The Perfection of Giving (Dāna)

It ain't easy being green

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
May 15, 1991

A man is rich in proportion to the things he can afford to let alone.

-- H.D. Thoreau

In the Mettā-sutta it is said that one who is skilled in being of benefit to others is one who has the following virtues:

There was a discussion recently on this Forum concerning whether truly religious teachers would or could charge money to impart their wisdom to others raised a number of very interesting comments from several people. I'd like to thank all of you who contributed to that discussion for giving me much to think (and rethink) about. I suppose each one of us has to make a personal decision about when supporting a teacher or a religious community makes sense and when it stops making sense. I have found that my own answer to that question revolves around the above mentioned four virtues outlined in the Metta Sutta.

I have never had any problem with the idea of helping to support monks or even lay teachers whose simplicity of life inspired me to simplify my own way of living just a little more. Paradoxically, I find myself wanting to give all I can to people who themselves desire no more than one meal a day, a simple robe and a small room. I have known such people, some of them Buddhists, some not.

Conversely, the more people want, the less generous I feel. Unfortunately, I have seen more than a few teachers progress very gradually from living very simply to living lives of affluence. It is sad to see a dharma centre evolve from the stage of struggling for daily surival to the stage of “needing” photocopiers, computers with laser printers, video recorders, elaborate audio systems, cameras, and all manner of the most recent technology—all justified, of course, in the name of spreading the Dharma (whose name is simplicity).

I'm sure that many of us have witnessed the effects of men (and in some very rare cases, women) obsessed with the need to establish monastaries, abbeys, temples, seminaries and retreat centres in every corner (or at least in the more pleasant corners) of the continent. I personally have seen more than a few monks in Canada develop an overwhelming urge to take the Dharma to southern Mexico in mid-January. And even though Mexico has waited patiently for 2500 years, the urgency has always suddenly been great enough to necessitate airline transportation so that monks can rush down to explain to dharma-hungry Mexicans just what the Perfection of Wisdom literature means when it says “No dharma was ever imparted to anyone by anyone at any time at any place.”

I hope I do not sound like a starry-eyed romantic or some kind of Buddhist fundamentalist Vinaya thumper insisting that things must always remain exactly the way they were in Shakyamuni's time. I hope instead that I sound like a person who has grown increasingly alarmed at the volume of devastation that the patterns of consumption that the affluent fifth of the world's population have been bringing to this planet.

When Buddhist teachers come from the third world to a continent whose population has consumed more in the past forty years (according to an article by Alan During in May-June 1991 issue of Canadian Wildlife) than all the rest of human civilization combined, my wish would be that these teachers put every ounce of their energy into showing us—not telling us, but showing us by their conduct—how tragically misguided we have been and how very much our misguidedness is costing every living thing in the world of the present and the world of the ever diminishing future.

When I see Buddhist teachers who fail to demonstrate those things, and who instead begin to acquire the patterns of consumption that we need so desparately to learn to escape, I'm afraid that my pockets become as empty to them as their discourses about emptiness become to me.

Richard Hayes

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Overhead expenses of selling us what we don't really need

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
May 16, 1991

Robin responded to my squib by saying:

Richard Hayes, I think you're too idealistic or romantic: This audio-visual equipment and electronic supports, etc. is beautiful and exciting, and a healthy, inquisitive mind can unneurotically rejoice in it. It's not bad to pile up equipment. It's bad to grasp after it. I've used such equipment to great good effect at dharma centers. It's not so bad. For example, it makes it possible for us, whose memory is so poor, to have transcriptions of the great teachings of modern teachers.

Perhaps, Robin, if you didn't depend so much on all your beautiful gadgetry, you might have a better memory.

But I didn't mean to come across as being anti-technology. Obviously if I were, I would not have been able to read your electronically produced and transmitted message in the first place and would not be answering it by e-mail.

What I did wish to voice is a concern about so-called dharma teachers becoming overly reliant on methods that continue rather than correct American patterns of consumption. America, Japan and Germany are among the nations whose per capita consumption of energy is about 1400 percent of the per capita energy consumption in the other 80 percent of the world—and about 3800 percent of the per capita energy consumption in Tibet.

What these figures mean is that most of the great teachers, whose teachings you claim to admire so much, probably consume less energy (and produce less resultant pollution) in a lifetime of 76 years than you would expend in just two years. Part of the reason for this difference is that they have developed their human memories. We have learned to rely on electronic data banks. They have vision. We have only television. In living as they do, I think the vast majority of Tibetan teachers may be a little closer to the spirit of the Dharma than their enthusiastic high-tech disciples.

You see, Robin, we live in a society in which the average person uses an amount of energy that requires the consumption of 18 kilograms (40 pounds) of petroleum and coal per day. The average American also consumes about 12 kg (26 pounds) of farm products per day (owing in part to extraordinarily wasteful farming methods and in part to the wasteful habit of eating meat instead of the grains that go into feeding livestock).

These patterns of consumption result in death to countless hundreds of thousands of living beings—death that could be avoided and is therefore (from a Buddhist perspective) both pointless and obscene. In the context of this situation, piling up audiovisual equipment is not a very healthy thing to do. Whether or not you are attached to what you have piled up misses the point entirely. And missing the point is not what Buddhism is all about.

I am not, I claim, romantic or idealistic in my views on these issues. What I am, perhaps, is simply quite sick of the collective madness of an overly prosperous society—and disheartened to see so many Buddhists falling into our patterns of consumption rather than showing us the traditional alternatives.

Still, wandering yogins are not scholars. To have a pandit, you need a desk, writing equipment, a library, depndable shelter, and a publishing house.
When I read this sentence, I had to go look up the word “need.” I had been under the impression that it meant something like to require, or not to be able to do without. It turns out I was right. I therefore claim that you misused the word. Scholars do not need any of the things you mentioned. Let me give just two real-life examples. In my opinion one of the greatest scholars of Buddhism this century was the Jaina monk Muni Jambuvijaya. Because he was a wandering mendicant, he was not allowed to stay in the same village for more than three nights in a row. Because he was in perpetual motion, he could not be burdened with more than he could carry. He therefore had no library, except for the hundreds of books (in Sanskrit, Pali, Ardhamagadhi and Tibetan) that he carried around in his almost flawless memory. Not only did he not have a desk, a library and dependable shelter, he didn't even have a loin cloth.

If a Jaina monk is too bizarre example, let me cite one a little closer to home. Another of the really great pandits this century was the late Gangnatha Jha. He did not take the formal vows of a wandering ascetic, but he preferred to have no fixed abode. I have heard from a woman who knew him well that he carried all his clothing (that is, both of his dhotis) and his library in a straw basket. He wrote more books and produced more high quality translations (about Nyāya, the Mīmāṃsā schools and Buddhism) than you and I will write during our two lives combined (even including all this garbage we daily foist off onto the Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies.)

The great tragedy of our age is that we have grown accustomed to thinking we need things that in fact we probably only desire because we find them convenient and comfortable. Buddhism, as I see it, is a systematic set of methods for learning how to distinguish between what we really need and what we only think we need. Buddhists who blur that distinction are, I think, just playing around stirring their Cheerios.

Lord Buddha didn't charge because he didn't have any overhead. But Tantra requires much more stuff and much more complex housing arrangements. It requires more over-head. The financial requirements of that sort of religion and those sorts of practices are a whole 'nother story. There are more texts. There is a great deal of ritual equipment. There are staff members who must be hired to devote themselves to maintenance of the facility. And there are hierarchies of teachers who must be honored and who, since they have traveled far in order to teach some specific tutelary deity practice or whatnot, have serious travel expenses.

Thank you for articulating so clearly why it is that many of us have more interest in the teachings of Lord Buddha than in the teachings of Tantra. It has nothing to do with some fanciful notions that the older teachings are more authentic or that Nikāya-yāna is more purely Buddhist and less contaminated by Hindu practices. Contrary to what you have implied in some earlier messages, that is not the issue for me at all.

For me the issue is that the teachings of the Buddha are an elegant expression of precisely what modern North Americans need to hear and heed, whereas the elaborate ritualism of the tantrayana tends to be a waste of both natural resources and human energy. Learning how to be wasteful may have been what medieval Tibetans needed to hear, but I don't personally feel it is what modern North Americans need to hear.

Richard Hayes
Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University