Monday, May 27, 2013

The spirit of giving

A view according to the truth of the Buddha goes like this: "දාන ප්‍රධානියා දාන ලාබියා එම දානය කෙසේ පරිහරණය කරයිද යන්න නොසිතිය යුතුය" (A giver should never attempt to determine how a receiver uses that gift). Similar sentiments were expressed by  Lord Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohamed (P.B.U.H.) and Lord Shiva. Indeed! If something is truly to be a gift, then the owner's ties to it should be severed the moment it is released from his or her  hand. If it doesn't, then, to all intents and purposes, that gift was never given.

Sri Lankans may have have many faults but in this aspect of giving, we show two traits that are, simultaneously and paradoxically, both gorgeously real and beautifully transcendental in nature.

The first is that whoever has, if the need arise, gives. And gives and gives. Regardless of who wants what or what the exact need is. We, um... care not a whit. This is not something unique to Sri Lanka but common to Asia in general. Call them beggars at your doorstep, panhandlers on a street corner, addicts with a convincing lie, a friends in distress... all of these have one common denominator. They are all, without exception, called "gifts". The minute their need become cognized in the mind, in goes the hand into the pocket and out comes the smiles on the face of the beneficiary of that delving exercise. Obviously, these are never considered "handouts to the needy" but rather, as a chance, an opportunity presented to the giver to give and the ones in need are "received" with great reverence and gratitude by the giver. Khalil Gibran makes a clear statement on the importance of this mindset in giving. In most parts of Asia, If a group of people meet for dinner, one of them, most enabled among the group, would pay. If they meet the next day, she will do so again. And again and again. In many parts of the western world, this type of passivity on the part of the rest of such a group would be seen as "taking unfair advantage" of the well-heeled. In the east, offering to "contribute" or "split" when one of the party picks up a bill would be considered an unforgivable insult. The reason is simple: in the east, every opportunity that is presented to a human being to give is taken, nay, grabbed, with alacrity. In this giving, there are no strings attached. There is no "deal" of any sort either stated or implied. There is no "I will pay for you today, but you should pay for me tomorrow". There is only the overall satisfaction that the balance of need, necessity, ownership and possession was restored in the act of giving generously, giving without denigration, giving without condition, receiving gratefully, receiving without subservience, receiving without guilt. Beautiful. Natural. Wholesome. Satisfying.

Watch this small clip I made of an excerpt of Kahlil's beautiful message to mankind:

The second is almost uniquely Sri Lankan. To not give is to perish. This is why, any excuse to give on a large scale to completely unknown people is anticipated with the same licking of chops as when the greedy lick their chops at the chance to gain on a large scale from completely unknown people. Two days ago, the country celebrated the birth, enlightenment and the passing of the Buddha on Vesak day and hundreds of thousands of people put up little shacks on the roadside to serve everything from tea to sherbet to noodles to rice to any and all who wanted a drink to slake their thirst or a meal to fill their stomachs. "Dansal" we call it in Sinhala, "Dhana Shala" in Sanscrit, "Place of giving" in English. They are also much more than that. Places of entertainment too you might rightly call them, or gatherings of conviviality, or watering holes of camaraderie, or wells of happiness and contentment...satiating all souls who partake of its ethos at a level far more long-lasting and self-sustaining than a thousand visits to a bar, a football match or a musical extravaganza.

Those who give, do so with great generosity, in some cases, literally forcing passersby to sample their home made lemonade or marmite or whatever else they had to give. And what about those that got? Why do they, year in and year out, turn up in their hundreds and hundreds of thousands?  Because they didn't have food on their table? Because they were hungry? Thirsty? Not really. That demographic is but a small percentage of those who flock to these places in droves. The majority come because they wanted to give the giver an opportunity to give. They come because they are thrilled that they could watch the giver being thrilled by giving. This is important folks. "The thrill of giving and receiving as acts that only serve the acts themselves" is rare indeed in this world we live in. In fact, most would think that these types of givers and receivers were smoking something serious. This is tragic. Such thinkers would have no recourse but to earn, steal or plunder everything they feed their bodies and souls with. Those who can't? In such societies, those who can't will die.

In Sri Lanka, awash in grinding poverty, mowed down by corrupt political systems, smashed to bits by insane conflicts, not one single human being in our rural communities ever dies from hunger or thirst. No one has to seek thither for a roof over their heads, for a bed to sleep on, for medicine to cure their physical ills, for sound counsel to cure their mental ills, for a smile for their souls. Such things are theirs  - not for the taking - but for the asking. And ask they do, of anyone and everyone.  And, give they do, to anyone and everyone.


Because we are nation of spontaneous givers and receivers. Because we give and receive merely for the purpose of adorning and ennobling our minds. Because we do not ask what was done to our gifts. Because we are not looking to receive something in return. Because we are content, as Gibran says "to give as yonder myrtle breathes its fragrance into space and breathe in that soul suffusing sweetness for it is as much our scent as it were the myrtle's ".

Meet Mr. Narayanan Krishnan - a man who epitomizes the spirit of giving from this region:

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