Karmic Dividends

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore, 2014

Generosity is the very first step in the Buddha’s gradual path, it is the first of the perfections. It is easily comprehended by all, including children, and brings great karmic benefit, that is, every act of generosity, when carried out with pure intentions, brings benefit that stays with the actor. The benefit starts immediately in the form of delight and a feeling of peace in the heart. Then affection and gratitude grow out of this transaction. And the future becomes brighter as every act of generosity nurtures one’s inclination toward generosity, makes one kinder, more saintly, less self-centered and therefore of more peaceful and happier disposition. Perhaps paradoxically, a lifetime of generosity brings with it the liberal sense of abundance, in spite of one’s immediate material sacrifices. Moreover generosity benefits the recipient karmically as well as the donor since the recipient will experience gratitude which itself generally leads to an urge toward generosity.

In western culture, we tend to prefer the reciprocal exchange to the one-sided act of generosity. Although many people give generously to charities, or volunteer in civic projects and, indeed, generosity is upheld as a core value in our society (except maybe among readers of Ayn Rand). I think that in general we are poor receivers of generosity: We tend not to be gracious recipients of gifts, except of those from family members. We feel uncomfortable as recipients of charity, or if someone offers to pay for the meal we insist on paying and feel internally disgruntled when the other insists more convincingly. Self-sufficiency is also upheld as a core value in our society. This tends to close opportunities for others to practice generosity.

Aside from gift and exchange, there is one other way in which goods and services change hands: plunder. Stealing is not a step in the Buddha’s gradual path. It is easily comprehended by all, including children, but brings great karmic detriment, that is, every act of plunder, when carried out with tainted intentions, brings detriment that stays with the actor. The detriment starts immediately in the form of constriction and turmoil in the heart, then ill-will and animosity grow out of this transaction. And the future becomes darker as every act of plunder nurtures one’s tendency to plunder, makes one meaner, more exploitive, more self-centered and therefore of more violent and unhappy disposition. Perhaps paradoxically, a lifetime of plunder brings with it the stingy sense of lack, in spite of one’s immediate material gains. Moreover plunder tends to harm the victim karmically as well as the perpetrator since the victim will experience resentment which itself generally will lead to an urge for recompense.

In western culture we tend to be gracious recipients of plunder, with some reservations in the case of blatant illegality. Businesses love to “externalize costs,” merchants love to give their customers less than they paid for, advertisers love to sell customers a sexier new “you” when all customers actually get is a bar of soap, empires love their colonies, bankers love to fix the system to ensure a continuous inflow of plunder. Almost everyone loves to be able to put one over on the other fellow. Moreover, we tend to be forgiving of this behavior in others because we would do the same thing if we only could.

Three Economies and their Karmic Consequences

We might discern, at least for exposition, three kinds of economy: an economy of exchange, an economy of gifts and an economy of plunder, although in practice these are inextricably intertwined. Often the three kinds of transactions involved even produce identical material results: If I give someone an A spontaneously out of generosity and that person later gives me a B out of generosity, this might have the same material result as a fair exchange of A for B. Or if I steal a B from someone out of greed, while they are stealing an A from me also out of greed, this might also have the same material result as the fair exchange of A for B. In any of these cases we might say that the economy is humming along. BUT there is a huge non-material but rather spiritual difference in these three economies, the kind of karma that is generated in each case is quite dissimilar:

  • A transaction of fair exchange is in principle karmically neutral.
  • A transaction of generosity brings a karmic dividend.
  • A transaction of plunder carries a karmic forfeiture.

I should note that the ostensible exchange may hide plunder, or it may hide generosity. The first is the case, for instance, in fraud or deceit, the second, for instance, when someone values customers and takes pride in exceeding expectations. Similarly, an ostensible act of generosity may hide an expectation of reciprocation, an ostensible act of plunder may hide an act of generosity, as in Robin Hood’s practice. Intentions are ultimately what matter, but ostensible transactional modes tend to align with intentions.

Note also that the relative frequencies of these three modes of exchange vary in regional and global economies. For instance, anthropologists tell us that primitive societies, as well as those of our primitive ancestors, rely much more heavily on gifts than on exchange. Also, the prevailing economy in a giving society should have karmic consequences for most of their participants. That is, we predict, on Buddhist principles, that the people who live in economies predominantly of gifts will on average have a high level of relative well-being, as the population as a whole accumulates abundant karmic dividends. By the same token, people who live in economies predominantly of plunder will tend to have low levels of relative well-being.

With these differences in mind, we note that devout Buddhists are admonished not to participate in the plunder economy (at least as plunderers), for they are counseled to follow the precepts of not taking what is not freely given nor to say what is not true, and to choose a right livelihood, in which they are not allowed to profit from the suffering of others, nor use deceitful means in exchange. Moreover, we also note that monastics are furthermore strictly disallowed from participation in the economy either of plunder or of exchange. They can have no business dealings, no trade (except in limited circumstances with other monks, like swapping otherwise ill-fitting robes), no handling of money. They practice generosity toward others, most notably by offering the Dharma, but can accept no tit-for-tat compensation even for this. Monastics live as a matter of vow entirely in the economy of gifts. Monastics thereby gain a particular opportunity for spiritual progress with no wasted opportunities for accruing karmic dividends.

The crucial point of these economic considerations is to clarify how the economic context in which we live is a determinant of our karmic choices, and therefore may function either to constrict our practice, on the one hand, or to unleash its full potential, on the other. For instance, most of us would love to be able to walk to work each morning, but the social conditions may dictate that we commute for half an hour in heavy traffic. Likewise, we would love to have neighbors that are all generous farmers with whom we might share our own produce rather than having to sell it to distributors. We may need a job but cannot find a livelihood that does not involve deceiving customers or disadvantaging someone in some way. If we are in debt or under other social obligations our options become even more limited. In this way our social context can force us from the economy of gifts increasingly into the economy of exchange, or from exchange into plunder, with dire consequences for our spiritual progress.

Accordingly, a crucial part of success in Buddhist practice is to navigate our social context in a way that favors the economy of gifts over the economy of exchange and the economy of exchange over the economy of plunder. I don’t expect readers to be inspired by these words to become activists in the cause of tearing down the system of global neo-liberal capitalism, which is certainly a system based as much in plunder as in exchange, but there are less daunting ways to negotiate the social landscape to optimize our individual or community social context. One is choice of livelihood, another is voluntary simplicity, another is simply to migrate in the direction of happier people, because they are likely to live under a favorable gift-to-plunder ratio. It is not enough to practice in the world; one must choose the proper world to practice in.

A useful way to implement the Buddhist practice of generosity, beyond the occasional charitable contribution or favor to improve an otherwise mixed economic existence, is to be ever mindful, with every economic transaction, of what economy one is acting in right now. The economy of plunder is an insult to Buddhist practice. The economy of exchange is a world of wasted opportunities in which fair transactions are performed but with no karmic benefit. The economy of gifts is worlds apart. If one, like sincere monastics, can in one way or another spend all or most of one’s time in the economy of gifts, one’s spiritual progress will flourish. If one combines this practice either with a meditation practice or with unplugging oneself from media for the masses, it will soar. If one combines it with both, it will astonish.

How Buddhist Communities Accrue Karmic Dividends

Almost everybody would agree, Buddhist or not, that the practice of generosity is a good idea, and also that the world could use all the generosity it can get. The impulse toward generosity comes naturally, is found even in children and even feels good, but as we live our complex and befogged lives of mixed intention, we often fail to focus our energy in the karmically optimal direction, except significantly within families, small circles of friends or sometimes within small local communities. Buddhist practice generally involves focusing energy repeatedly in a particular way as a means to establish increasingly wholesome patterns of behavior and thought. The Buddhist practice in the economy of gifts is encouraged by the very structure of the traditional Buddhist community. It is not generally appreciated that this is in accord with the Buddha’s design that the Buddhist community is an economy of gifts that generates pools of karmic dividends in a landscape of spiritual well-being.

The roots of the Buddha’s design are found in the generous lay support of ascetics in India, which has persisted since before the time of the Buddha to the present day, encouraged in part by the simplicity of the ascetics’ needs, especially in contrast to those of the Brahmin priests. The Buddha’s own awakening was enabled by alms generously provided by laypeople (consider the story of the milkmaid Sujatā prior to his awakening) and lay alms was his support for the rest of his life. At the same time he gave generously to others through his teachings. The Buddha, in organizing the monastic order, tweaked this tenuous vortex of mutually generous support between lay and monastic by constraining monastic behavior in certain ways. Although the monastic Sangha stands as perhaps the most durable human institution on the planet, the Buddha never organized the lay community, so the conduct of the laity would only be determined in relation to that of the monastics. Here is how the Buddha tweaked the monastic code to cultivate a general economy of gifts in the Buddhist community.

First, the Buddha required that monastics live entirely within the economy of gifts. A monk can give, he can receive, but he cannot participate in a transaction of exchange (nor of theft, for that matter). A nun can give a Dhamma talk or teach a class for a group of laypeople, but cannot receive compensation for that offering. A monastic conducts no business, handles no money (but is permitted small equivalent exchanges with other monastics, such as an alms bowl for an alms bowl).

Second, the Buddha removed almost every opportunity for monastics to do anything for themselves. For instance, monastics cannot grow their own food or cook for themselves, even while there are few restrictions on what they can do for others. They have no trade or livelihood. Monastics are proscribed, except in exceptional circumstances, from asking for anything, that is, they do not beg, but only offer the opportunity to give. On alms rounds they are not to prefer one house (the wealthy one, or the home of the French chef) over another. They are not even allowed to endear themselves through charm and wit to families with the intent of garnering better or greater offerings, nor are they allowed to show off any special psychic powers nor talk about attainments to gain in reputation. They can build themselves a dwelling or sew robes for themselves, but if they do so these must be limited in size and quality. Notice how this makes the monk or nun even more dependent on the laity in an economy of gifts, and on the laity’s anticipation of his or her needs. The vortex spins all the more strongly for this.

Third, the Buddha put an expiration stamp on alms. Monastics cannot store food for tomorrow that is given today, except in the case of a small list of tonics, which can be retained for seven days. Notice that this ratchets up the dependence of the nun or monk on the laity even more, making it a daily dependence, except for those particularly accomplished in fasting. This also, in spite of the Buddha’s praise of solitude, increases the opportunities for offering teachings to laity. Faster and faster.

Finally, the Buddha insisted that even monks whose practice potentially allows them to fast for days enter the village daily for alms anyway. This all but closed the aforementioned loophole and entailed that the vortex of mutual generosity would be a constant presence.

It seems clear that at least one purpose of this fine-tuning is to add this kind of speed to the pivotal vortex of mutual support between monastic and lay, yet to keep it natural, informal and without coercion. Generosity is the lifeblood of the Buddhist community and this vortex is its beating heart. The consequences for lay practice are quite striking, for a monk appears much like a house pet: of simple life and needs, yet helpless, vulnerably dependent on the kind hand that feeds him, but also of therapeutic value to that kind hand. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts something the lay donor receives a gift; you cannot mistake the sugar plums dancing in the donor’s eyes. Every time the lay person accepts a teaching or benefits from a social or pastoral service, the monastic receives a gift. In either case, delight, a feeling of peace in the heart, mark every transaction, and mutual affection and gratitude quickly emerge. Such is the economy of gifts.

Most importantly this vortex gives the practice of generosity a focus. The monastics sustain a perpetual economy of gifts, and as long as the laity interacts with them, they enter into that economy of gifts. The laity may make this interaction a daily practice, for instance, for the Burmese housewife who routinely prepares rice and curry each morning to offer to monks as they come by on alms round. Most practices, generalize quickly. For instance, if one practices kindness to insects that one otherwise dislikes, one will experience increasing kindness toward humans. If one practices mindfulness of the breath and mindfulness of the step, mindfulness of the roadway and of one’s deportment will follow. By the same token, generosity at the vortex reaches out to the community at large, toward support of the sasana, for instance, to include feeding and housing participants in meditation retreats, to care for the underprivileged or those in temporary need. Monasteries become community and Buddhist training centers where the priceless Dharma is offered without a price, all needs are freely provided for all and karmic dividends accrue. The vortex is there strong enough to devour dragons.

This economic arrangement, constituted by the Buddha, has other practical benefits. It extends to the monastics a unique opportunity for progress on the Path, not only through the accrual of karmic dividends but also through the enjoyment of a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world, including from the need for a livelihood as a teacher or as anything else. This ensures that the Dharma, radical at core, will not become a commercial product, adapted for popular appeal. It also means that monastics can engage patiently in long-term practice toward profound but long-term attainment without the pressure to produce identifiable results. This latter is much like the insularity afforded academics from the prevailing concerns of the outside world, unbiased by politics, religion, superstition, other popular notions, practical applications or benefits or profitability through academic freedom and tenure.

Additionally, the economy of gifts invites the participation of all members of the community in the care of the sasana, the monastery and the community, without the hierarchy or coercion that mark many social structures. Each member gives to whatever or whomever gladdens the heart. If a recipient or a particular project is deemed unworthy, the gift will not be forthcoming. Gifts, in other words, are like votes in setting the policies of the community and the direction of the sasana.

Finally, what authority the Sangha holds arises from its own attainments, teachings and conduct. The Sangha has no coercive power and no authority beyond the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. The laity actually has more direct coercive power: Dissatisfaction with the Monastic Sangha can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant external check on the purity of the institutional Sangha.

Because generosity is such a joyful experience, monasteries, especially when they expand into community centers, can be very happy places in which to practice fundamental Buddhist values, elicit community involvement, demand no sophisticated knowledge of Dharma and provide a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. They open into an opportunity to rub shoulders with Noble Ones, to benefit from their wisdom and advice and to begin to learn and practice the Path to Awakening. And they are an ideal context in which to accrue karmic dividends.

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