Not giving wealth or Dharma
In this post I will discuss not giving wealth, and in the next post I will discuss not giving Dharma.
This vows says if someone asks for material or spiritual help, and we are in a position to oblige but, out of miserliness, refuse we incur a root downfall. When Geshe-la would send Gen-la Losang to India to learn something, he would always give him some money so that he could give it to the beggars. I try remind myself of this when I walk along the street and see beggars myself.
There have been many studies which have shown that American social attitudes towards poverty are quite different than they are in Europe. In the U.S., the attitude is very simple to understand: it’s all the poor person’s fault. Americans reason, “they are lazy or they made stupid choices and so now they must suffer the consequences. If I help them out, I am not actually helping them, rather I am creating incentives for them to continue to be lazy and make bad choices. Let their suffering be the encouragement they need to get to work and make different choices.” There are, of course, people in Europe who think in similar ways. The point is such thinking is a major obstacle to our practicing the perfection of giving and this mentality is likewise a major contributor to our incurring this downfall of the bodhisattva vows.
My father, when I was growing up, would always tell the story of “give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life.” There are three problems with this argument. First, usually the people who say it also don’t teach the man how to fish. They instead do nothing but make this statement. Second, if the man dies of starvation before he learns how to fish, then it won’t work. And third, this argument presupposes that work is available for all those who are willing to take it. Since I am an Economist by training, I want to just say a few words about this last point because it is something many many people believe, and based upon this wrong understanding of Economics, we use that as ipso facto proof for our original hypothesis that the only reason why the person is poor is because of their own bad choices. On the basis of this conclusion, we feel justified in not giving.
Why is this wrong? There is a fundamental axiom of macroeconomics which most people don’t understand, and it is this: your spending is my income and my spending is your income. When a recession hits, like the one we have been enduring since 2008, then people spend much less. When they spend less, they buy less things and so the people who sell things lose their jobs. But who are these people who sell things? It is all of us. We each are contributing in some way to the economy (selling something, usually our services) and we are all buying in some way. If everybody starts spending less, then thousands and indeed millions of jobs simply disappear. People who were working can no longer find work, even though they very much want to work. It is not these people’s fault that the economy slipped into recession, but they suffer the consequences nonetheless. People who were living just above the poverty line suddenly find themselves below it, people who were barely off of the streets suddenly find themselves homeless. And generally speaking, the first jobs to go are those held by the people who are most economically vulnerable. In Europe, there is a safety net, but in America there is basically none. Whole families can find themselves on the street, met by a country that blames them and shuns them. They then feel helpless and desperate, turn to crime or drugs, and then get blamed for that too. If we understand that the business cycle is no different than the weather (though more unpredictable), we realize there is a growing season and there is a dying season, and sometimes there is a dark, cold winter. We can hardly blame the most vulnerable in our society for an economic cycle completely beyond their control.
So the answer to my father’s parable is simple: teach a man to fish, and while he is learning, feed him a fish. In other words, give. Now it is true that we need to be skillful that we don’t make our giving create a dependency. There is some truth to the argument above, and unskillful giving can lead to the problems the critics cite. But just because giving can be done unskillfully does not mean we shouldn’t still strive to give to others in skillful ways. Again, teach the man to fish, and while he is learning, feed him a fish.
Why are there some unbelievably rich people in the world? The reason is because these people have given a lot in the past and that karma is ripening now. It is no coincidence that two of the most famous rich people, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are as rich as they are. Both of them basically give away all of the wealth that they make. Why are they rich now? Because they gave before. Why will they be rich again in their future lives? Because they are giving now. Those who are rich and not giving will know terrible poverty in the future. Those who are poor now but give extensively from what little they have will be incredibly rich in the future. I know somebody who is quite rich and gives in absolute terms quite generously, but in percentage terms they give almost nothing. I know somebody else who has almost nothing and gives in absolute terms very little, but in percentage terms they give a tremendous amount. Our karma doesn’t care about the absolute value of our giving, it responds only to the percentage of our giving. There is no doubt who is karmically speaking giving more, and who will enjoy such fruits in the future.
Gen Lhamo once provokatively said, “when you give, you should give so much it hurts.” Some might call this extreme, but I call it wise. How can we do this without falling into an extreme. Venerable Tharchin explains that having control over and possession of material things is irrelevant. The question is whether we impute “mine” on any of them. If we do, then our control over or possession of these things will burn up our merit like a blazing karmic bon fire. If instead we impute “others’ things” onto the things we have control over or possession of, we will accumulate merit as vast as space. In other words, we can mentally give away everything we have to others by simply changing our imputation regarding our possessions, namely we think they now belong to all others. This will change our relationship with everything we have in our life. Some things we will realize we have no valid reason to hold on to and we will see how others can better use out of these things than we can, so we actually physically give them away. Some things we will see we need for our basic survival, but we consume these things to keep us alive and healthy so that we have the strength to be of service to others. Some other things we will see how by us keeping them now we will be able to give even more to others in the future, and so out of a wish to do so we will maintain control over the thing. Some other things we will have to change our reasons for doing them or buying them so that we are doing it for the sake of others. There will be some things for which we are very attached and it will be hard to even mentally impute “others’ things” onto them. There, we have to do some work.
But the point is, there is nothing we can’t at least mentally give away today. My house, I mentally give to my family. My money, I mentally give to the store owners when I buy things. My body, I can give it to my employer 10 hours a day, to my kids several hours a day, and to my wife… (I won’t go there… hee hee). My mind, I can give it to the beneficiaries of my every action. My time, I can give it to those I serve. When I take the time to learn new things, I am giving my time to all those in the future I will help with my newly acquired skills and knowledge. Any power we might have, we can give it to those we can protect with it. If we never impute “mine” on anything under our control, we can be phenomenally wealthy and powerful and yet still be only giving. In fact, our becoming richer and our becoming more generous become exactly the same wish and exactly the same action.