By David Braughton
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the suffering we witness daily, especially the suffering of persons who already literally live hand-to-mouth. Whenever tragedy arises—natural disasters, political unrest, armed conflicts, crop failures, pandemics, economic downturns—the world’s poor are the ones most directly affected. It is as if circumstances are conspiring to take away whatever semblance of hope they cling to, whatever shred of dignity they still maintain, indeed, whatever desperate ties to life they still claim.
I recall several years ago walking through the mud-rutted streets of Cité Soleil, an extremely impoverished community on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The black flies swarmed incessantly among the raw sewage that flowed in shallow ditches crisscrossing the fields of windowless, cement huts. The children of parents who are little more than children themselves played on heaps of garbage, running between the crumbled buildings and the numerous shelters made from tarps that many called home. More than anything, Cité Soleil depicts a world that seemingly doesn’t care, a world that would allow so many innocent lives to be wasted in such utter misery. I have been to other slums, like those surrounding Mumbai in India, where my experience was much the same.
When we survey the desperation and squalor that constitutes the lives of so many people, it is difficult to imagine how any act of kindness on our part, any gift of money, time, or talent can make a difference. Yet, it is often here, among the most abject living conditions and impoverishment, that the transformative power of the Dhamma is most evident. The fact that our gifts, no matter how modest, can ensure that a hungry child eats a nutritious meal, or a family has clean drinking water or a young woman can escape societal chains and make her own future, or a dry-land farmer can learn how to grow enough food both to feed her family and sell the surplus at the market, is testimony to the Buddha’s central teaching that suffering is not the final word, that compassion, born of loving-kindness and equanimity, is an essential step in the liberation of others and ourselves as well.
I reflect on the Lotus Outreach Garden of Peace Project, an oasis of progressive education in Tamil Nadu, India, where for the past four years BGR has provided two meals daily to 174 school-age children whose parents are subsistence farmers or who work at the brick kilns or in construction as daily wage laborers. According to staff reports, the children who take part in the Garden of Peace Project are healthier than their counterparts in the Tamil Nadu community and their families are better off because now they have more food for the rest of the household. The cost: $2.60 per child per day.
At first, I marvel and wonder if what I’m reading is correct. How is it possible to supply two meals for so little? For $2.60 I can’t even buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks, much less a gallon of gas. Then I realize that it is the power of the Dhamma—manifesting in the compassion of the people who run the school feeding program and their supporters—that makes such extraordinary feats possible.
I also reflect on Helen Keller International’s clean water project in central and southern Senegal. With BGR’s financial support, Helen Keller International is able to supply clean drinking water and clean water for crop irrigation to five villages, enriching the lives of nearly 5,000 people. When I think about how many people are infected by dysentery primarily for the lack of clean water, over 100 million annually, and how many people die as a result, over a million each year, I am amazed at what this project is accomplishing. Where before people drank contaminated water, cooked and bathed in contaminated water, and irrigated their crops with contaminated water, how different these people’s lives will be. And the cost: less than $4.60 per recipient!
What is so remarkable about the transformative power of the Dhamma, manifested in compassion and generosity, is that it is not only the recipient who is blessed, but the giver, you and me, as well. Certainly, through our gifts we gain merit. In one of my favorite suttas the Buddha is asked whether only gifts to his followers produce merit. He answers: “I say that one acquires merit even if one throws away dishwashing water in a refuse dump or cesspit with the thought: ‘May the living beings here sustain themselves with this!’ How much more, then, [does one acquire merit] when one gives to human beings!” (Anguttara Nikaya 3:57)
But the giving of gifts blesses us in another way: this simple act causes us to turn away from a preoccupation with self, away from thoughts of “mine, this is what I am, myself” to thoughts of others, their suffering, their needs. As such, giving slowly erodes our attachment to self, to the roots of our own suffering, to lust and aversion, both fed by the delusion that somehow, someday, I will get enough, be enough, do enough to be truly happy and fulfilled! Rather than seeing the world from the futile vantage point of self and self-interest, the activity of giving empowers us to embrace hope.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by suffering and to despair that I can make a difference. That is, until we gain confidence in the power of the Dhamma to transform our generosity into two meals a day for an impoverished child living in Tamil Nadu or into clean water to drink and grow crops in Senegal. Until we realize that there is a universal law, the Dhamma, supporting us and magnifying our meager efforts into what is truly good and life-changing.
For some of us, $2.60 may be all we can spare, given our earnings and responsibilities to our families. Others are able to give much more. By giving whatever you can give, not only will you cast a stone at despair, but you will also hasten your own journey toward true liberation, toward a happiness, peace, and fulfillment that truly lasts.
David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief. David has worked in human services for over 40 years in fields related to a range of human needs including refugee resettlement, employment, and youth services. He has a Masters in Social Work from the University of Chicago.