Charity vs Compassion

When Western people hear about Buddhist ideas of compassion, we tend to unconsciously jump to the conclusion that Buddhist compassion is simply another term for Christian charity. But there is a difference.

Charity comes from knowing. Compassion comes from unknowing.

I’d like to stress something at the outset that most readers don’t need to be told — although some apparently do. When I say “Christian” or “Christianity” I do not mean all Christians or all of Christianity. I’m talking about Christianity as it is commonly understood in the United States. The kind of Christianity that I, who have never been a Christian, absorbed simply by being raised mainly in the USA. OK? Let’s move on then, shall we?

Embedded within the ideal of charity is the idea that I know what it is to be charitable. Often this is understood in materialistic, or even capitalistic terms. If I have $100 and you have $2, the charitable thing for me to do is to give you some of my money.

But that may not always be the compassionate thing to do.

Long ago, after I’d been living in Japan for just a couple of years, I came back to the USA and paid a visit to my first Zen teacher, Tim. Back when I had been living at Tim’s house a few years before that, we’d both been dirt poor. But now I was living in Japan and working for Tsuburaya Productions.

I wasn’t rich by ordinary measures, but compared to the way I’d been living when I was still back in Ohio, I felt like I was fabulously wealthy. Tim’s financial state, on the other hand, had not improved much since I’d been away. Tim and I went to dinner at the Zephyr, a vegetarian restaurant in downtown Kent where Tim had worked when we’d lived together. After the meal, Tim said, “I’ll pay for this.”

I said, “Tim, I’m rich now. Let me pay for it!”

Tim gave me a look that I can still picture all these years later. The look said, “You know very well that’s the wrong response.” I put away my money and let him pay, even though I’m sure that wasn’t something he could do very easily.

My paying for that meal would have been an act of charity. Accepting the meal from Tim was compassion.

In my previous article for this blog, I poured some scorn upon a few of the year-end missives I’d received from big American Buddhist institutions. Those institutions were attempting to solicit contributions by detailing all of the charitable works they had done in the past year. It all sounded nice, the charitable stuff they’d done.

But whenever I hear about people’s charitable works I think of that scene in Repo Man where Otto asks his parents for an advance on the money they promised to give him when he graduated from high school. His parents are smoking a joint while watching a televangelist. “We don’t have it anymore,” his dad says.

Then his mom says, “Your father gave all our extra money to the reverend’s telethon, Otto. We’re sending Bibles to El Salvador.” 

The implication in that scene is that the reverend on TV is cheating these folks. I don’t think these Buddhist institutions are necessarily doing that. But I sometimes wonder how many Bibles El Salvador really needs.

When we’re trying to be charitable, we assume that the best thing a materially wealthy person can do for a materially poor person is to give that person some of their material wealth.

But is that always the best thing? There are certainly times when it appears to be, and I would even suppose there are times when that actually is the best thing to do.

But charity arises from knowing. It arises from knowing that I am rich, knowing that guy is poor, and knowing that the best thing for rich people to do for poor people is give them money.

Compassion isn’t like that. Compassion arises out of unknowing.

Not only is compassion unknowable when it’s being enacted, it usually remains unknowable even after. It’s easy to list off all the charitable things I’ve done because I know what they were. It is impossible to list the compassionate things I’ve done because I really have no idea. The best I can do is guess. And I’ll probably be wrong.

It’s important for me not to use this idea of compassion as an excuse for being greedy or withholding generosity. Yet I think it’s just as important not to use notions of charity as an excuse for diverting my instinct to be compassionate into much more easily quantifiable acts of charity that might not actually be very compassionate.

I often think that maybe the people I most despise might need my compassion more than the people it’s socially approved to give charity to. Maybe the folks I think are undeserving of my support are the ones who really need it. Maybe I am missing opportunities to act with compassion because I am looking too hard for opportunities to be charitable.

Maybe El Salvador already has enough Bibles.

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