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Buddhist Charity and Community Work


来源:世界佛教论坛论文集   作者:衍慈法师
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  One of the Buddhist teaching is to be「merciful」. 《Da Zhi Du Lun》Chapter 27 explained :「Great mercy gives everybody happiness, whereas the great sympathy aims to take away their pain.」This compassionate and sympathetic behavior should be offered to everybody in need, irrespective of whether you know him or not. Everybody is treated equally, their pain looked upon as if your own with no discrimination. Eventually it is extended to all creatures with feeling, so that you always treat them with pity and love. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss with you my title「Buddhist Charity and Community Work」.

1. Compassionate Buddhism and community charity

To be merciful is a very basic Buddhist concept. It means doing something good for others and can simply be regarded as community charity work. In this sense, our Buddha sets the best example. He was the most benevolent person in the universe. We can read from various Buddhist Sutras how our Master, using his tender compassion, to protect lives and save people in distress. Once our Master abandoned his life to feed a hungry tiger and in another instance, cut his muscles to feed a hawk. In order to completely relieve all living beings from the misery of birth, getting old, sickness and death, he left the palace to become a monk and attained enlightenment by personal experience. He proclaimed widely the Buddhist truth in the ten directions of space. All the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas did the same: Amitabha and his forty-eight vows is to bring all living beings to his Paradise; The Buddha of Medicine vows to treat all diseases and in return give them perfect health of the body and mind; Avalokitesvara, also known as Kuan-yin, the Goddess of Mercy, is the protector of all in distress; Ksitigarbha, Bodhisattva Ti-tsang, rescues suffering beings from hell. The compassionate vows of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas deeply influenced the Buddhist charity and community work.

In the recent thousand and hundreds of years, most of the Chinese Buddhist organizations, temples, monks, nuns and the laity, follow strictly the teaching of our Master, to save people from bitterness and hardship so that they can be dragged out from their sufferings. They dedicated a lot of their time to the community; made enormous contribution in the field of Buddhist charity work which was received with great appraisal. Over the years, eminent monks had contributed a lot towards community charity work, too many for me to quote. Starting from the Bei-Wei Dynasty, all these community work had become more systematic. The Tang Dynasty established the Wu-Jin-Jang System. Relief facilities were extended to the lay public so that the sick had places to stay. Inside the temples there were sick-bays for those who could not afford to pay.

In the Song Dynasty, Buddhist organizations were very enthusiastic in community charity work, may it be the repair of bridges and roads, waterworks, offerings to the poor, the starved and the upbringing of infants and children without parents. For the poor, they built schools, orphanages, old people homes, hospitals and public cemeteries. The monks in the temple were not afraid of hardship, took up as leaders to guide devotees to donate money and offer body strength. Some temples set up pharmacies; those monks who had medical knowledge took up work as doctors. They looked after people with contagious diseases, such as leprosy, people with infections as well as those with carbuncles issuing pussy discharge and producing obnoxious smells. Most people would run away with their noses covered, but the monks not only looked after them, removed the pus and cleaned up the wounds. They did not mind the dirty work. This sympathetic feeling for the sick won unsurpassed praise. Influenced by them, one can find hospital-like places in various provinces where monks took up duties as doctors. For the deceased, they recited sutras to release souls from purgatory, did burial ceremonies and cremations, a sort of coordinated service. After the Song Dynasty, all the monks and devotees in big temples as well as Buddhist organizations were very energetic in motivating all sorts of community charity work.

At the present moment, whether based in China or overseas, there are a lot of Buddhist organizations, besides proclaiming the Buddhist Dharma; they are doing as much as they can afford, charity work for the sake of others. The Hong Kong Buddhist Association, established more than 60 years ago, now under the leadership of The Venerable Kok Kwong, in addition to the proclaimation of Buddhism, also established various community charity works. They include the setting up of primary and secondary schools, kindergartens, school for the mentally retarded and centers for youngsters. For the sick and the old-aged, Buddhist hospitals and convalescent homes were set up, and finally a Buddhist cemetery as well. For the dissemination of Buddhist culture he also founded a college for monks as well as starting magazine publication. All these virtuous deeds are for the benefit of people at large, so that the young have a chance to receive education, the old-aged are being looked after, the sick can recover from their illnesses and the deceased lie in peace.

In Taiwan, Master Cheng Yen founded the Tzu Chi Foundation. Going through over 30 years of strenuous efforts, it is now well known as a worldwide charity organization and becomes the role model of Buddhist charity work. Tzu Chi volunteers dedicate their work to the whole world with a grateful heart. Working with compassionate vitality they pay visits regularly to homes for the old age, the blind, and the mentally retarded. They organize activities and express sympathetic solicitude to all those in distress.

In mainland China Buddhist charity work started towards the end of the nineties. With the economic uprising, in the provinces of Fu Jian, Hu Nan, and He Bei, they founded Buddhist charitable foundations one after the other. Other temples also followed their footsteps. A lot of oversea Buddhist organizations, under the leadership of their teachers, are gathering manpower, working in this direction with notable results. Unfortunately there is not enough time for me to present to you at this moment.

2. Buddhist Doctrine and community charity

Buddhism in mainland China advocates the School of Mahayana, based on the practice of 「The Six Paramitas」. Their goal aims at helping every one to reach nirvana before they pursue their own end. The six Paramitas include the following items: charity, discipline, forbearance, zeal, meditation and wisdom. We can see the first thing on the list is charity, telling followers of the Buddha to put theories into practice. In order to move from ignorance to the holy position, this is the right approach for those who want to go beyond the sea of mortality and reach nirvana. Charity has three tiers of significance: the first is preaching of the Dharma; the second is almsgiving of money and goods to the poor in need, i.e. charity work; the third is the giving of fearlessness, so that people can regain courage and consolation. To those that are practicing charity work, whichever kind it may be, one must be strict with oneself, carrying them out with the concept of 「San Lun Ti Kong」 which means without the vanity of the giver, the gift or the recipient. One should not expect meritorious virtue or returns. Charity should be looked upon as part of our life style, thus we laid down solid foundation to achieve enlightenment or Buddhahood。

There is another principle in the Dharma, the concept of 「The Field of Blessedness」which is used for the cultivation of meritorious deeds. It is broadly divided into two forms viz.: the Field of Respect and the Field of Sympathy. The Field of Respect means to protect and maintain Buddhism, respect human relations and your teachers as well as to give offerings to Ratnatraya, ( the Three Precious Ones), to parents and teachers. In the Field of Sympathy, attention is paid to the sick, the poor, the lonely old-aged and the handicapped. This can be extended to the love for animals by giving them a home. All these can be included in the benevolent act of community charity work.

Besides, the Dharma has another view on this topic and this is the Gratitude Feeling. It means to be alive, I owned everything to all living beings around me, whether endowed with consciousness or not. In a nutshell, there are 4 types of Gratitude: the gratitude to Ratnatraya(which includes the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha), to our parents, to our country and to all sentient beings. They are gratitude closely related to the religion, the family, the environment and the community as a whole.

3. Give with wisdom will benefit the rich and the poor

The last item in the six Paramitas is wisdom, which means the power to discern reality or truth. When you carry out any one of the first five Paramitas, wisdom cannot be dismissed. Why? For example, if one does charity work without wisdom, one’s empathy may have the opposite effect. Besides, in today’s society, it is difficult to know exactly the real purpose of people’s action. Strictly speaking, to understand wisdom, you have to know the theory of「Yuan Qi Xing Kong」 meaning for things arising from conditions, its nature is void. To make it simple, we have to understand that every cause has its effect as every effect arises from a cause. This is why we have to use wisdom smartly when we practice charity work.

In this huge universe housing an enormous population, we find the development very uneven in a lot of places. There is a big gap between the rich and the poor. Using China as an example, it has a population of 1.3 billion. From statistics, the poor people in the villages and cities each amounts to 30 million; for those disabled about 50 million. Every year, there are natural calamities and man-made misfortunes, which increase the number of people that needs assistance. Assurance coming from the government can hardly keep pace so that it frequently requires the assistance from private charitable organizations. The Buddhist charity community work not only offers help to the weak and vulnerable group in society, render available material needs as well as uplifting their spirit, using the Buddha’s teaching to purify their mind.

Take the example of poverty, it can be divided into two categories: the first is poverty in materialistic things and the second is mental poverty. For those that are deficient in material, we can offer them money or materials in need to lessen their sufferings. Regarding mental poverty, money and material needs cannot solve their problem. When we donate with wisdom, we have to make sure that the gifts are really distributed to those in needs. For those who need money, at the time when we donate, we have to see that they are benefited mentally as well. We can stimulate them to start from self-improvement, to stand upright and work hard. Let them understand「Yin Guo」, the cause and effect of one’s deed and to develop a feeling of gratitude so that eventually they can walk out of poverty. For those that are mentally poor, we have to give them spiritual support, show them how to find the real meaning of life and how to maintain a healthy mind and body. Happiness does not come from what you possess; true happiness is attained when you have your mind purified, living with compassionate pity and joyful giving. To deal with the above two types of poverty, whatever and whenever we offer them help, we must have a sense of wisdom. In this way, following the rules of 「Yin Guo」, we can make the rich and the poor in the community to come closer together.

There are two examples to show you why almsgiving needs to go hand in hand with wisdom: The first one is that some parents who were out of job found people to support their children to go to school. Their children managed to pass the examination, but on home visit, they found the parents had no initiation to go to work. What they did every day was to read the newspaper while drinking tea and to play Mahjong. This was so upsetting when you come to know about it. The second example is in Mainland China, they have schools, but the students are few in number. They found two reasons: the first one is a lot of big bosses, when they become rich, vowed to donate one school to their home village every year. Secondly in some far-away villages, the teaching standard is rather low. Those that can do better do not want to go back, take up a simple life just for the sake of educating the younger generation. If the standard of the teachers are low, their students cannot be any better. Children are the masters of society in the future. Besides learning from books, we have to teach them the principle of peaceful coexistence, to be humble and to respect each other. Eventually when they grow up they can live as a human being with culture and dignity. So if the big bosses want to donate schools, it would seem more appropriate for them to train dedicating good teachers first.

Let us look back from the beginning of 2008 and see what nature had done to us. There were the ice disaster, the hurricane disaster and the thunderstorm disaster. Surging price of oil has increased inflation so that what one earns cannot keep up with the rising standard of living. As a last straw on the twelve of May, without warning, Wen Chuan in Si Chuan experienced a level eight earthquake, giving our fellow countryman an enormous traumatic experience and suffering. The people there not only had serious economic loss, they also had to bear the bitterness of losing their loved ones and their home. They all need help and support from the society. It will take years for the earthquake stricken area to rebuild and their aches to be soothed. Mental support for them is very important too. In order to give those children a heart-warming Children Day on the first of June, a number of organizations donated a lot to the schools in Si Chuan. Apart from material needs, proper guidance in their character development is required too. What one possesses in relation to the four basic needs in life namely clothing, food, housing and traveling should be treasured and always be grateful. In the future, let them remember to repay what society has done for them. In this way, at the time when money is distributed together with the Buddhist Dharma, receivers can obtain benefit both bodily and mentally.

4. Buddhist charity, vision for the future

In Mainland China, after the implementation of the policy on religion, Buddhism flourished accordingly. With this marvelous cause at hand, besides the preaching of Buddhist doctrine, it is also a suitable time to develop and expand Buddhist charity work and I have listed several points for further thoughts and discussion:

(1)In Buddhist community charity work, we need well-trained people to supervise, administer and publicize. This is why the fostering of teachers to train qualified personnel is a pressing matter at the moment.

(2)The update of Buddhist knowledge to the laity so that they know what Buddhism is and how to become a proper follower of the Buddha. For example, devotees going to temples to burn incense and candles are uncivilized acts. Besides contaminating the environment, it is also a waste of money. At present, they are burning more and more incense, also the candles are getting bigger and bigger in size. If we can gather all the money used for buying incense and candles, and use it for charity work, it would be a considerable contribution.

(3)Almsgiving is not restricted to the rich, and you don’t have to wait until you become prosperous to do it. A small offering can produce enormous merits and virtues. There was a good example of a poor girl who could only afford to offer a small lamp to the Buddha. The subsequent blessing was uncountable because she did it with great respect. There is a saying in Chinese:「if you do not channel all the streams together, it can never become a big river; whereas if you do not count all the small steps, it can never amount to a thousand mile.」So long as you are motivated and use wisdom intelligently, irrespective of being poor or rich, everybody can become a successful giver.

(4)The Buddhist teaching of「do no evil, do only the good deeds」should be implemented. Let us drill this concept of「happiness coming from helping others」 deeply into our mind and at the same time let the community be aware of this as well. In our daily life, we can always practice almsgiving. For example, when we see water leaking from taps, lights turned on but not required, we can turn it off. If you see banana skin in the street, pick it up so that people won’t slip if they step on it. Look upon all sentient beings equally and by using a sympathetic facial expression, language and eyes we can cheer people up. This is giving and this is charity work.

At the present moment, we can find temples everywhere in China with a large group of followers. So long as we can gather all manpower, so that those with money, with strength, special skill and knowledge can make full use of their potentials. In this way, Buddhist community charity work in China can expand and grow rapidly. Let us start off from ourselves, with small acts of charity work from our deed, word and thought, using real action to promote the Dharma such that everybody receives benefit. Let a sympathetic heart goes hand in hand with wisdom of the mind, putting into practice the fundamental principle of Chinese Buddhism viz.: 「ornate one’s country; give joy to all beings」. At the moment when all conditions merge right, a harmonious society would appear in front of us all. This is the way all Buddhist followers should dedicate themselves!




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