This time of great upheaval and discord in the world is producing terrible suffering, often in the name of religious doctrines and the radical assertion of the "right" path. It is easy to forget, when we are driven by fear and reaction, that all spiritual and religious frameworks have more in common than not, and that wars are waged based on perverted dogmas and politically-driven ideologies that have nothing to do with the original teachings.
In Canada, almost 50 per cent of 86,000 organizations with registered charity status are places of worship, and 46 per cent of all giving is done within them. In light of how much giving in Canada is religiously-inspired, I wanted to explore how major religions view giving and charity and asked a few spiritual and community leaders about practices of giving in their communities.
There is much commonality between religions in urging us to overcome our attachments to money, property and the material, to give generously of ourselves in as many ways as possible, and to realize that nothing is ours. In many ways, it's a call to overcome our selfish nature and to realize our deep interconnectedness with each other and all of creation.
Giving is one way to remove the chains of attachment.
"One of the key practices in Buddism, especially at the beginning of the path, is that of giving, or generosity," Nicholas Ribush, Founding Director of Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, reveals. In Buddhism, there are three types of giving that anybody can engage in every day: material giving, giving of fearlessness and giving of dharma. Material giving involves giving food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless and money to the poor. Giving fearlessness means saving beings' lives (such as lobsters about to be boiled or people in prison), while giving of dharma means sharing Buddhist teachings with others. Giving is one way to remove the chains of attachment.
Islam is based on five fundamental pillars, the third of which is charity, or zakat as it is known in Arabic. Imam Habeeb Alli, Community Development Manager at IDRF, explains that typically charity is given around the month of Ramadan but can be made at any time, to anyone. Giving, also called sadaqah, can take various forms: money, clothing, knowledge and shelter. In Islam, it is compulsory for Muslims who can afford it to give a minimum 2.5 per cent of their savings. Even a smile to brighten someone's day is considered sadaqah. The point is to make a positive difference in someone's life, regardless of what type of support is given. Islam teaches that giving is first and foremost a favour to ourselves -- when we give freely we come closer to God.
According to Amar Erry, a Hinduism scholar, the Upanishads, a text containing the philosophical concepts of Hinduism, states that the three characteristics of a good person are damah (self-restraint), daya (compassion or love for all life) and dāna (charity). Dāna can take the form of philanthropic public projects that empower and help many. Satrams, usually built along roads that connect major temple sites, are one expression of Hindu charity. Satrams are rest houses for travelers and the poor, and many serve water and free food.
"Charitable giving is central to Christian spirituality," advised John Pellowe, CEO of Canadian Council of Christian Charities. "Christians see everything they have, material and spiritual, as unmerited gifts from God." Many Christians challenge themselves to give as much as they can while still being cheerful with the amount they're giving. Giving money away, he said, is also a check against becoming greedy.
Charity is not merely a transfer from benefactor to beneficiary, but a just way of living life.
Reverend Michael Busch agrees and believes the best way to keep this from happening is to consciously and freely share some of our wealth but notes that the amount of the donation is not important. "In all our giving it is not the amount of the gift that matters it is how much of yourself you give with the gift," he asserted. Mary Lynne Stewart, Director at March of Dimes, adds: "We are not just asked to give part of what we have, but all that we have." This means gladly sharing time and talent as well as caring for the environment.
Howard English, Director at Charities Aid Foundation, observes that charity is built into the religious, social and cultural DNA of Judaism. Jewish law dictates that 10 per cent of net earnings be given to charity. In fact, the Hebrew word for charity, tzedaka, means more than giving to the vulnerable. Charity is not merely a transfer from benefactor to beneficiary, but a just way of living life. In a manual for Jewish daily living, known as Ethics of the Fathers, Simon the Just declared that deeds of loving kindness are among three pillars on which the entire world depends and survives.
In Canada, we can model, for the rest of the world, both religious tolerance and the understanding of what unites us in these different ways of connecting to something bigger than ourselves. Our paths to truth may be diverse, but our destiny is inextricably and unavoidably shared.
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