The following essay was written for display at the - Together in Service: a national celebration of faith-based social action - on the 27th November at Coin Street London.
There is a very strong encouragement in Buddhism to practice Dana (generosity). The Buddha usually put this first for his followers – following the formula, Dana, Sila, Bhavana (generosity, morality and developing the mind (meditation)).
Generosity should be practiced unconditionally, that is, without discrimination between race, creed, sex etc. We should give wholeheartedly.
As an example of this in practice, in Sri Lanka, it is common for Buddhists to celebrate their birthday by first giving a meal to the Buddhist monks, and then feeding needy children or the elderly in their locality.
Another example of generosity in action was the huge response to the Tsunami in Buddhist countries in SE Asia 7 years ago. Immediate relief was organised by Buddhist temples. A lot of money was also raised by Buddhists in the UK, the London Buddhist Vihara alone raising well over £100,000 and sending many gifts-in-kind for relief.
In the UK, a number of charities have been set up to help needy children in Buddhist countries. The Rahula Trust (www.rahula-trust.org), of which I am a founding Trustee, was the inspiration of Ven Vagiragnana, former Sangha Nayaka of Great Britain and Head of the London Buddhist Vihara, who was Chair of the charity for many years. We currently provide educational sponsorship to over 400 children in Sri Lanka, who would otherwise be unable to afford the uniforms, shoes, books and transport they need to go to school. Most of the sponsors are Buddhists living in the UK. Another organisation called the Anglo-Thai Foundation (www.anglo-thai.org) sponsors a similar number of children in Thailand.
I am also Trustee of Hope for Children (www.hope-for-children.org), a charity based in the UK, which has an income approaching £2 million annually. This charity works in 10 developing countries in Asia and Africa. We support 27 projects in Sri Lanka, including some small projects originally set up by Buddhist monks to help needy children, but is entirely non-sectarian.
All these charities work to the principle of helping children irrespective of their religion or beliefs. This is an important principle in Buddhism, it is not a missionary religion, and as such, it would be totally against Buddhist principles to give preference to children along sectarian lines. I remember one Buddhist monk who asked whether we should continue to sponsor a child, whose mother no longer attended the temple – he was told in the clearest possible terms that this was not a criterion for sponsorship.
This seems to be a feature which sets Buddhist social work apart. Having visited many countries in Africa and Asia, it is clear to me that many charities who raise funds in the West, supposedly to provide various kinds of relief to people in developing countries, are primarily focussed on religious conversion.
Another aspect of social engagement which is important to Buddhist communities in the UK, is to teach their children their cultural roots, including the native language of their parents.
Perhaps, however, the greatest encouragement to social engagement for Buddhists is the teaching of Right Livelihood, one of the factors of the Buddhist Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s path to enlightenment, which all Buddhists try to practice. Right Livelihood means to follow a livelihood which is not harmful to oneself or others. Many Buddhists in the UK work as doctors, teachers, therapists and in other social enterprises, with the aim of being of service to their community. Many again work in professions and trades and endeavour to bring the Buddhist principles of honesty and harmlessness into their working lives.