I was brought up by an old-fashioned nanny in a household where I learned to say “thank you” practically before learning to say “Mummy,” and where icons of the past, such as ancestral portraits, were revered. Subsequently, I have lived an emancipated life as an actress, journalist, party giver and spiritual seeker. Nonetheless, pondering my experiences in Buddhist philanthropy for Inquiring Mind, I notice that my expectations around celebrations of gratitude and immortality are not only surreally out of date but spiritually immature.
In one of his many lives, the Buddha was a hare who lived peacefully in a mountain forest eating grass and leaves. His friends were an ape, a jackal and a young otter whom he taught to eschew evil and do good by giving alms to the poor and spending holy days fasting. However, he was distressed that, as a rabbit, he had nothing much of worth to offer. After much thought, he decided to offer himself.
One day, hopping about the woods, he met a Brahmin traveler and was inspired to say to him, “Kindle a fire for your dinner.” Once the fire was roaring, the rabbit shook the dust off his fluffy coat and jumped in, finally content that he was giving himself as a meal to the Brahmin and dying in the flames of compassion and purification.
Although this may seem a bit extreme, scientists have actually proven that we are hardwired to be compassionate and kind. When sensors are connected to various parts of the human brain and films of compassionate acts shown to the subjects, the pleasure center in the brain lights up at the sight of altruistic behavior. We enjoy being helpful and philanthropic.
Since we are made happy by seeing other living beings happier or more comfortable, why is it that institutions find it infinitely easier to raise money for bricks and mortar than for people or animals? Build a monastery and the money for architecture comes easily. Try to raise funds for the people who teach, live and work there, and few are interested in giving. The Metropolitan Museum attaches a bronze plaque bearing the donor’s name to the door of a multimillion-dollar room. For a higher donation, one can have a marble plaque. Donors are lined up to claim plaque-bearing rooms. However, I’m told, few want to fund operating expenses, which include salaries for museum and maintenance staff. The same is true for organizations such as theaters and churches. Donors prefer to give toward something concrete. It seems odd, when you stop to think about it, when what we truly remember from those plaque-bearing institutions are marvelous plays in the theater, animals peeking through iron bars at the zoo, or flowers in beautiful gardens.
Why do so many of us make the mistake of thinking that stone or wood bestows immortality? I think it’s because we see a material thing manifested and imagine that it is durable, and, wishing to be so ourselves, we imagine generations of people thanking us and admiring us, even celebrating us for our largesse. I thought that way myself. And now I see the error of my ways.
For my first foray into Buddhist building, I contributed to a modest meditation cottage at an institution with which I had a long connection. It was in fact a “cottage small by a waterfall,” a wooden yurt destined to be filled with a circle of zafus facing away from its lovely view. I felt quite puffed up with pleasure over this fine new sacred space, and I looked forward to the promised (but yet undetermined) day of its initiation. I thought they would have a little meditation ceremony and thank me.
What happened instead was a gala occasion complete with a parade of Tibetan flags, Chinese flute players and general feasting to honor the installation of a special bowl in the stream. Yet the date of this opening celebration was not divulged to me, and it occurred while I was briefly away on a trip. I discovered later that it had been great fun and that there had been no mention of me. Chastened but as yet unenlightened, I figured there had been some mistake—an unusual slight I had best overlook.
I was given a second chance at minor immortality when I presented a much-desired statue of the founding priest of a local Buddhist monastery to the shrine room. Again, I anticipated a moment of tribute and thanks, only later to discover the statue behind the ladies’ room door as I visited the restroom during a day’s sitting in the zendo. Returning to my cushion, what could I do but laugh at the likely unintended comment on my grandiosity.
Worried that I was doing “it” wrong, and not a little hurt, I conferred with a Buddhist priest about my expectations in giving to spiritual institutions and my disappointment at their distinct lack of fulfillment. He assured me that two oversights did not make a rule, and then urged me to present his monastery with a much-needed piece of boring equipment. He promised I would be properly celebrated for this munificence. Naturally, my starving vanity bit into this bone with a vicelike grip.
On the appointed day it was raining. The priest and I met in the monastery parking lot, each gripping a black umbrella. We slogged through the red mud and puddles to a shack in which the donated machinery whirred. He lit a bunch of Tibetan incense sticks, planted them in the sloshy muck outside the door, recited a short incomprehensible chant, and we rushed back to our respective cars.
I recognized that my philanthropy to Buddhist institutions provides a lesson—a few short raps with the master’s stick for my need to be important. I come away noticing the mysterious ways of spiritual teaching that always give me what I need, not what I want. For me, there will be no bells and whistles where spiritual giving is concerned.
I was once on a meditation retreat with vipassana teacher Robert Hall. A little tired of sitting and witnessing the boring gyrations of my mind, I said, “Why don’t you go ahead and enlighten us?”
“How do you know you aren’t enlightened?” he responded.
“I expected there would be bells and whistles,” I said.
“Well, there may be,” he said. But I know there won’t be. I’ll just be slogging along in the mud and—finally, necessarily, inevitably, just as in Buddhist philanthropy—I will accept the lesson life is teaching me: to let go of self-importance.
Giving (whether cash or physical help) to individuals—human and animal—is the most satisfying and heartwarming experience, because afterward I see a life made a tiny bit happier. I think Bill Gates understands this secret. His money goes to improving individual lives, not to building monuments. Just to remind myself again of the secret: Bricks and mortar crumble; give support to the people, and they will build the supports they need. Caregivers can create a hospital in a tent. It’s not zoos that are needed to protect animals who are suffering from poachers and overcrowding, but guards who will protect their habitats so the animals can stay at home and be wild.
I decided I was just getting too materialistic with the buildings and things. Helping the people instead of the places might be the answer. I have read about some good models for this. Bill Gates has spent $30 billion on a program based on two simple concepts: “every life is equally valuable” and “to whom much has been given much is expected.” The latter is the principle that started America off in its splendid role as the world’s most generous country of individual philanthropists, the Rockefellers and the Carnegies leading the way. Traditionally, the privilege of money came with the duty to give it away. As a nation-state, however, we are not very philanthropic. According to a recent New York Times piece, our government’s bilateral philanthropy stands about equal with Portugal’s. We are not a kind nation, but we are a nation of kind people.
Philanthropy has become a means of social climbing. Individuals may rise from just about any social stratum to the highest reaches of society in this country by presenting a vast something and having it named for them. A lot gets done this way. Art investments are an important rung in the social ladder. A good example is Robert and Ethel Scull. Robert Scull was a taxi fleet owner from Brooklyn who started buying Robert Rauschenbergs, Jasper Johnses and Andy Warhols when those artists were virtually unknown. (Indeed, Rauschenberg and Johns were surviving by designing store windows at Tiffany’s.) Soon the Sculls’ house became the center of hip New York society. The day I met the Sculls, Ethel was deciding whether to wear a real Courrèges or a fake before being immortalized (and encased) in plaster by Bob Motherwell. They had arrived. And so had the artists.
But what about the beggars outside Tiffany’s? Or the ragged men in the subway? Or on the park bench? To how many people can one dole out dollar bills all day, wondering how many of the recipients are just saving up to buy drugs? What percentage of one’s income is enough? What percentage of one’s time is enough? Overwhelmed, I often do nothing or the wrong thing. Sometimes, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina, so overwhelmed with the enormity of the need, I feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights. What can I give? I guess everything, but I’m just not there yet.
My own hang-ups with helping seem to center on being thanked. I’m coming around, as a matter of self-preservation, to the view that the lesson I came to philanthropy to learn is to love anonymity. This is because if I love whatever life brings me, without expectations, I will be happy. Unfortunately, I did not learn this exclusively by giving to spiritual institutions. Life is chock-a-block with proof that we are unimportant. Buddhists do seem to have it right with the idea that it’s all emptiness. No thing. No fuss.
Life is heartbreakingly full of living desperation. I’ve adopted His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s attitude—that I must keep my sense of humor in the face of suffering—and continue my own foible-filled attempts at alleviating suffering even the tiniest bit. Although the Buddha gave up all his goods and chattel in one life and burned himself up for dinner in another, I don’t believe anyone formally thanked him, and I don’t believe he cared.