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).”
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).