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.

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