All religions emphasize the importance of charity, but Lord Buddha’s approach differs from most in that he explains mainly the psychological aspect of giving and is not so interested in the externals of it. Why?
Because the perfection of giving is realized only when we completely release the mind of miserly attachment, and this is a purely mental thing.
Many people think, with arrogance and pride, that they’re religious because they give a lot of material things away, but this is very superficial. Such people have no idea of the essence of charity; just a vague notion that charity is good. They don’t really know what it is. To engage in the bodhisattva’s practice of charity is extremely difficult; it has to be done without a trace of miserliness.
Many people give with pride and attachment. That’s not charity; it’s just ego and, basically, not virtue. The bodhisattva’s practice of charity—or, in fact, any of the six perfections—has to include the other five. In other words, charity must be practiced together with morality, patience, energy, concentration and wisdom—especially the latter. We need to have a profound understanding of emptiness in what we call the circle of the three: the emptiness of the object we’re giving, the emptiness of the action of giving and the emptiness of the recipient of our gift. If we give without such understanding, it is neither beneficial nor perfect and, furthermore, can bring a conflicted reaction.
For example, if we’re not free of attachment, we might give something to somebody today, and tomorrow be thinking, “I wish I hadn’t given him that; now I need it.” This kind of giving has nothing whatsoever to do with religion.
We might see people making charity and think how wonderfully generous they are, but all we see is the external action. We don’t see their inner motivation, which can be totally berserk and selfish.
The actual definition of religious giving is made according to the donor’s mental attitude, not his or her physical actions.
If your giving weakens your disturbing negative attitudes and brings more peace and understanding into your mind, it’s religious, but if it serves merely to increase your delusions, you’re better off not doing it, no matter how it appears from the outside. Why do something that exacerbates your already agitated mind? Be realistic; know what you’re doing.
If you do your spiritual practice with understanding, it will be really worthwhile and effective and bring the results you seek.
Even simply feeling equilibrium with all living beings—not discriminating others as friend, enemy and stranger—can bring you great happiness and freedom from insecurity.
We often feel bothered by others, but we have to realize that seeing them as enemies comes from us, not them. There’s no such thing as a born enemy. We make it all up. There’s no such thing as permanent evil. Actual evil is the negative mind that projects evil outside; a positive mind will label the same thing good. Things always change; permanent evil is totally non-existent.
Also, when we’re depressed, we think, “I’m bad, I’m negative, I’m sinful,” but that’s complete nonsense; an exaggerated extreme. We have both positive and negative within us; it’s simply a question of which is stronger at any given time. That’s what we have to check. Therefore, whenever our mind gives us trouble, it’s a sign that we’re thinking in extremes.
This is where meditation comes in. Meditation means investigating the mind to see what’s going on. When we do it properly, we purify and bring peace into our unbalanced mind. That’s the function of meditation; that’s the function of religion. Therefore, we should meditate as correctly as possible.
One thing to avoid on the spiritual path is jumping at ideas. Instead, try to find the key to putting ideas into your experience. Experiencing their meaning is much more important than the ideas themselves. For example, we should not make charity of things that belong to other people, like our family and friends. I’ve often heard of young people taking things from their parents, like their mother’s jewels, and giving them away to beggars in the street.
That’s strange; it’s not charity. And I’ve often been asked if it’s OK to steal from the rich to give to the poor. That’s not charity either.
The ordinary understanding of charity is giving things to others, but as you can see, the Buddhist point of view is that material giving is not necessarily charity. True charity has to do with the mind; giving mentally. The practice of giving is training the mind to overcome miserliness. Miserly attachment is in the mind, therefore, the antidote must also be mental.
Another thing is that, when it comes to giving, sometimes we’re extreme. We don’t check to see if the recipient needs what we’re giving; we just give without hesitation. However, sometimes it may not be beneficial; in such cases, it’s better not to give. If what you give creates problems and, instead of being helped, the recipient experiences harm, it’s not charity. You think your action is positive, but it’s negative.
If you really, deeply realize what true charity is, you’ll probably find that in your whole life you’ve never performed even one act of charity.
Have you really checked the recipient’s needs? Have you generated the right motivation before giving? Have you performed the action with meditation on the circle of the three?
And if you’ve given with pride, then no matter how great your gift, it’s been wasted; your giving has been a joke.
Thus, you can see how difficult perfect charity can be. I’m not just being negative; I’m being realistic. Make sure that whatever you do becomes worthwhile. If you practice with understanding, it can be powerful and psychologically effective, have real meaning and, without doubt, bring the peaceful realizations you desire. On the other hand, if you do your practices half-heartedly and without understanding, all you’ll get is depressed.
Therefore, don’t think that charity is physical—it’s mental. Charity is turning the mind away from and releasing miserly attachment. That’s fantastic. It’s meditation, a psychological state of mind and very effective.
You should also avoid making charity of things that hurt others. For example, you shouldn’t donate to war efforts. Sometimes you might be asked to give money to people fighting in the name of religion, but how can supporting war be spiritual? It’s impossible. You have to check carefully that your charitable giving does not bring harm.
It’s extremely difficult to practice Dharma such that it diminishes your delusions, but if you can, it’s most worthwhile; it will really shake your ego. Even one small act of charitable giving motivated by the intention to realize everlasting, peaceful enlightenment can be incredibly effective and really shatter your attachment.
There are three kinds of charity: giving material objects, giving knowledge-wisdom, and saving others from danger. You should do whichever of these you can, with as much understanding as possible, according to your ability.
The ultimate aim of charity is perfect enlightenment, so you should dedicate your acts of charity to this goal.
But we don’t do that, do we? If somebody’s cold, we just toss him a blanket—“Warm enough? OK, good”—and leave it at that. If someone’s thirsty, we just give her a drink—“Thirst finished? OK, good”— and that that’s the end of it. Our goals are so temporal and shortsighted that our giving becomes just another material trip.
Our understanding of charity is too superficial. Instead, we should help others with temporal needs by understanding that in order to reach enlightenment, they need a healthy body and mind, and give in order to help their Dharma practice, dedicating our merit to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.
Author: Lama Yeshe
Editor: Travis May
Featured Image: Flickr/Wonderlane, Images in article: Courtesy of Author