Burma's generosity in comparison with the rest of Asia.

Misguided generosity: should the Burmese donate differently?

Recent headlines have crowned Burma the world’s most generous country, a ranking shared with the United States. According to the Charitable Aid Foundation America’s 2014 World Giving Index, the world’s biggest economy and one of Asia’s most undeveloped countries have something positive in common for once. And a point of pride is that this is unsurprising, Just a validation, if anything.

And it’s not the first time. Burma was previously ranked #2 in the 2013 World Giving Index, because of “an extraordinarily high incidence of donating money – 85%.” Even a Japanese business journal, Nikkei Asian Review, has realized the marketing potential tapping into the Burmese spirit of generosity. A closer look reveals that Burma’s ranking is largely attributed to the citizenry’s preponderance of donating money:

“Whilst America’s strong performance across all forms of giving contributes to its top ranking, Myanmar’s position is driven primarily by an incredibly high proportion of people donating money (91%). This reflects the strong Theravada Buddhist community within Myanmar, with its estimated 500,000 monks (the highest proportion of monks to population of any Buddhist country) receiving support from lay devotees. Indeed, the practice of charitable giving or dana is integral to religious observance amongst Theravada Buddhists, with it being one of the key paths to earning good merit. The position of Myanmar reminds us how important each country’s distinctive culture is in the predilection of its people to be charitable. […] Nine out of ten people within Myanmar follow the Theravada school of Buddhism, under which the lives of the Sangha (ordained monks and nuns) are supported by dana (charitable giving) by lay followers of the religion. This clearly translates into a strong culture of charity, with Myanmar ranked first for donating money and 13 percentage points ahead of the second placed country. Sri Lanka, another country with a strong Theravada Buddhist community, 9 also ranked within the Top 10 of the World Giving Index (placed 9th).”

Burma's generosity in comparison with the rest of Asia.

Burma’s generosity in comparison with the rest of Asia.

The index clearly credits Theravada Buddhism as the driving force for such generosity, citing that Sri Lanka, another major Theravada Buddhist country, is in the top 10 (Bhutan, Malaysia, and Indonesia are the other Asian countries in the top 15).

And there is merit to this explanation. Buddhism exalts generosity as the first of 10 virtues (ပါရမီဆယ်ပါး, parami hse ba), because it’s an actual tangible representation and practice of detachment and impermanence, two core Buddhist concepts, at work. And no doubt, as a whole, the Burmese are hospitable and generous. People often justify their generosity with rhetorical questions like “Now I can’t take this with me when I die, can I?”

Generosity is intricately linked with the concept of merit (ကုသိုလ်, kutho), because giving is seen as an “easy” way of generating merit, which can allay danger and misfortune and secure a more favorable rebirth. So much so that the Burmese word for volition, sedana (စေတနာ, Pali cetanā) is often used interchangeably with the word for generosity. But Buddhism also teaches that the size of a check doesn’t determine the amount of merit, contrary to what some may preach. Even a person giving away a single grain of rice may attain more merit than a person donating $2 million in gold bricks, because the intent of goodwill and selflessness must be there. (Not that people are so pure-minded. There’s sometimes an unspoken pressure to donate, as a way of flaunting wealth and status).

But where is most of the money going? Mostly to Buddhist monasteries, monks and nuns, without a doubt. Donating to a monk is by far, the most popular merit-making activity of the Burmese. It’s a socioreligious practice that even follows Burmese Buddhists living overseas. Traditionally, Theravada monks require financial and material assistance from laity, as this mutually beneficial relationship clearly demarcates the duties of layman and monk. In the Theravada tradition, this clear separation holds monks accountable to their constituents and prevents them from becoming corrupted with money and financial scandals, like the ones seen in the Vatican Church.

But what I ask is this: is the money being donated going to places and people that need it most? Does this generosity efficiently allocate resources? And this is a question that I struggle to answer. And my honest answer is a hesitant “no.” As great as it feels to contribute to my faith, I question where the money goes and when family members contribute exorbitant amounts to monasteries, pagodas, or directly to monks.

The vacuum of effective government has fostered many NGO-like operations in Burma’s aid and development projects, spearheaded by celebrated Buddhist monks like the Sitagu Sayadaw. And they really are trailblazers–socially engaged Buddhism is truly what will secure Buddhism’s place in modern Burmese society.

But the vast majority of monasteries don’t operate in that fashion. Many do not cater to the neediest, the indigent, the destitute. Instead, the traditional Buddhist monastery is insular, inward-looking, and in some cases, in pursuit of well-heeled donors who can build a pagoda on temple grounds, or renovate a wing of the monastery. All that to say, the donated money doesn’t end up benefiting surrounding communities and those who need it most. Financial transparency is often nonexistent in Buddhist monasteries and bookkeeping is primitive at best, leaving room for abuse.

Does it make sense to throw so much money at a religious institution that already receives so much? Maybe it’s time to reexamine where most of the money is going and the impact of these donations, instead of blindly lavishing praise and perpetuating a practice that doesn’t necessarily benefit the common man.

The full report is available here (PDF).

4 thoughts on “Misguided generosity: should the Burmese donate differently?

  1. Wagaung says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the broad sentiment. Thankfully Ven. Sitagu and his monastic brethren have been leading the way in the right kind of merit making in healthcare, education and orphanages etc. in recent times. The kind of socially meaningful and efficacious giving that the American evangelists excelled in colonial times as Great White Saviours in the Third World, certainly including Burma.

    On the other hand this is really an old argument where you could easily turn around and say what a waste all that gold on the Shwedagon is, a particular attack on religion typically and historically attributed rightly or wrongly to the communists who were supposed to want to melt it all down!

    Philanthropy whilst laudable and desirable, such as is famously practised in America, when civil society and private citizens are having to play a significant role in alleviating poverty and social deprivation, becomes a sad reflection on the prevailing socio-economic order and a poor substitute for organising and running it properly in order to benefit the vast majority of people. It belongs to a bygone era like the Victorian Age and its persistence, indeed revival in recent times, is indeed a disgrace to human kind in the 21st century. No amount of science and technology will make up for it since even the technological advances in the post war decades of the first half of the last century could have been effective in lifting the whole planet out of poverty and backwardness given the political will, not to mention the interminable wars of domination and resource grabbing.

    • Aung Kyaw says:

      Definitely, without the generosity of all these donors, we wouldn’t have the myriad temples of Bagan, the Shwedagon, or any of these iconic monuments that constitute Burma’s cultural heritage and the economy’s increasingly important tourist landscape. And you’re absolutely right. Philanthropy operating in the absence of effective governance is just one of systems resulting from the country’s severely dysfunctional state.

      • Wagaung says:

        And I’d rather they left the pagodas white in htone thingarn instead of dobbing them all over the country, old and new, with Mickey Mouse gold (dissako shwe)! Perhaps they want the glitter all the same when they can’t afford the real stuff (shwe thingarn), reflecting the whole façade of window dressing and lip service by the ruling elites down these recent decades, still up and running. Perhaps the rumour was true about some big shot’s son having imported tonnes of this stuff and needed to get rid of them at a decent profit!

        What really irritates me is the seeming very un-Buddhist in fact egoistic competition (atta) among some of the leading monks in wasteful “white elephants” getting up the world’s tallest or biggest Buddha images surrounded by several more rather kitschy caricatured versions of other religious iconographic sculpture. I guess one might go for either lucre or laurels, perhaps both. Shame both sorts call themselves Buddhists ever more loudly than the rest.

  2. themissinglinka says:

    Thank you for addressing this issue, which I find is not discussed enough. I have been to Burma two times and both times felt exactly as you state here – that the money people donate and the money taken in at all these religious sites is not being used in ways that benefit the people of the country & instead is being used to prop up Buddhism & make the Government look good. I am looking to address this issue more thoroughly, glad to have found your blog here.

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