Putting One’s Money Where One’s Mouth Is

Putting money where one’s mouth basically means showing due support for what we advocate. Also interpreted as “stop giving lip service and take some real actions.”

Yesterday, Puay Khim commented to me that there is an interesting debate going on in some online forum about how it is wasteful or pointless or both to have a stupa cast in gold. The theme here is that Buddhism should focus on its teachings and not so much on devotional aspects that they become the main focus. Such views are commonly upheld by a strata of Buddhists who are supposedly the intellects. They are inclined towards Buddhism because of its teachings and see little value in devotional practises like chanting, prostrations or having Buddha statues or stupas built.

Some even go on to suggest that monks should likewise focus on 1) study and practise of the teachings in suttas (Sanskrit: sutras) and 2) meditation, and not spend much time, if at all, on prayer ceremonies and the likes. They reckon that since the Buddha and his monks in earlier days did pretty much that, monks in present day should do likewise.

All these are fine and good, and for the most part, right. In my stay and study in Fa Yun Monastery for 3~4 years, that’s what we ever do: Study of the sutras and meditate. We don’t conduct elaborate prayers nor do we fund raise. Our primary interaction with lay people were through the occasional visitors who happen to see our signboard along highway 64 in Taos, New Mexico, US. Others include visits by our lay supporters who only come over like once or twice a year. We do have daily prayer chanting sessions but it’s part of our daily practice and not so much of an event. Interestingly enough, we regularly receive donations from kind donors, both monthly from Taiwan and on an adhoc basis from Americans or US based Chinese who know about us. Not everyone can fully comprehend or accept our lifestyle of near seclusion and simplicity, but enough people deem it worthwhile for them to support us. We get by.

The United States is officially a secular country, with a secular constitution and a separation between state and religion. Americans are, however, predominantly Christians. In this manner, Buddhist monasteries do not get special concessions or free access to utilities and the likes. As non-profit organisations, Buddhist monasteries such as Fa Yun Monastery do get tax exemptions in certain areas. The bills however still need to be paid. Fortunately, with the support of kind donors, we get by.

Singapore is similar to US in that it is also a secular (state) country. While non-profit organisations do get certain tax concessions, religious people as a whole do not necessarily enjoy any special treatment. Electricity, water and gas do not come free, and someone’s got to pay the property tax. In recent years, land provisions allow only 30 year leases on new articles of land for religious usage in certain parts of Singapore. This mean that the money spent on the land asset dwindles down (or amortize as it is known in the accounting world) to zero after 30 years. Compare this with Buddha’s time where the king himself would offer plots of land for the sole usage of monks to reside in and it seem like there’s a huge divide here. Now, note that we are not here to scrutinize or judge the government’s allocation of land use or its policies; we’ll leave that to the politicians and economists. Rather, we are trying to identify the differences between the conditions that monks in Singapore are facing compared to Buddha’s time.

Besides apparent social differences, the kind of support given by the lay supporters also differ. While it may be arguable what good a stupa cast in gold can do for one’s peace and happiness or wisdom, it is undeniable that the devotees who willingly donated for its construction genuinely believed in what it stood for, if not at least they believed sufficiently in whatever peace, happiness, and wisdom it may confer unto them. The point here is not so much whether what they believe in is justified or not, but
that they were not just casual commentators or paying lip service to a belief. They honoured their belief in gold. Try beating that.

Sure, intellects and the likes can go on about the rhetorics of how they are blinded by their belief, but the fact is that their contribution supports their beliefs. If there are those intellects who believe that monks should concentrate on the study and practise of the teachings in the sutta and meditation, then they should support accordingly. Without the appropriate support from the lay community, these monks will either have to move to other countries that support them or garner support from those who do.

So, I say, it’s about time to put one’s money where one’s mouth is. Go on and show your support to the cause that you believe in. There are monks in Singapore who are earnest about the practise.

Footnote:

This is not a solicitation for funds, but a reply to intellects who frown on devotional practises.

The author is a resident monk in Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery and gives Dharma classes and Meditation classes to a variety of audiences. While he does not actively practise or advocate devotional practises, he does not dismiss the positive effect it has on people and for the right audience, he sometimes even recommends such practises as a start, before moving them onto sutta study and meditation.

6 thoughts on “Putting One’s Money Where One’s Mouth Is”

  1. I am one who frown on devotional practices, rites and rituals though I am no intellect. There are many PhDs who are staunch Christians, Buddhists, etc. who wouldn’t mind participating in all manners of devotion. I can understand why and their needs for such devotional practices. But not all devotional practices make sense to me. Building golden stupa serves no purpose other than grandiosity. It is not about generosity. The ‘desire’ to build religious icons have been around since man began to worship. If you look at historical sites, the most impressive monuments are houses for gods, kings, emperors and their consorts –
    whether dead or alive. Look at the churches, temples, mosques, pyramids, mausoleums, palaces, forbidden city, white house, etc.
    I just wonder: would the one who donates his/her jewellery for the stupa be willing to give them to the poor (who can’t promise them anything in return – karma, merits, a place in heaven)!

  2. Hi there George, thanks for your replies!

    I guess it’s quite possible that some things in life will never make sense to some of us while it may mean everything to others. Take for example, expeditions to Mt Everest and south pole. I am not against them, but I must confess that I cannot totally appreciate its purpose except when the expedition leads to scientific experiments that may ultimately benefit mankind. But at the same time, I cannot deny how the experience itself may affect and influence people deeply. In a similar way, devotional practices are similar; it may never make sense to some of us, but their (positive) influence on people cannot be denied.

    Not so sure about how ‘religious’ the white house or some palaces are. Maybe it’s more of a need and desire for man to express and preserve his beliefs and ideas, and literally cast it in stone. This may include religious icons, but is definitely not restricted to it. In the end, perhaps what’s more important is its impact on posterity. If it has a net positive impact on people or at the very least aims towards that, I would say it is admirable. Understandably, not everyone get inspired in the same way, so not everyone will see eye to eye with everything. But just because we don’t get inspired, let’s not brush off its positive impact on others and deny it all so easily.

    I’m no psychic, so I won’t attempt to paint a rosy picture and make a claim nor post an accusation that cannot be substantiated within reasonable doubt. I think there are those who donated to the stupa and are willing to give them to the poor with or without promises of rewards, and there will be those who did and are unwilling to give to the poor for whatever reasons. Then there will be those who will give to the poor but not the stupa. And then there will be those who will give neither to the stupa nor the poor. The former three are pretty ok, as they gave according to where they felt inclined towards giving. In cases like this, I tend to like to focus on the positive aspects of one’s progress and try to nuture their spiritual growth.

    Isn’t the last group who give to neither the ones who needs our attention and encouragement most?

  3. Indeed, a lot of actions don’t make sense to some but are sensible to others. I guessed it is not just perception but oso the way of thinking. Therefore, it is very much in the pysche of the person performing the devotional act. If they feel good about the practices and help them in their faith, I supposed it should be sensible. But what about some ritualistic practices that are carried out by devotees of deviant faiths? Do not these practitioners see them as sensible too even as others don’t?
    Building icons – be they religious, personal or political goes beyond posterity. It is about making a statement – grandiosity. Since, everything is impermanent, why build for posterity? Or was it precisely everything is impermanent that we need to build for posterity?
    About giving, the first three examples are very appropriate. Looking at the act of giving itself, I cannot fault it. But I was looking at the intention of giving. If giving is not for a purpose or helping a cause, then why just give even if the inclination to give is very strong for whatever reason or virtue. But if giving is for something in return, that is not generosity. That is an exchange!
    As for the last group, they may well need our attention depending on whether they are the ‘haves’ or ‘
    have-nots’. But I will not fault them. Perhaps, they have good reason(s) not to. So, it wouldn’t be right to say, since you have you must give! Having said this, it makes no difference to me cos in the end, they can’t take it with them. And the irony is: those they don’t want to give to, are the ones taking!

  4. George, let’s be clear about something here. Assuming there actually exist some ultimate conch of judgement and it slipped into your hands for a second, there now seem to be a new group that you are concerned with, namely the devotees of deviant faiths, and this group is *not* those who donated to the stupa right?

    As for those of ‘deviant’ faith, whatever that might mean, yes, their practitioners would see them as sensible even as others don’t. And for the most part, as long as they do not engage in activities that directly harm others or lead on to harm, then we pretty much have to come to terms that we are all different. If however, they do harm others directly or otherwise, then I doubt anyone will condone it. Further, if there are devotees of very official orthodox faith, who carry out deeds that harm others directly, would we all not censor them, prosecute and charge them according to the laws of the land? It is really the result of their faith that affects us and ultimately concerns us isn’t it?

    So the question then becomes: Are you seeing stupa donors as of ‘deviant’ faith or that they are doing something that directly harm others?

    You know what, George? You are right. If something is given in exchange for something, it’s not so much of generosity, but more of well, an exchange, a trade. Again, can I guarantee that everyone who gives, does so without an inch of expectation? No. Can I ensure that? No. But does it have a chance of softening some people’s heart over time and opening them to caring and thinking for others instead of just for themselves? Yes it can, and I think everyone deserves a chance to start somewhere.

    Buddhism is not some elitist or puritanical belief or practice that shut people out. We all vary on the spectrum of spiritual development and with it, different degrees of understanding and practice. So I would really recommend 2 things:

    1. Be open to others who are at a different spiritual level to us.
    2. Lead by example through our own actions.

    If we believe that giving should be done without a need for reward, then let’s ‘teach’ by example, give! I think that’s the best way to help those who are not already doing that, for through our personal example, can we hope to inspire them to do so. I really doubt that any further insinuating about how they are doing it all wrong or not quite rightly will inspire them at all.

    As the title says it all … let’s put “one’s money where one’s mouth is”: Give.

  5. Thanks Venerable for your insightful reply. There is no new grouping. I am keeping to the twin topic – devotional practices and giving.
    I reckon that ‘followers’ of The Buddha may be known as devotees, believers, worshippers, scholars and even skeptics. The differences therefore would be the ways these ‘followers’ demonstrate their ‘attention or interest’. This could range from blind faith, carrying out Buddhists rituals, making offerings to The Buddha, studying the Dhamma, or questioning the philosophy and practices of Buddhism. I for one, frown upon some devotional practices as I don’t see any sense. Perhaps, my perception is limited.
    The example of deviant practice is not related to donating gold for building stupa. Its just an analogy to illustrate what I meant by sensible practice to one and not sensible to another. Mainstream religions look at deviant faiths as unacceptable (not sensible) but the deviant practitioners don’t, even if their practices are not
    harmful to others. That said, building golden stupa is not sensible to me but to ‘Buddhist’ devotees, it does! It is not about harm.
    As to giving – the value itself cannot be faulted. But the act of giving could. Say, if someone wants a smoke and you give – is this ‘helpful’? Here again, I am not referring to harm. I am just focusing on the act of giving. Therefore, giving is honorable in its altruistic sense but not when associated with harm. Therein lies the contradiction.
    Giving also has several meanings depending on the circumstances. In philanthropy, that act of giving is for some noble aims. In providing, that act of giving is for subsistence or sustenance. In donating to charity, that act of giving is for helping the poor, sick or aged. I can’t find any meaning in giving jewellery for building stupa unless it is to help devotees to ‘detach’ their cravings for such ornaments! To let go off their golden burden?
    But if the purpose is to encourage the ‘practice’ of giving: then I supposed any reason whether it makes sense or not, does not matter. As you said: Give. (full stop!).

  6. Sunday Times 15 July carried a report that the ‘tooth’ believed to be one of Buddha’s molar now housed in a golden stupa in the Chinatown temple is not human. Some comments by Ven Shi Fazhao is particularly disconcerting:
    “To me, it has always been real and I have never questioned its authenticity.”
    As for the dental experts’ assessment, Ven Shi said: “They can say all they want, I don’t care what they say. If you believe it’s real, then it’s real.”
    Would he let an expert examined the tooth in Singapore? Ven Shi replied: “Its mine, why should I let you examine it? Why don’t you go examine what’s in Sri Lanka or China first?”

    So, is the truth in the tooth? Or just mere blind belief?

    And should legend be part of Buddhism? Ven B Dhammaratana (Buddhist Research Society) explained that different Buddhist societies would subscribe to different versions of Buddha’s legends. He said: “You can’t say which is right or which is wrong.”

    Hmmm ….. I say this is leading the middle path to a pot-hole!

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