The First Perfection: Charity in Buddhism and Burmese Culture
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The First Perfection: Charity in Buddhism and Burmese Culture

By Min Zin JULY, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.6

Charity, one of the Buddhist perfections, has long been an integral part of Burmese culture. But history—and habit—have obscured its real social and spiritual value. "If you knew what I know about dana (generosity), you would not let one meal go by without sharing it," the Buddha once said. Dana is the Pali term for giving, generosity and charity, and it is an integral part of the Buddhist ethos. It includes giving of material support to those in need; giving of spiritual knowledge to those in despair; giving of love to those who are abandoned; and giving of protection to those who are threatened. Having given away something with the intention of making life easier for another being, one immediately feels a happiness that fills one’s heart and mind. The Venerable Ashin Thittila of Burma explains the benefits of dana thus: "The object in giving is to eliminate the craving that lies dormant within oneself; apart from which there are the attendant blessings of generosity such as the joy of service, the ensuing happiness and consolation, and the alleviation of suffering." The main idea concerning generosity or any of the ten parami (or "perfections", of which dana is the first and foremost) is that there should be no strings attached. The Buddha urged his followers to give without any expectation of personal reward. Basically, the ultimate aim of generosity practice is the transformation of the individual from a self-centered, greed-driven existence to one that is other-centered and greed-free. Giving is literally a practice in letting go—one that increasingly flies in the face of the acquisitive tendencies that drive modern society. However, even in societies that are not completely consumerist in orientation, true generosity faces serious social pressures. In Burma, for instance, dana has been misinterpreted by successive reigns and regimes to serve the interests of the ruling elite, who profess to promote the values espoused by Buddhism. Notwithstanding such distortions, evidence of the importance of charity in Burmese culture is abundant, from the golden glory of the Shwedagon Pagoda (which owes its magnificence to the donations of countless devotees) to the familiar sight of mendicant monks receiving alms. Nor is charity reserved for those who choose the religious life. Rest houses are set up all over the country for the comfort of travelers, and vessels of clear, cool water can be found on every roadside, put there for the benefit of passersby. These distinctive clay water pots are replenished daily, often by local people who have little else to offer, but who remain intent upon contributing something for the well-being of others. "The inclination to charity is very strong" among Burmese, noted Fielding Hall in his book, The Soul of a People, published in 1902. "The Burmese give in charity far more in proportion to their wealth than any other people." These days, however, many observers take a more jaundiced view of such impulses. "Everything has gone to pot here," remarked one respected Burmese writer recently. "You can’t paint a rosy picture of so-called ‘Burmese beauty’ anymore. Dana has become a self-serving tool to acquire wealth and power," complained the octogenarian author, who has written extensively on Buddhist literature in Burma. "Even among religious people, dana amounts to little more than sending a money-transfer to the next life." Under the current military regime, dana is often represented as a panacea for poverty. In its propaganda, the junta stresses that a lack of generosity, and not poverty as such, is the real problem facing the country’s many destitute citizens: "If you say you can’t make donations because you lack wealth, you can never expect to become wealthy," reads one typical pronouncement in a state-run newspaper. This Catch-22 may be cold comfort for the poor, but for the regime, it makes perfectly good sense. Why blame decades of mismanagement for the country’s many economic woes, when the Buddhist scriptures (according to the junta) say that poverty is simply a product of parsimony? Given the prevalence of such self-serving interpretations of Buddhist principles in public discourse (which is almost totally monopolized by official opinion), it is not surprising that many Burmese have strayed from Buddhism altogether without even realizing it. Many who profess to be Buddhists often direct their charitable offerings according to the advice of soothsayers and astrologers in order to accrue as much merit for themselves as possible. Not only is this practice based on misplaced faith in the powers of pseudo-spiritual fakirs; it also runs contrary to the Buddhist conception of charity as an act free of self-interest. Even more disturbing, from the standpoint of the social impact of such distortions of Buddhist principles, is the way charity has become a form of bribery or even a means of laundering ill-gotten gains.

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