A Tiny Act of Charity

I gave money to a man* begging in the market this morning.  I passed him on my way in and saw him seated on a small plank on the ground next to a vegetable stall, legs crossed, one hand holding a cup and one hand blatantly absent.  His arm stopped at the elbow.  He called out to me, but I was on a mission to restock on peanuts for the next few days, so I muttered an apology and then walked past him.

Then I thought back to yesterday.  My Warmshowers host, Katie, had taken me to a group meditation sitting led by an American Zen nun.  After twenty minutes each of sitting and walking meditation, we had a brief Q&A session, tea and cookies, and then the chance for some one-on-one sessions with the nun.  When my chance came, I asked her how I could make more time for meditation, explaining that even though I have all the time in the world, only rarely do I actually plant myself down and watch my breathing or thoughts for any amount of time.


2013-01-21 to Pursat 009b


Her answer surprised me, as is often the case when I ask such direct questions to my teachers.  Rather than telling me to stop making “excuses” or scolding me for a lack of devotion to spiritual practice – two things that I do to myself all the time – she told me not to be so worried about the total amount of time I spend on a cushion.  Being that I’m on a bicycle seat for four to six hours a day, I’ve got more than enough time to relax and practice simple mindfulness of my surroundings and non-attachment to my thought stream.  I’m practically living a full-time movable meditation retreat.

Instead, she suggested that this might be the time in my life to focus on other aspects of Buddhist practice – in particular, the ten paramis, usually rendered as “virtues.”  Generosity, morality, renunciation, insight, diligence, patience, honesty, determination, kindness, equanimity.  It’s typical, in Buddhist analogy, to like each parami to a jar, and each act of virtue as a drop into one of them; only once you’ve filled all the jars to the brim can you become enlightened.  This is supposed to take lifetimes.

The nun singled out charity as a place for me to start, probably because it’s the least abstract of the bunch.  It may be hard to remember in moments of anger that I ought to be more patient, and it may not be clear what the proper object of diligence ought to be, but it’s pretty obvious that when someone less fortunate** asks me for money, an opportunity to be charitable has arisen.  She said that, personally, she always gives one 500 Riel note (the smallest denomination commonly used; eight of them are worth $1) to anyone who asks her for money, provided she feels that she’ll be safe if she does.  If she does give the money, the moment passes and both parties soon forget; if she doesn’t, she spends the next forty-five minutes finding ways to justify her decision.

I left the meditation space in a bit of a daze.  The teacher had thrown me for an unexpected loop.  For whatever reason, though, my spirits were lifted and I noticed that for the rest of the day, I felt far less anger and anxiety than usual.  Traffic seemed friendlier, my friend’s getting lost on the way to lunch seemed less problematic, my hunger pangs were muted and struck me as inconsequential, and the whole afternoon and evening passed lightly and pleasantly.


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So, trusting the nun’s words, I went back to the man.  We made proper eye contact this time, and I handed him about a quarter’s worth of small change, including some notes of so little value that it’s hard to find a place to use them.  These pieces of paper, four of which had been an actual nuisance to me and one of which might have bought me a banana fritter, brought a giant, unquestionably genuine smile to the man’s face.  Its brightness shone out of the shadows that were covering him; the gratitude that the man showed towards my miniscule act of giving provoked an equal sense of gratitude in me and made me think that perhaps begging has to exist in this world so that the fortunate can come to appreciate both what they’ve got and the joys of sharing even a small piece of it.

I don’t mean to imply that this was by any means a major accomplishment on my part.  Many of the expats I met in Phnom Penh were working full-time at various NGOs helping to serve the less fortunate, and many of my friends (you’d better be reading this!) do similar work day-in and day-out.  Still, even this tiny act of locking eyes and giving hand-to-hand hit me pretty hard.  Rather than my next couple of hours being filled with self-righteous thoughts of how it’s not right for him to ask me just because I’m white, or how I didn’t need to give anything to him because I already do other things to reduce the amount of suffering the world, or how my money would be better spent supporting me so that I can continue wandering around on a bicycle showing people a flag that says “Three Rule Ride” on it, or how I’m on a budget, or how he’d probably “misspend” it anyway, or how there’s no way that little could make a difference, I’ve now got a memory of his smile that will come back to me whenever I want it.  Not many investments beat that one.


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I intend to make a habit of this. I’ll have to use a bit of discernment, of course, to make sure that I’m giving only in cases where it will be truly helpful.  Maybe I’ll consider just having my default set to “give” rather than “keep.”  To make this easier, from now on every time I have to spend 1,500R, I’ll use a 2,000R bill to make sure that I’ve got some 500s on hand to give away.  And if I don’t happen to have a 500R, I won’t let that be an excuse not to give – I’ll give 1,000 instead.  There’s something nice about having a pocket of my wallet filled with money – again, admittedly, a pittance to me – reserved for someone else.

After all, I can’t say with a clean conscience that I earned it.  Sure, I worked for it, and took steps to make it come to me.  But I didn’t make myself upper-middle class, or a straight white male, or a native speaker of English, or gifted at learning Korean.  It was pure dumb luck that playing squash in the mornings in Korea five years ago led to a monthly stream of supplementary income.  It was definitely dumb luck that the stock market appreciated thirty-odd percent in 2013.

Easy come, let it go.

I’ll let you know how it goes.





*My first instinct was to write that I “gave money to a beggar,” but I thought better of it.  Of all the actions that the man will take today, or that he took yesterday, or that he has taken or ever will take, why single that one out?  He could also be a veteran, a victim, a father, a mourner.  Given Cambodia’s recent past, I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt.


**Regarding the possibility of getting fleeced: I’ve had many people, especially in Korea, tell me not to give to those who are begging because many of them are “secretly rich.”  This seems unlikely to me, because it’s not very easy to dress down or humiliate oneself to the level necessary to beg successfully.  Still, even if it is true on occasion, or even half the time, why is it so repulsive to get fleeced by a beggar when we are routinely fleeced on almost every purchase we make, from sweat-shop clothes and shoes to university tuition to popcorn at the movie theater?

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8 Responses to A Tiny Act of Charity

  1. myra says:

    Yes a blessing – You know how you said I could blend you and my son together as a fiction character when I told you he said I could not write about him because he says I always get the story wrong? Well it gets easier every day –
    when he was in high school he kept giving his money away and having to get the conductor to let him ride home on the last train for free– I bought him books of coupons for free meals at Project Home a local homeless shelter with a nice cafeteria to give away so he would have the cash to come home but he would give whole books away and one day was waiting at 30th st station begging for money to come home on train when his cousin going from Washington d.c to new York city saw him and gave him money – it was actually a relief when he started biking 14 miles each way into town even coming home at 3am when the traffic was gone –

    I try to follow The Reiki precepts which are : Just for today do not bear anger ( I used to think do not be but that is not what it says), do not worry (losing too much energy being afraid), show gratitude, be humble and honest in our work (return to our child like nature), and be kind to ourselves and every living thing (expresses our oneness with all). Of course I never measure up to this or the Gurdjieff Work where I try to be present in each moment while doing physical tasks that I have been doing for 40 years but it is the path not the destination that is important (says our Zumba teacher at the gym). We are learning wonderful and valuable things.

  2. myra says:

    Blended story – to follow as soon as I stop chuckling and figure out what to write – you are probably riding your bike on the same roads and may have met the same people and prepared feasts of food with the same desire to eat good food – I wish I could get you together sometime but are you really so different or so the same as each other. Yes from the Gurdjieff work I have learnt that meditation can happen away from the pillow.

  3. Hey man, not to rain on your existential parade, but I think it’s pretty widely understood that it’s a bad idea to give money to beggars, especially in SE Asia. You can readily find a lot of articles and stats on the internet from reputable sources suggesting that many beggars are forcibly involved in pyramid schemes whereby they’re made to fulfill begging quotas each day, and remit most, if not all of that income back to some sort of “boss.” So really, if you give money to beggars, you’re likely to be just supporting the begging “industry” and unscrupulous characters who are perfectly capable of finding legitimate employment, rather than needy people.

    I think a much more rational approach to charity would be to only give food or other non-monetary assistance to individual beggars, or choose to donate a larger sum of money to a responsible organization that provides services to needy local people (free schools, shelters, orphanages, and the like), even though on a day to day basis it might be difficult to look those individual beggars in the eye and then not give them money.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Hey Shaky, your input is much appreciated. The giving is pointless or worse if it causes harm even while making you feel good. I wonder what the specifics are that one can look for in order to approach certainty about that in any given situation? Does it make a difference whether the person in question is old or young, in a touristy or remote area, limbed or limbless, or clearly afflicted with, for example, cerebral palsy? What about whether or not other locals are also doling out a bit of their own cash? Is making a practice a practice of unconditional non-giving to individuals really the best solution?

      Giving to reputable organizations is definitely important and certainly a more systematic approach, and I hope to dedicate a lot of time to such organizations while I travel, but it’s by no means mutually exclusive with giving to individuals along the way…provided, as you said, that you can find a way to do it responsibly.

      • I think that giving to individuals is usually not a good solution. As mentioned before, much of the time beggars are part of some kind of moneymaking scheme which only serves the interest of unscrupulous characters while exploiting the individual you’re donating to. Even if you can be reasonably certain that 100% of your donation will stay with a particular beggar, all you’re really doing is encouraging begging, rather than enabling them economically. It’s the whole “give/teach a man to fish” thing – instead of giving to individuals, who may be able to use that money to buy a meal to continue begging, it would be much better to donate your money or time to an organization that provides housing, educates, gives job training to, medical care for, etc, said individual, enabling them with health, knowledge, skills, and the security to have a more productive and fulfilling life.

        Generally I think not donating to individual beggars IS the best practice, unless your donation is in the form of food, or you can be reasonably sure that the money you’re giving will go to solve an acute problem (sometimes little kids really are just trying to make extra cash so they can pay for school, or sometimes people really are just in a pinch and need change for gas or a meal). Here in SE Asia, we don’t really have the ability to discern a particular beggar’s situation most of the time, and most info that I’ve read suggests that you’re more likely than not to be contributing to the problem rather than helping to resolve it out here.

        It’s tough to look someone in the eyes who is clearly poor and in need, and tell them “Sorry, but I’m not going to give even a small fraction of my comparatively vast economic wealth to you,” but at the end of the day, I think giving where it will really help on a broader scale, and in a way that the money trail is transparent, is the more rational and beneficial choice.

  4. Tanya says:

    Thanks for sharing this and I’ll share my take too:

    Even if a person were “secretly rich” or going to use the money for drugs or to some scheming boss, charity is, for me, an exercise of unattachment to money and non-judgement toward others. Consciously, I dislike those ideas and I’d ideally want every dollar given charitably to have the most positive benefit possible, but in reality, it is my own practice– cultivation of my self. And, much like the nun, I give to never feel the horrid guilt and shame and questioning and regret that I have felt in the past by not giving.

    I live a good life. And freely giving– even to someone possibly MORE fortunate than I– is just a reminder of it. The less I cling to money, the freer I feel. And if someone is going to use the money for drugs or alcohol, I give as a reminder that I, myself, have my own struggles and weaknesses and am on my own journey just as they are too.

    I’ve never regretted giving but I’ve absolutely regretted not doing so, or not giving more. That settles things for me.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Thanks for your input, too, Tanya. I mentioned doubts to the nun about the efficacy of giving to individuals – specifically, not knowing how they would spend it, and thus the chance that I would be prioritizing my own feelings of generosity, accurate or not, above the “true interest” of the recipient – and she responded to me with a quotation from the Buddha: “Put nothing ahead of your own development.”

      Maybe it’s good to start with a habit of giving unquestioningly to individuals and then working to refine that to only giving in cases where you can be reasonably sure it helps? For instance, I still won’t give to kids (who should be in school) or to seemingly healthy, well-dressed people who appear to be targeting only me. When I cross an old woman sitting alone on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, prostrated and with hands cupped, giving seems appropriate.

      I find that even the feeling of having perhaps mistakenly given when I shouldn’t have is less unpleasant than the feeling of not giving when I easily could have. The intention isn’t exactly more important than the result, but it might be less ambiguous…

      Argh, why’s it so hard to be nice???

  5. ian chen says:

    ‘charity as a place for you to start’, what’s the end for? we shouldn’t criticize the act of virtue,but virtue should not only be an act.