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Zen of Giving and Receiving: a Buddhist Take on Effective aid

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Periodically someone comes up with a bright new "aid" idea that generates a lot of discussion about effective aid and good intentions. Last year it was one million used t-shirts to Africa.

When I sent a tweet about ineffective aid, saying "Your old stuff is not good aid", a follower of mine challenged me. She didn't think my statement sat well with my 'zen' approach to life:

"Zen teaches us to take with gratitude what we are offered. "Give us cash only" is not exactly honouring the spirit of giving."

It is true that one of the vows of the Zen priest ordination is: I vow to take what I am given.

Now, I'm no Zen priest, but as a Zen Peacekeeper I embrace this vow and do my best to practice it every day. And when I tweeted: "Your old stuff is not good aid", I wasn't saying "I don't want your old stuff."

What I was saying was, "Our old stuff is not good aid." (This seems to bear repeating over and over again, so here are six questions to ask before sending things overseas.)

A few thoughts about a Zen approach to effective aid:

1. Aid is about more than generosity.

Firstly, aid is not only about generosity. Aid is also about the first ethical precept of Buddhism (which is also the first yama of yoga): 'do no harm'.

As Karen Maezen Miller put it:

The slightest trace of self (in the act of giving) and it is not dana, it's self-aggrandizement and it always does harm.

Furthermore, aid is a process of rebalancing an unjust global economic system. In Buddhist terms, therefore, aid should follow the second precept: 'do not take what is not yours to take'. We recognize we've taken what wasn't ours to take, and aid is our effort to redress that.

International development is equally about awakening to the reality that we are not separate, that what happens in Uganda is happening to me. It's about waking up to the fact that importing one million used t-shirts from the U.S. could destroy small local clothing manufacturers. It's about recognizing that all of this is connected.

2. Generosity is about a particular kind of 'good intention.'

One of the most common responses to criticism of ideas, like the 1 million t-shirts, is that the people behind the initiative had 'good intentions'.

But good intentions are not enough. They are not an excuse for causing harm. And what do we mean by 'good intentions' anyway?

If we took the Buddhist principle of generosity, or dana, as our starting point, then good intentions would require us to have "the desire for someone else's well-being".

The desire for someone else's well-being is not the same as "the desire to do something that feels like it might be good". It implies a desire to simply give what is needed for that person's well-being. This principle is the flip-side of the vow "to take what I'm given." So I've come up with my own variation on the dana teaching:

I vow to take what I'm given and to give what is needed.

3. Six magic words: "What do you need from me?"

If we vow to give only what is needed, then we need to know exactly what is needed. And this doesn't only apply to international development -- Let me bring it a bit closer to home.

Recently I was sitting at my kitchen table with a group of friends. One of my friends started talking about a situation in her life that was causing her a lot of pain. As I listened my mind whirred into action, trying to think of what I could do help her out.

Thankfully I caught myself in time, and instead of trying to predict what she might need, I plainly asked her: "What do you need from me? What can I do to help?"

Her answer was something I couldn't possibly have guessed. I also suspect it was something that she would not have requested had I not asked the simple question:

What do you need from me?

This is a fundamental principle of good development. It is the foundation of generosity. If what I think I have to offer isn't needed, and yet I insist on giving it, then I have to suspect that something other than generosity is at play.