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Goodness and Generosity Perverted:
Santikaro and Phra Phaisan Visalo have been long time partners in the struggle to reform Thai Buddhism. Both have been deeply influenced by the pioneering efforts of the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Phra Dharmapitok (P. A. Payutto). They are not only concerned to rectify erroneous understandings of core dharma principles, but also working to see that these principles play a guiding role in the development of Thai society. This chapter is an attempt to bring together their written perspectives on the nature and significance of dåna (generosity) and puñña (goodness/merit) into one essay. While the two halves of this chapter were written separately, we hope the reader will find enriching the shared perspectives of these two spiritual friends (kalyåˆamittå).
Dåna : Teachings and Ideals
Another understanding of dåna places it among the perfections (påram¥) . Both Theravada and Mahayana listdåna first among the “virtues for crossing over” the seas of egoistic becoming to reach the further shore of nirvana. A remarkable passage in Ven. Buddhaghosa’s The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), a Theravada classic, presages the Mahayana in its explanation of the påram¥:
For the Great Beings’ minds retain their balance by giving preference to beings’ welfare, by dislike of beings’ suffering, by desire for the various successes achieved by beings to last, and by impartiality towards all beings. And to all beings they give gifts, which are a source of pleasure, without discriminating thus: “It must be given to this one; it must not be given to this one.” And to avoid doing harm to beings they undertake the precepts of virtue … Through equanimity (upekkhå) they expect no reward. Having thus fulfilled the Perfections, these [divine abidings] then perfect all the good states classed as the Ten Powers, the Four Kinds of Fearlessness, the Six Kinds of Knowledge Not Shared [by disciples], and the Eighteen States of the Awakened One. This is how they bring to perfection all the good states beginning with giving. (Buddhaghosa 1991, 352–3; Vis.ix,124)
To free ourselves from suffering, and to live a life of compassion, we must give. What a beautifully simple and powerful perspective! We start by giving what comes relatively easy and gradually learn to hold nothing back, not even ourselves.
Jåtaka of Dåna
Ultimately, we perfect the virtue of generosity by giving all that we have, and then ourselves—all of ourselves—until nobody is left. The Vessantara Jåtaka, the final and most famous of all the birth stories, illustrates the unlimited giving of the bodhisattva. This tale has had an incalculable influence on the cultures of Southeast Asia; anyone seeking to understand these Buddhist cultures must know this story. It describes a life focused on giving until it hurts, with devas, parents, and all of nature supporting, even requiring, altruism. The drama of Vessantara’s life illustrates the great emotional complexity and turmoil in giving away social position and responsibility, wealth, family, children, and finally his beautiful, loyal, and beloved wife Maddi. The dramatic tension becomes high as those dearest to him suffer as a result of his giving.
At the age of eight, Vessantara thought to himself:
As he matures into manhood, Prince Vessantara is given immense wealth many times over. Whatever he is given, Vessantara passes it on. Gods and kings collude in giving him even more—to give away! Finally, he is asked for and willingly bestows the auspicious white elephant that arrived with his birth. The people of Sivi cannot accept the loss of this sacred, rain-bringing, battle-invincible elephant to a rival polity. Though they can find no fault with Vessantara, they demand his banishment, and his father, the king, gives in to the mob’s demands. So Vessantara begins to suffer for his generosity.
The price is an ascetic life for himself, his wife, and their children—and the real punishment for this big-hearted giver is seven months of nothing to give. Isolated in the forest, he finds himself unable to perfect himself further in the practice of giving. Our exiled ascetic hero’s first big chance to give is to the evil Brahmin Jujaka, whose wife demands Vessantara’s son and daughter as her slaves. Vessantara can only but give. The children’s parting from their father and longing for their mother (away gathering food) is heartrending for all. Maddi arrives late to find the children gone and her husband in dumb silence. The pathos is touching, disturbing. Yet the story makes it clear that Vessantara had to do what he did. That is never questioned. It is his purpose in life, necessary for his future realization of Buddhahood.
Later, when Maddi’s turn comes, the suitor is the god Sakka, disguised as a Brahmin. Vessantara gives her away immediately, and she obeys. However, this is merely a test, arranged by Sakka to help move the story along to its climax. Maddi is returned as soon as Vessantara and she have passed the test. The children, however, undergo abuse, beatings, and hard work from Jujaka, who accidentally takes them back to Sivi and ends up ransoming them to Vessantara’s father. The tale ends happily with Vessantara reinstated in Sivi and everyone reconciled except Jujaka, who gorges himself to death. Having passed the tests and fulfilled his destiny, Vessantara enjoys boundless wealth to give away until the end of his days.
From the perspective of this final Jåtaka, dåna is the final påram¥ to be perfected. Thus, dåna is both first and last. What is often portrayed as the most basic virtue turns out to be the culmination as well, the last perfection fulfilled before the bodhisattva is ready for his final birth. This shows that the spirit of dåna runs throughout and perfects all the påram¥. For the bodhisattva, there is no tolerance, wisdom, and compassion without wholehearted unlimited giving. One must give completely of oneself in order for compassion and the other perfections to be realized.
Dåna for the Sake of Community
The teaching of dåna continued through the Sangha founded by the Buddha. Monks and nuns walked mindfully out of forests and ashrams, across fields, through the pathways of villages and streets of cities, stopping at houses to beg silently. Not merely a stereotype, the practice still survives today in Southeast Asia and helps sustain Buddhism as a living reality. We can picture the shaven head of a nun or monk gently bowed over a bowl as a village child, housewife, or old man offers a spoon of rice, a dollop of curry, a piece of fruit. Dåna is especially powerful when it supports the sangha, which understood according to the original emphasis (supa†ipanno “those who practice well”) includes women and householders. In this way, the four assemblies of laity and clergy, male and female, interact through the practice of dåna, thereby making the religious tradition whole.
The Buddha praised gifts given to a community of serious practitioners (sanghadåna) over gifts given to individuals, even the most exalted of all (himself). Giving to the Thus-Gone-One who no longer needs anything is valued less than giving to those who are training in the way, their guides, and the community that will keep this noble way alive. Such dåna is for the sake of maintaining the centers of tradition, learning, and cultivation that support all who follow the way, whether home-leavers or householders. Individually, only buddhas fulfill the highest ideal of practice; by including the noble community, even struggling members are uplifted so that they contribute, too.
This is the Sangha of upright conduct
Community, as understood in early Buddhism and as practiced in Buddhist cultures, naturally involves different levels of dåna. However, consumerism and other modern forces have made this time-honored approach to community precarious. The Thai experience illustrates this well.
Traditional Buddhism throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia has had an agrarian village base. Here, “doing good” (thambun, bun from puñña, “goodness,” or more commonly “merit”) is the central operative value. The most prominent practice of thambun consists of giving food to the monks, especially when they are out gathering alms, as well as making other donations to the temple. Before capitalism took over in Thailand, such dåna was almost always in kind, since there was not much money in village economies. Dåna supplied the material goods needed by the monks personally and for daily maintenance of the temple. Because the temple served as community center, “town hall,” clinic, counseling center, news exchange, entertainment stage, and market, in addition to its religious and spiritual functions, supporting it meant supporting the entire community and most of its activities. In fact, until modernization, temples were communal property more than monastic property (though this was not the case in all Buddhist societies). Generosity sustained them.
For their part, the monks were expected to live simply and unselfishly, to look after the temple and to uphold traditions. When somebody wanted to talk about a problem, or the weather, the monks would listen. When a ritual, blessing, or chant was needed, the monks would go. They were available around the clock, like country doctors used to be in the United States. Actually, many of the monks were country doctors. Being around, being available, and being helpful were central to the life of village monks, including the itinerant meditators who would come and go.
Phra Dharmapitok (P. A. Payutto), the leading Thai Buddhist scholar and writer of recent years, concurs that the core principle of the old system was bun, goodness. Bun is what circulated within the religious economy of Thai life, back when the divisions between family, economics, community, politics, religion, and personal life were tenuous. Villagers gave what they had to give and considered “good,” worthy of giving: their best food, robe material, betel nut, tools, materials for repairing temple property, labor, and craft skills. The monks gave advice, consolations, blessings, rituals, teachings, meditation instruction, leadership, writing, and other specialized skills. Most important, the participation of monks gave religious meaning to daily acts of decency, generosity, and kindness, elevating these from the realm of mutual obligations to spiritual significance.
Bun circulated within fairly large loops connecting infants with grandparents, the better-off with the poor, women and men, temple dwellers, ancestors, spirits, even honored water buffaloes. The temple dwellers might include an old abbot who had been around for years, an itinerant or two, newly ordained “temporary monks” from the village or nearby, novices, nuns, temple boys, and senior citizens. Thus, the giving was seldom binary and tended to circulate widely. As bun, dåna circulated as the blood of the community so long as its members understood goodness mutually.
The Commodification of Dåna and Puñña
Here, too, the Jåtakas have played an especially powerful role as myths that influence popular beliefs. For example, the MahåjanakaJåtaka (J.vi.35) implies that if one has accumulated enough merit in past lives, one will be spared from misfortune or get lucky in this lifetime, often through the divine intervention of certain gods. However, Phra Dharmapitok (P. A. Payutto) remarks, “Overemphasis on rebirth into heaven realms and hell realms ignores the good which should be aspired to in the present . . . Good actions are performed for the sake of profit. Overemphasis on past and future lives ignores the importance of the qualities of moral rectitude and desire for goodness, which in turn becomes a denial of, or even an insult to, the human potential to practice and develop truth and righteousness for their own sakes” (Payutto 1993, 50). Such limitations and distortions are to be expected in popular religiosity; they are part of the local culture over which ordinary people have some control. Modernity brings in powerful influences that villagers have little influence on.
Capitalism intensified this shift away from the operative principle of goodness and onto money, that is, from bun to baht (the Thai currency). Increasingly, donors give baht or food purchased with baht, rather than prepare food and other offerings themselves. Village skills and handicrafts have suffered, partly because they were not voluntarily practiced and learned at the temple. More time was spent in the fields working on cash crops; economic migration to urban areas increased; and children saw less of their parents. Communal work and shared labor disappeared; even the temples had to start paying. People no longer wandered through or hung around the temple as they used to. Things that did not earn money were devalued. Eventually, Buddhism was expected to aid economic success, magically if not concretely.
In many towns nowadays, monks queue up at dawn before market stalls where ready-made food offerings are for sale. Such commercial food usually includes additives such as MSG and sugar, and contributes to poor health among many monks. Donors queue up on the other side, pay their baht, pick up a tray, and take their turn putting food into the waiting monks’ bowls (or buckets carried by temple boys, depending on how many offerings are purchased). Then donors and recipients go their own ways. All very efficient, in the wonderful way of consumer capitalism, with donors putting less time and care into their offerings and monks, accordingly, appreciating them less.
Rather than food offered as bun in promise of better karmic fruits, baht is given in hope of more baht (and dollars)—successful business ventures, passing exams for career advancement, winning the lottery. The monks, too, have become more money-minded. Monastic titles are linked to funds raised and spent on temple buildings (not to mention what goes into the envelopes passed under tables, e.g., for permission to travel abroad). Temple services such as the large funeral industry cost money and are treated as investments by temple committees, complete with outsourcing of flowers, coffins, and catering. City monks indirectly probe how much dåna will be given—cash in envelope—before deciding what meal invitations to accept. Of course, monks travel, study, and live in the same consumer economy as everyone else and thus need money. Nothing is free any more.
The magical side of popular Buddhism, too, is now much more about money and making money, than about protection from spirits and disease. Amulets are big business. Stories circulate about people getting rich after donating to a certain monk (e.g. Luang Pho Khun) or temple (e.g. the infamous Wat Phra Thammakai). Luang Pho Khun became famous during the 90s economic boom when rumors spread of people, including royalty, getting rich after making donations to him. The rumors may have been spread by those around his temple who benefited from the large influx of “merit makers.”
Wat Phra Thammakai is a still unresolved scandal concerning misuse of temple funds. The abbot personally invested in gold mines, which he attempted to justify as contributing to business efficiency in producing devotional objects “marketed” (Thammakai uses such terminology themselves) at margins that would make ordinary entrepreneurs drool. Thammakai has unabashedly embraced capitalism, often distorting the Buddha’s teaching to win followers amongst the merchant and professional classes. For a while, the abbot was suspended pending resolution of criminal charges. However, these charges were dropped two years ago during the Taksin regime. There is some speculation that the abbot—believed to be the source of all buddhas by the most cultish of his followers—curried favor with the Taksin government so that the charges were dropped.
The degeneration of the practice of puñña into such crass forms of spiritual materialism also promotes a kind of spiritual class-ism, reminiscent of the Hindu caste system. In such a system, the rich are better positioned to gain favorable rebirth because of their wealth. Also not unknown in other religions, such as the medieval Christian Church’s selling indulgences in Europe, rich Buddhists attempt to buy their way into heaven by building large, gaudy stupas and temples. Wat Phra Thammakai again serves as an appropriate example:
[Thammakai] not only promises worldly achievement to its followers, but also uses marketing techniques to create a demand for merit through “direct sale.” Merit is commodified and diversified in different forms for followers to have more choice. Competition is encouraged between volunteers who solicit donations and rewards are given to those who can achieve the highest amount of donations. These techniques are derived from the idea of its leader that “Buddhism is an excellent commodity that gets bad sales because of the lack of good marketing strategies.” (Visalo 1999, 242)
Perhaps what is of greatest concern here is the distorted karmic understanding that rich people have earned their merit and hence deserve their elevated status. This likewise implies, of course, that people who are poor also deserve their situation. This simplistic equation reverses the causality properly taught in Buddhism. Its corrupted logic reflects a deterministic understanding of karma that ignores the role of structural violence, for often it is economic and other social factors that force the poor into professions that violate the lay precepts and create bad karma, such as working in slaughter houses (killing), prostitution (unskillful sexuality), fraudulent marketing (lying), drug dealing (use of intoxicants), and downright theft. Generally, monks have little understanding of social factors and merely focus on the individual level and disembodied tenets memorized in their dharma classes.
Recovering Sangha by Making Meaningful Merit
Recovering sangha is one way that we can create non-consumerist breathing space. Since they have more material resources than society’s poor, monastics, too, ought to consider dåna as something for them to give. While this commonly occurs in forest practice temples, it is not common in city temples. From the other side, lay practitioners need not be limited by old stereotypes. Their practice of generosity need not be confined to giving only to monks. One can give to other people, and even animals, for this is a practice that can be carried out in various ways.
Traditional Approaches to Reciprocal Merit Making
In 1980, the Coordinating Group for Religion in Society (CGRS) initiated a new form of merit making called pha pa khao. Pha pa are the Thai words for “forest robe” and khao means “rice.” This practice is adapted from the traditional one of offering robes to monks (pha pa), which is a popular ceremony in which people collect money and offer it, along with robes, to monks for various purposes, e.g. building temples or supporting monastic education. In this new ceremony of pha pa khao, rice is collected, as well as money, in order to support rice banks or rice cooperatives in the local villages. Rice banks and cooperatives have been set up in many villages to assist indebted villagers by providing them with cheap rice or rice loans at low interest. In some years, however, due to drought, these projects could not get enough rice to help their members. To address this problem, those living in other villages have initiated pha pa khao to raise rice and money for the affected villages. Such practices not only help rice banks and cooperatives to function properly, but also raise funds to support other village projects, such as educational funds for the young and free school lunches.
In addition to applying traditional ceremonies for community development, new social programs have been set up based on the concept of puñña. Satcha sasomsap or “savings with truthfulness” is one example. Satcha sasomsap is another type of local savings bank where people keep their savings and receive cheap loans, enabling them to avoid commercial banks and moneylenders. Satcha sasomsap was initiated by a monk, Phra Subin Panito, who successfully organized almost three hundred groups in many provinces. More than half of the villages in his home province of Trad have set up such groups. What makes satcha sasomsap distinct from ordinary local saving banks is the reliance on Buddhist virtues such as truthfulness. Every member of satcha sasomsap is required to make and keep a pledge of truthfulness that the same amount of money will be deposited in the group bank every month. This promise of truthfulness helps to maintain their commitment to the group. The concept of puñña is another principle of these groups. Members are told that their participation is a way of practicing puñña since their savings can be used to help people in trouble. In the process of making loan decisions, priority is given to people who are in trouble, such as needing money to pay medical bills or school tuition for children.
This is another attempt to revive the traditional virtues of compassion and generosity. In the past these virtues were so integrated into the life of village people that they could be seen in all details of their daily life, such as providing drinking water in front of houses, giving food and lodging to strangers, building shelters for travelers, giving a helping hand with rice harvesting, constructing houses or roads, etc. All these acts of cooperation were regarded as the practice of puñña. The systematic organization of satcha sasomsap, however, has developed this practice to another level. Rules and regulations are laid out for collective decision-making and transparency. Another difference is that money is mobilized, instead of labor as in the past. Further, these funds circulate within the local village economy rather than being siphoned off to distant financial centers. These are examples of applying merit making practice to structural issues such as supporting community work and reducing poverty.
New Approaches to Reciprocal Merit Making
For example, one can join a group of friends to cook food for the orphans, the disabled, or the HIV infected. Those with artistic skills may arrange some recreational activities for the underprivileged. One group often neglected is prison inmates who certainly appreciate compassion. Paying visits to the elderly can also teach one about the age-old truth of life’s transience. There are no limits to this alternative merit making: sparing free time to teach street kids, reading books to blind people, or volunteering for the community or at a local temple. In fact, the easiest way to make merit is simply to be good to those around us, be they our own parents, children, siblings, or neighbors. A caring gesture or a smile can bridge the gaps among people. Why wait until the last moment of one’s life to do good to each other? The true nature of merit making is “opening up”—learning to be compassionate and accepting towards every human being, regardless of differences in social status, religious beliefs, political ideologies, and so on. Discrimination is a form of violence and bad karma, often committed unconsciously and breeding more violence in return. The ultimate merit comes from opening our hearts to each other.
Some people believe that every religious act must involve elaborate rituals. In fact, recitation of prayers and other customary rules are simply tactics to enhance collective harmony and to prepare the bodies and minds of participants before a meritorious act begins, like cleaning a bowl before filling it with water. However, these rituals are not always necessary and, in themselves, do not bestow any sacred power to the performer. Fundamentally, a genuinely meritorious act of giving must provide the recipient with what he or she truly needs. Moreover, the amount of the donation is less important than the good, pure will in wishing well for other beings. Whether we are inviting others to make merit together with us, or are being asked to join in the activity, a meritorious deed is done with a joyful heart, not out of pride, fear, or with a competitive motive. Buddhism emphasizes that a charitable deed should be guided by mindfulness and wisdom in order to ensure that the meritorious deed will yield a wholesome result.
The beginning of vassa, the traditional rainy season retreat, was the occasion for launching the handbook mentioned above. Within three years, it received such a good response from the public and media that it was reprinted forty times, amounting to nearly two hundred thousands copies. The handbook has become popular as a gift or souvenir for important events such as birthdays, anniversaries, and funerals. Most people buy this book (or give it to their friends) because it opens their eyes to the proper practice of puñña. It helps them to realize that puñña can be practiced at any time and has nothing to do with an unintelligible religious ceremony.
In 2003, another handbook was published, a smaller and more concise collection of merit making practice with the title 30 Practices of Puñña for the Well-Being of Life and Society. At the back of the booklet, the addresses of non-profit organizations are provided for those who want to do meritorious acts by volunteering or donating money. For those who seek spiritual well being, places to do meditation in various parts of the country are also included. The booklet was put on sale at gas stations in Bangkok one week before the beginning of the vassa. Again, within a few days the booklet became very popular, with much positive coverage in the media. Nine reprints have already been made, totaling two hundred thousands copies. The fact that both handbooks are still in demand reflects the enthusiasm of modern people to know and participate in creative puñña practices that contribute to the well being of both individuals and society. People are showing that they want an alternative to conventional dånapractice that is wasteful, ritualistic, materialistic, and just another form of consumerism.
Portions of this paper are based on Santikaro’s article “Practicing Generosity in a Consumer World,” which appeared in Hooked!: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume edited by Stephanie Kaza (Boston: Shambala Books, 2005).
generosity (dåna), virtue (s¥la), renunciation (nekkhamma), discernment (paññå), energy/persistence (viriya), patience/forbearance (khanti), truthfulness (sacca), determination (adhi††håna), good will (mettå), and equanimity (upekkhå).
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