At this time of the year, we are inundated with appeals from charitable organizations, requesting our assistance for various philanthropic projects. Sadly, there are many organizations whose main beneficiaries are their own officers and professional fundraising contractors, and therefore it is always important to perform ‘due diligence’ when faced with these requests.
However, there are thousands of truly worthwhile causes, and many organizations are performing genuinely admirable work. Still, unless we have unlimited funds at our disposal, we cannot give to all. How, then, do we make decisions regarding charitable giving?
The Dharma tells us that generosity is the wish to benefit others, sharing whatever time, energy, talents, and possessions we have. It is the first among the Ten Transcendent Excellences, and the gateway to all other skillful actions.
The Buddha Shakyamuni said:
If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of miserliness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift. But because beings do not know, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they eat without having given. The stain of miserliness overcomes their minds.
He also instructed us in right giving:
A person of integrity gives a gift with a sense of conviction, attentively, in season, with an empathetic heart. A person of integrity gives a gift without adversely affecting self or others.
Furthermore, the Buddha explained that there are four main types of generosity:
- Giving material aid
- Giving protection from harm, oppression, or fear
- Giving love by wishing happiness for all, without expectation of reward
- Sharing the teachings on spiritual truths of the Dharma
Of these, giving Dharma is most beneficial, for ourselves and others, and thus we should prioritize acts of generosity that promote the understanding and practice of the teachings. The remaining types of generosity can also be prioritized: giving love is superior to giving protection, and protecting others is superior to giving material aid.
Once we have prioritized the four types of giving, we still must select the recipients of our generosity. In this also, the Dharma is explicit: we have a karmic duty to assist those who are proximate (our neighbors), especially those who directly ask for our assistance.