11 July 2011

Really Helping

I heard it said recently that one shouldn't give money to panhandlers on the street, because giving them money isn't helping them with what they "really" need.  The assumption is that their use of the money for another bottle or another hit is only perpetuating their suffering, and one shouldn't contribute to that at all.

I kind of get it, but I kind of don't.

My guess is that the person who said that, along with most everyone else who tends to that view, isn't about to put his life on hold to stay with the addict while he goes through the violent and ugly process of detoxing, and that's assuming the addict in question is even ready to go in.

Let's face it: excusing oneself from giving the pocket change by appealing to some standard of "real" help is a smokescreen;  one walks away without offering any help – real or sham – whatsoever.  When we measure help by standards of success or failure, we're implicitly creating a line that divides so as to protect the ego, to keep the ego from wasting its precious energies and resources.

But maybe that's not the point of the exercise at all.  Consider this:
A delicate little pigeon once happened to notice a mountain fire which was burning up so many square miles of forest.  The pigeon wished somehow to extinguish the terrible conflagration, but there was nothing that a little delicate bird could do.  Well knowing that he could do nothing to help the situation, the bird still could not remain quiet. With irrepressible compassion, he started to fly between the mountain on fire and a far away lake, carrying a few drops of water soaked in his wings each time.
    Before long all the energies of the pigeon were exhausted, and he fell dead on the ground, achieving no result at all.
Shibayama continues, "This most impressive story gives us a picture of the "Great Compassion" which exhausts its life with the Four Great Buddhist Vows."

"What rot!" I hear the crowd say, "Stupid frippin' bird."

But the majority voice is not the ruling one here.  Shibayama goes on:
If we were to call what the pigeon did foolish, nothing could be more foolish and useless.  But there are saints who would testify that nothing but such a holy, meritless life is the real life worth living; and it is these saints who, in spite of many difficulties, give harmony to the human world and direct it to peace and happiness, however little by little. […] Yet there is no other way but this for us to follow, and for which we should strive even at the cost of our own lives.*
It's one thing not to give to the panhandler, but it's another thing to elevate that choice to a voiced principle.   If we feel the need to excuse ourselves from offering aid, it's probably best to do so quietly and with lowered head.

* Shibayama, A Flower Does Not Talk, 201-02.

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