Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Putting Out the Fire of Craving

I can remember when former President George Bush announced a $15-billion gift to fund the fight against HIV and AIDS.  It was billed as the biggest single donation ever made.  As noted by commentators on World Aids Day this week, there is no question that a disease that was once regarded as a death sentence is now being managed by millions who are “living positively”.

Then came The Giving Pledge with two of the world’s richest men (Bill Gates and Warren Buffet) pledging to give away half of their respective fortunes, and challenging other millionaires and billionaires to do the same.

So when Mark Zuckerberg this week announced that 99 percent of his Facebook fortune will be allocated to social investments, I was surprised at the reactions.  The mechanism that he chose was critiqued by some from a tax angle – but who doesn’t look at tax deductibility when making a donation?  Without suggesting that it should always be a factor in the Giving equation, there is little question that most givers like a tax deductible receipt when donating to charity.

Also Zuckerberg’s choice of a social investment mechanism that will allow profits to be generated is not so uncommon these days.  For example, “poverty lending” schemes have to charge interest to keep themselves sustainable.  We don’t all have to take an oath of poverty like St Francis did in order to serve the poor.  Nor is there any shame in doing so, by the way.

Some people pointed out that even the remaining 1 percent comes to about $500 million, so it’s not like he is impoverishing himself.  This sounded a lot like jealousy to me!

Also, no one mentioned the fact that he made this fortune by launching a SOCIAL tool, in the social media.  Facebook is hugely inter-personal and relational and Zuckerberg deserves credit for that – he didn’t just sell widgets.  He brought people together, strengthened our social fabric and softened borders.  In short, he changed the way the world works.

How much is enough?

Last year, C4L launched a blogsite by this name – with a lot of musings on philanthropy and missions.  It has had about 1200 site visits since then, so we are holding forth. This site has just been re-launched.

Zuckerberg’s initial forays into philanthropy are already mentioned on that site, and this C4L Bulletin will soon be uploaded.  One bulletin that comes to mind is Affluence Extremism and another is Viva Contentment, Gratitude and Moderation.  The Giving Pledge is mentioned along with a flotilla of 35 articles on Voluntarism, Volunteering, Altruism, and the Nonprofit Sector.

The question “How much is enough?” is a bit like “How long is a piece of string?” in the sense that there is no fixed answer.  But a few other bulletin titles may point the direction that it goes in: Affluent people have a debt to pay, Gain the whole world and lose your soul, Charity begins at home, Unambiguously pro-poor, Putting it back, Living the paradox, The best way to give, Responsibility and complicity, Mendicancy, Disaster Watch, Kind-blameless-pure-astute.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s studies arose from the work place, not from research on poverty or inequality.  His pyramid is well-known, with a wide base of “survival needs” at entry level.  The logic rises through other needs to a fifth level called “self-realization” – for example in continuing education to fulfil aspirations that were latent on your way up the ladder.

Long after Maslow, a sixth tier was added.  That is, the need to give back to the system from which your success emerged, and to say Thank You to it.  This resonates with The Giving Pledge.

Extinguishing the fire

At the root of Buddhism are the life experiences of Siddhartha Gautama.  He was heir to a kingdom but too troubled by inequality and the problem of suffering to want to assume royal responsibilities.  Discontent affected the rich too, not just the poor – in the form of greed.

Gautama concluded that no matter what anguish affects you, your mind experiences dissatisfaction or craving.  In English we sometimes refer to “need” as “want”.  For some, this is soul-numbing poverty and hunger.  For others, it is the restlessness arising from the need for love or even meaning.  Gautama probed ways to exit this perpetual angst, this constant chasing after fulfilment.  He found that Enlightenment helped to melt away the craving – simply understanding the angst for what it is, addresses it.  In Harari’s words:

“But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without craving?  To accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain?  Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving…
“He instructed his followers to avoid killing, promiscuous sex and theft, since such acts necessarily stoke the fire of craving (for power, for sensual pleasure, or for wealth).  When the flames are completely extinguished, craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment and serenity, known as nirvana (the literal meaning of which is ‘extinguishing the fire’).”

I don’t know about you?  But when I hear of a wealthy family placing 99 percent of their riches into an entity devoted to “advancing human potential and promoting equality for all children in the next generation”, I get the sense that the fire of craving has burned out.  In the priceless lyrics of Dylan:

 Once I was wading in fortune and fame

Everything that I dreamed of to get a start in life’s game

But suddenly it happened, I lost every dime

But I'm richer by far with a satisfied mind.