How Best To Give

Yesterday I made a small donation to the Humanitarian Coalition for disaster relief in Haiti (why do these things seem to happen to people who are already suffering so much ?) I wonder if “adversity’s sweet milk” is to see such an outpouring of compassion and solidarity for victims of this natural disaster.

I also made a small donation to a Buddhist monastery and I was considering two questions: “how much should I give?” and “to whom should I give?”. What is more beneficial? The practices of liberation of the heart or helping to feed hungry children in a disaster zone?

The 13th Mindfulness training of the Order of Interbeing says, among other things:

[I] will practice generosity by sharing [my] time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.

But it doesn’t make any recommendations about how much time, energy and resources to devote to those in need or which needs are more important than others. In that way, Buddhism is, as a monk I know once put it, a “do it yourself” religion. You need to figure out these details for yourself.

One contributing factor is: what is it possible for me to do, under the circumstances? I live in Canada, and I earn a good living, so I can help Haitians best by donating money to organizations better equiped than I am. But at home, perhaps, I can better donate my time and energy to help others with information and experience.

But the question – one that haunts us as western nations as well as individually – is how much is enough? Clearly selling my house, donating the proceeds and leaving me and my family with no shelter is not a sensible extreme. Nor is the extreme of not caring at all and not making any effort to contribute to relief organizations.

So what should it be? A percentage of your income? If you make a high wage, should it be a higher percentage (as implemented in the tax system, perhaps)?

Then there’s the question hinted at above: how does one compare one noble cause with another: people seeking to end greed, fear and delusion for the benefit of all sentient beings vs. creating sanitary conditions and homes for homeless people here and now? What if, by promoting the practice of Buddhism you were nipping a budding tyrant in the bud? The beneficial consequences are immeasurable! Helping a few people out of poverty or hunger temporarily could seem quite small in comparison.

I think the answer may simply be – we just don’t know. Perhaps a “mutual fund” approach is the middle way: giving for the “long term” (full and complete Buddhahood) and the”short term” (here and now helping homeless people).

Or perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s just the act of giving itself – however you do it which is important. Important for the recipient who needs the help but also important for the donor who also needs to express a natural generosity in the human heart.

Personal Identity

One often hears Dharma teachers talk about how we all take on “identities” – as a son or daughter, as an employee, as someone from a generation, as a mother or father. In other words, we often construct ourselves with “I am X” or “I am Y” or “I am not Z” – the constant here being this sense of “I” which gets fed by these identity constructs.

I was thinking about that today because I have several friends who have been children to their parents for 30+ more years than I have.  My mother died when I was 20.  I had barely ended childhood and I knew her for only 20 years. That’s one kind of “being a child”.  But my 60+ year-old friends have their parents in old age homes or are their care-givers for them at home. In what sense are they still “children”?

What I’m getting at is – “being X” or “being Y” itself changes, sometimes dramatically, over time. Being a parent, for instance, is quite a different proposition when your child is in diapers than when your child is learning differential calculus.The sense in which you are a “parent” is quite different in each situation.  Whatever identity you gleaned from “being X” shifts quite quickly – it’s not at all a rigid construct.

Furthermore, I think that our very ideas of what it means to be X (white-skinned in a North American culture) or Y (a Buddhist in Canada) also changes as our environment changes. “Being white” in a post-Aparthied world or during Obama’s presidency is less problematic, I think, less fraught with guilt, anyway, than it perhaps once was.

This dualistic sense of “me” is still a problem, naturally. But if we look closely at what the things are that define one’s personal identity, they are clearly not ridged or fixed, however much we may want it to be. Everywhere we look impermanence stares us in the face. It could be that exporing our very sense of who we are and how our identity is made up is one path toward freedom from the labels that they impose and the “I” that is in the middle of them.

Past, Present and Future

I have noticed that my relationship to time changes as I grow older.  A few months ago I heard a nonagenarian being interviewed on the radio about his recent skydiving adventure.  When asked “what are your plans [to do this again] in the future?” he answered “you know, at my age, you stop planning for the future.”

Conversely, at a young age you believe you are immortal, that the possibilities in the future are limitless, that summers are endless and there isn’t much in the past – yet.

So how does this change one’s perspective of time shift one’s Dharma practice?  In a lot of ways, I think.  With an awareness that “tomorrow” may not be a possibility, “here and now” becomes much more clearly all that there is.  And a focus on the present moment and taking refuge in awareness of the present moment leads to freedom.

Because “time” and “self” are bound up.  A sense of who you are in the historical dimension gives definition to this sense of identity – I am a father, I am a son, I am from Switzerland, I was like this and I am now like that and I will become the other thing.  But awareness of the present is outside of time – it is in that sense “eternal”.  It has no beginning and no end.

So while it is possible to be burdened by your history as you grow older, it is also more possible to let go of the past and not be so concerned with the future.  To take refuge in the here and now. To be free.