Sunday, May 8, 2016

An Expensive Virtue--Cardinal Virtues Part One

An Expensive Virtue
(Alms giving)

Charity by Bouguereau

About two years ago, myself and a friend were walking down The Embarcadero In San Francisco when a Buddhist monk approached us. He was bald, middle-aged, and Asian. He wore bright orange and yellow robes and dark red sandals. He looked every bit what you'd expect.

He immediately slipped a set of beads on my friend's right wrist. He then nodded, and smiled.

My friend said, "Thank you."

He prepared to walk away when the monk stopped both of us.

He then presented me with a set of beads. They were a dark rosewood color, and held together be an elastic band. They reminded me of rosary beads, except these fit in a tight circle around the wrist.

The monk then insisted, "YOU PAY NOW!"

"How much?" My friend asked.

"Twenty!" The monk proclaimed.

My friend almost took his beads off rather than pay. Instead, he handed the man a twenty. I did likewise, albeit reluctantly. We got to keep our beads, and he entered our names in a prayer book. He then handed us both laminated Buddhist prayer cards.

After we payed up the monk smiled at us, clasped his hands in prayer, and then bowed. We did likewise, and then stepped away casually.

I laughed, and then said to my friend, "Is that the Buddhist equivalent of a mugging?"

He laughed, and then said, "I don't know...I think we made a donation."

Moments later a younger Buddhist monk approached us. He too tried to shake us down, but we showed the beads on our wrists, and he left us alone.

I've often wondered where that phrase, "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him," originated from. While I'd never condone the harming of any Buddhist, it may be cheaper than shelling out twenty bucks for beads.

I also hoped the beads were fresh, and not recycled from Mardi Gras. What I do know for sure is that a Buddhist monk said a prayer for me that night.

I still have the beads, and occasionally wear them. They remind me that charity is one of the cardinal virtues. Though that guy was a monk, not a cardinal. Still, I felt pretty virtuous that day. I hope just he was. It's bad karma for a monk to hose people.

All joking aside, charity is a difficult virtue to practice. It means we either have to give money, time or something else to those in need. That something else can be something as simple as canned goods for a food bank, or as complex as blood for a blood bank. Either way we don't like to part with money in large quantities. We also get a bit squeamish about willfully giving up a pint of blood, but that's nothing a sticker and a cookie can't fix. Besides, you'll get your blood back. No matter what your type, it will be used. But will you see that your money is used properly? How much of it really goes to the people who need it? I donate to the March of Dimes every time I check out at a department store. I like to think it goes to something worthwhile, and it does. There are other charities I've donated to as well, and I have faith that what little I can give goes to those who need it.

The main problem with charity isn't so much the doubt that it works. It's the separation anxiety from oneself and their own money.

I'm reminded of a joke I once heard a minister tell.

“A recession is when you're out of a job. Depression is when I'm out of a job.”

He was right. We can be selfish at times, and think, “As long as I got mine, I'm good.” We all want to help the homeless, but giving a dollar to a woman on the street doesn't get to the root cause of poverty. It also doesn't get to the cause of how that person became homeless.

We all want to help the whales, or the chimpanzees, or the endangered rhinos. Will donating to campaigns help them? I like to think so, based on the quality of said campaigns. However, donating that money doesn't get to the root cause of why the black rhino is endangered (superstition dictates that the horn is an aphrodisiac. You'd think reruns of Baywatch would do the trick, and no rhinos would ever suffer).

There's also the problem of being poor, and not having enough money to donate. I get letters from charities that I've supported all the time. I wish I could give more, but I can't afford it.

Nowadays we have Kickstarter, Go Fund Me, and other sites like them. They are a form of alms giving for creative projects. Patreon as well is a form of donation for creative services rendered. With Kickstarter or Patreon you get some kind of tangible reward. If you donate to a religious institution, or a get the knowledge that you helped somebody. You may not know how you helped them, but you did something good. Maybe the ten bucks you sent helped vaccinated children in a third world country. Or, maybe it went to new coffeemaker in the physicians lounge? You may never know.

Charity doesn't always have to be monetary. The definition of charity is, “A supernatural virtue that helps us love God and our neighbors, more than ourselves.”

In other words, regardless of your belief systems, it means that you genuinely care what happens to other people. You care for their well-being. You don't have to give money, or blood, you can just give your time. Sometimes the act of listening is all the person needs. Other times, the may need the act of grace; to give credit to them by your presence.
Perhaps based on this definition, love itself is charity. Caring for one's children, one's friends, or even the care of a patient, or a client can be an act of charity. The care is in the acts that we perform to make sure others are safe. We act to ease their suffering, and thereby we perform an act of charity.

Of course, it doesn't help to donate a little bit of money either. Whatever you can spare is nice.

So if you do see a Buddhist on the side of the road, don't kill him. Hand him a few bills, even if he has no beads to give you. You may have just bought stock in karma...if one believes in such things.

Copyright J.X. Joyce 2016

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