amount of work they have to. We have to learn to be patient, to allow people to work at their own pace. Don’t rush others.

GIVING NON-VIOLENCE, OR NON-HARM : In order to have a happy and peaceful life, we all need to feel safe and secure, the monk said. People should not feel threatened by forms of violence or pressure. Living under pressure engenders stress, anxiety, and unhappiness. So giving non-harm or nonviolence is a form of giving that allows others to live at peace.

However, our market-driven society constantly threatens our peace of mind. “We are in a society that uses force all the time,” said the monk. Children are forced to study subjects they are not interested in. Parents use force or a sense of guilt to control children to do what they believe is true and correct regardless of the child’s own thoughts or desires.

“Parents and adults should use love and reason with children rather than force and order. We don’t convince people, but force them to do things to satisfy our desires and beliefs,” the monk said.

Our economic system is not compassionate. It drives people to continually search for money, accumulate wealth, and compete with one another.

Market-driven advertisements are cruel because they brainwash people into buying certain products and ways of seeing things.

“These days, commercials on whitening or slimming products are so cruel and disgusting. They belittle non-whites and non-slim people.”

In this current socio-economic system, the monk concluded, it is hard for us to attain happiness. “If only we train ourselves not to force or reduce the use of force when dealing with others, whether by means of money, power or tricks, it will be the very valuable giving. We are giving others the feeling of non-harm and peace.”

FORGIVING : Everybody makes mistakes. So without forgiving, there can be no peace in human relationships and society, the monk said.

“Forgiving is a very precious form of giving. Not only does it help to mend broken relationships, but it also cleanses the grief and suffering in our minds,” he said.

Holding grudges is a torment. So when people repent of their wrongs, we should learn to forgive them wholeheartedly.

To forgive does not necessarily mean to forget, though. In some cases, the monk said, we should remember.

“If a child is abused by his alcoholic father, the child should remember that when his father drinks, he should get out of his sight for his own safety. But he should not infest himself with anger towards his father _ it’s not healthy.”

GIVING LOVING-KINDNESS : Having talked to many about their deepest desire, most said that what they most yearned for most was love _ a thing that has become scarce in today’s society.

“Today, we see others as employees or mechanisms in an economic system. We don’t see them as fellow human beings who share a similar fate to ourselves.

“When we love others, we don’t deny their existence as human beings.”

Loving-kindness was therefore a invaluable gift that we could give to others, he said.

GIVING DHARMA : According to Buddhist belief, giving dharma is one of the supreme forms of giving for it will lead others on the path of righteousness and will help them to ultimately attain Nirvana. Therefore, many like to give dharma books or lectures or to share dharma wisdom. Phra Santikaro suggested another, perhaps higher level of giving dharma.

“The best way to teach dharma is not through theory or dharma lessons, but through our daily life. Dharma is not a word, it’s a life.

“Live your life as dharma so that people can look and learn from it. That’s the best way to give dharma.”

He cited as an example the late Buddhadasa Bhikku, whose life served as an exemplar of dharma, inspiring both monks and laypeople to follow in his footsteps.

Story by KARNJARIYA SUKRUNG, Picture by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT
From the Bangkok Post