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Ming Zhen Shakya

Sweet Charity

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

TV's Judge Judy is to jurisprudence what water is to magnesium. ("I'm speaking!" "Do I look like I need your help?" "On your best day you're not as smart as I am on my worst day!") That she manages to administer justice as often as she does is astonishing. What is even more remarkable is that, despite her armored omniscience, she was once genuinely surprised by something she learned from a litigant. There isn't much that is new under Judge Judy's sun; yet she who is always articulate was clearly at a loss for words. I also didn't know what she had just learned; and I was equally surprised.

The case involved someone who had given a car to charity and for some reason had not thought about the car's further adventures on the road of life. Testimony adduced the information that when a person responds to a plea to "give us your old car, truck, boat, airplane" the charity to whom the vehicle is given never lays eyes upon it. No, when anyone donates a vehicle to a charity, the charity summons a used car dealer who sends his tow-truck operator to the donor's house; and if the vehicle looks remotely worth the trouble to haul it away, the tow-truck guy gets the signed title and gives a receipt in the name of the charity, inflating the vehicle's value as much as is humanly possible. The charity receives an immediate but nominal sum from the used-car dealer in exchange for its rights to the vehicle. (As I recall, in the case before Judge Judy the charity received fifty dollars.) The dealer then does some repair and cosmetic work on the vehicle and sells it or perhaps dismantles it for parts.

At least until the laws are altered or enforced, it is a win-win-win scam. The person who donates the vehicle gets a tax deduction, the dealer sells the car for a profit; and the charity gets a contribution.

Which brings us to the things that can go wrong when rampant benevolence hits the highway.

I hadn't thought about this enlightening case for a year or so; and then last week a sangha member called to complain about being stung in a charity scam. A new church group had come to her town on a mission: it wanted to create a shelter for the homeless. A flurry of TV pitches, some ads placed in the sports' section of the Sunday paper, and a few huckstering billboards convinced the public that they should donate their old "car, truck, boat or airplane" for the sake of the homeless. People responded accordingly. The cars were picked up, renovations were effected as needed, and the vehicles were distributed to various vacant lots with the legend "For Sale by Owner" and the "owner's" phone number written in white water-paint on the windows. Needless to say, no shelter ever materialized and no Internal Revenue Service agent ever accepted the tax deduction. The donors were much aggrieved and had to learn the hard way that - as Judge Judy would say, "You don't get paid for being stupid."

My caller revealed another interesting problem inherent in the charitable deed. This one involved the donor of an uninsured vehicle in the same scam. Since the car hadn't been driven in many months, the owner hadn't maintained auto insurance on it. He did not realize that until such time as the title is recorded, i.e., registered in the name of the new owner, the old owner is still technically responsible for any trouble the vehicle causes. My caller said that some person or persons unknown had taken the donated car on a joyride that ended in a hit and run before the car was abandoned in a citizen's front-lawn flowerbed. The donor now found himself - as we non-judicial folks say, "waist-high in alligators." An illegible receipt from a fictitious charity whose felonious administrators have fled to Fiji (a real place) is not going to get anybody out of trouble.

Certainly the local authorities should have noticed that the charity did not have a valid permit to make such solicitations; but non-elected civil servants are designed to respond, not to initiate. They hadn't gotten any complaints until after the damage was done - and then they were overwhelmed with pointless complaints.

Especially to people who cultivate "non-attachment," the giving of goods and services becomes a problem. When is "charity" charity - an act of loving kindness for another - given without any expected quid pro quo reciprocity, or when is it ordinary self-interest wearing the mask of altruism? Ideally, we give because we see a need and simply act to fill it; but often there is no spontaneity - we are pressured or otherwise manipulated into performing charitable acts. And there is always that other problem: when is a request for charity a prelude to fraud or when, for that matter, is an act of charity actually detrimental to giver, receiver, or both?

We all know that charity is a virtue, and we all feel a compelling need to be virtuous. There are times, however, we need to take a hard look at ourselves, asking whether it is virtue that motives us or whether it is the fear of being regarded as un-virtuous that moves us to action.

The motives of those who ask for favors or other charity are not the issue here. They may be truly needy or truly greedy. It is our response that requires investigation.

Perhaps we see financial advantage in giving - for example, by donating a worthless old truck to charity we are relieved of the hassle of having it removed from our property or, if it does have some small value, the hassle of advertising it for sale and making appointments with prospective buyers - a course of action that would likely wind up causing us much time, money, and irritation. In exchange for an old truck that is now a flat-tired home to spiders, we get free removal of a driveway eyesore, receive a nice tax deduction, and acquire the ability to tell our friends that the old Ranger still had a lot of good miles left in it and we figured 'Why not let the Church have it?' We know what magnanimous means.

Sometimes the benefits are psychological: bragging rights to a donation, when given with a properly humble attitude, does wonders for the reputation and sense of self-esteem. It need not be a genuine donation. Telethons used to be great venues for fake philanthropy. Some opportunistic person would call in a pledge for an amount that was gravid with blessings. The birth announcement would be joyfully broadcasted on TV and he would receive due congratulations from all his friends and associates; and only later would the donor privately lament that the 'Blessing' was stillborn and quietly nullify the pledge.

There are occasions, too, in which we feel guilty about something we've done. To restore our peace of mind we make a donation to a church or charity and tell ourselves that we have atoned for the transgression. It is surrogate atonement, but it is better than no atonement at all.

When an act of giving contains an expectation of future repayment or of any other benefit, we have the kind of contractual arrangement that frequently lands us in samsara's bitter and painful swamp.

We may even find ourselves charitably throwing good money after bad. A friend or relative may owe us money and then insist that he cannot repay us until he gets a job for which he needs a car. If a lending institution doesn't consider him a suitable risk, he will likely beg us to lend him the money or to co-sign an auto note. Conflicted, we allow emotion to override reason, and coerced by the exigencies of niceness or a complete lack of common sense, we consent. For the duration of the period of repayment - even if complete repayment occurs - we are worried.

And if there is forfeiture, we are aggrieved, disillusioned, and financially damaged. Instead of being regarded as the noble and generous person we were assured we'd be, we are branded as fools or liars. ("To you it was a loan. To him it was a gift. He couldn't pay the debts he already had, and you lent him more! You're stupid! Stupid!")

Sentiment is a poor broker. Judge Judy's admonishments are sharp but to the point.

Zen Buddhists often have a difficult time saying "no" to requests for favors or loans. Aside from preaching non-attachment and the Paramitas - one of which is giving, we tend to believe in the basic honesty and goodness of people. What is difficult for us to realize is that a kind deed that is performed with an anticipation of future performance or repayment serves to tie the giver to the future. We become attached by expectation. Now we must desire the promised return; and upon the fulfillment of this desire too much of our happiness, our faith in friendship, our sense of good judgment, our financial well being, may depend.

The fear of not being repaid for loans or other promised services presents additional problems as I once learned - the hard way. Years ago I agreed to attend a weeklong religious function with an acquaintance in a foreign country. We got off the plane and took a taxi to the hotel and as we went to sign the register she suddenly informed me that she had maxed-out her credit cards and asked if would I mind putting her expenses on my card. She said she'd withdraw money from her savings account as soon as we returned home and would repay me immediately. What could I say? Though I knew her only casually, we did have friends in common; and she had no reputation for being dishonest. But immediately before the trip we had spoken on the phone and had lunch together, and we had just sat side-by-side chatting on an airplane for hours; and she had said nothing about her credit card problems. I was offended by the insouciant way in which she assumed that I would let her use my credit card and by her irresponsibility in failing to bring money for a trip that had been planned for many weeks. I also didn't appreciate being 'put on the spot' at such a crucial moment.

She turned out to be the Acquaintance-From-Hell. Her persona immediately underwent a change: she was sarcastic, insulting, and inconsiderate. She'd drink strong coffee until late in the evening and then, unable to sleep, come to my room to talk and smoke. I remember that it rained and she came to my room and hung her wet coat in my closet, making my garments stink of tobacco for the rest of the week. I confess that I dared not complain for fear of giving her an excuse not to repay me. What was worse was that I could tell that she was aware of my fear, that she took a kind of sadistic pleasure in it. Cursing myself for having allowed myself to be so compromised, I suffered through the ordeal. I learned how to say No. She did repay me; but I didn't enjoy so much as five minutes of what should have been a pleasant week. ("And whose fault was that?")

Learning to say "No" involves more than financial loss when we're asked to give money that will enable someone to continue self-destructive behavior. A special genius for fund-raising attends those who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling. Just as paranoid personalities can invent elaborate and strangely plausible scenarios to account for their fears, so, too, do self-destructive persons have a knack for making people who hope for their recovery believe in their reformation or cure. They plead for another chance, convincingly - they are well rehearsed - but nobody benefits when we are gullible in our support of an addict's unsubstantiated claim to reformation. If someone says that he is hungry, a charitable response is to give him food and, in the case of a self-destructive person, to watch him eat it.

Much about a charitable exchange is pitch dependent. An appeal is made to our sympathy or to our pride. We recall episodes in our own lives in which we needed help or else we feel peer pressure - that need to be a "friend in need" and not a "friend in surfeit only." Empathy and fear, those reliable instigators of generosity, can snare us when we least expect it. We ought to try to be helpful, of course. Common decency demands a thoughtful response. But we need to be circumspect. Perhaps the best way to approach a request is to follow the Vacationing Gambler's Dictum: only gamble what you can afford to lose.

In Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi advised his disciples to burn their good deeds behind them; and when, in fact, this is accomplished, what remains is a genuine act of kindness, one that is not contaminated by ego or spoiled by anxiety or disappointment. When there is an intelligent appraisal of the situation - of ours and of the recipient's, so that we understand what we're doing without any emotional interference; and especially when there is no necessity for repayment - no further obligation to us of any kind - we are able to do a good deed and then, freed forever from the perils of pride and regret, to consign our action to the flames. The beneficiary of the good deed may be eternally grateful, but the doer should simply, as Judge Judy says, "Put a period after it! And move on!


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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