Engaged, Part 1: Strengthen Communities by Giving

 No man is an island / Entire of itself

Every man is a piece of the continent / A part of the main

In these oft-quoted lines from a centuries-old poem, John Donne reminds us that individuals are not isolated—we are integral parts of the communities we live in.  What a comforting thought.

Yet with that comfort also comes responsibility for civic engagement. If you had a high school civics class, you might vaguely recall this definition (from Civic Responsibility and Higher Education):

Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.

As for not being an island, the textbook goes on to say:

A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own… and to take action when appropriate.

Despite this civics training, engagement in both political and nonpolitical processes has been lagging. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only a quarter of all Americans volunteered in 2015, a rate that had been steadily declining over the previous decade. And while political participation in the U.S. has increased since the 2016 election, OECD reports that in member countries, people’s faith in the political process is disturbingly low: a mere 38% have confidence in their government, with only 1 in 3 feeling like they have a say, and voter turnout decreasing on par income and education.

 The paradox is that if we lack confidence in our governments, we should engage more, not less.  Yet too many people succumb to apathy, failing to recognize their own political power. Individuals are imbued with agency – the power to act independently, to make free choices, and to influence the world around them despite social constraints. So if we want things to improve in our communities, we just need to act. We can create positive change by giving freely of our time, talents, and treasure and hold our governments accountable by participating in the political process. Those of us who live in democratic societies may still face obstacles (namely identity-based bias and discrimination), but we have a responsibility to make the system work for all.

Members of the Asoke movement excel in this sort of civic engagement. In fact, “giving” is a core tenet, as expressed in their most popular slogan: “Consume little, work hard, and give the rest to society.” While the Asoke ethic of consuming little is easily observed in their daily life, giving is better understood through special events like the Noble Market and introductory training for non-members. As for participation, Srisa Asoke residents attended weekly community meetings, worked in committees, kept themselves informed about important issues, and encouraged members to vote in local and national elections. Some Asoke members even ran for political office – and won.

A quick note on what I mean by community. A community can be any size—even national or global, and members don’t need to be in close proximity. The term “community” suggests a connection or bond, in which people are bound up together, sharing, despite differences, a common identity. I like to emphasize our common identity as humans. With that, let’s see what the Asoke movement has to say about “giving to society.”

I. Giving

The Noble Market (Talad Ariya) is held annually for three days over New Year’s on a large expanse of undeveloped land at Ratchathani Asoke (Ubon Ratchathani Province). The fair-like atmosphere and discount prices attract thousands of serious shoppers and fun seekers alike. On the days I attended, most market goers were poor Isan farmers dressed in T-shirts over faded phathungor polyester pants and rubber thongs, but there were also wealthier women made up in coordinated department-store outfits and faux-leather shoes, as well as teens in jeans.

Booths on either side of canopied walkways were piled with all sorts of goods: basic household items (e.g., woks, plastic buckets and washtubs, sticky-rice steamers, brooms, mats, field hats, laundry soap, and cooking oil), handicrafts, bicycles, eyeglasses, herbal medicine, snacks, produce, and so on. There was quite a clamor as sellers hawk their wares—some with the aid of microphones—shouting “Sugarcane! Five baht a bunch!” and “Hurry before they are gone!” Eager customers stood in long lines for the best deals. When they tired, they squatted in the shade to wait for friends or wandered over to the “food court” where each plate of vegetarian food cost a single baht. After, they rested on the lawn and enjoyed a variety show performed on a stage by Asoke members.

I participated in this event as a “window-shopper” as well as a seller. On the first day, I helped a group of Asoke friends from Bangkok sell watermelon. They had bought enough grapefruit-sized melons to fill a pickup truck at the nearby market and were selling them at a loss for one baht a piece. Shoppers drawn by this incredibly low price crowded around our table, ignoring our repeated urgings to queue up. The next day, I helped my friend Kwang (whose Srisa Asoke house I lived in while she worked in Bangkok) sell organic durian-flavored banana chips for five baht a bag. Kwang, the savvy marketer, positioned helpers out front with a plate, offering samples to passers-by. When I took a turn with the sample plate, sales skyrocketed… thanks to shopper curiosity about the foreigner who spoke Thai!

What makes the Noble Market “noble” is that goods are sold for less than the original purchase cost. The Asoke folks offer a significant service by providing the Thai public with shockingly inexpensive everyday items. But they get something in return: merit. In Thai Buddhism, merit is a currency that can be accumulated and invested for a better life (this one or the next).  The Asoke group reckons that lower prices, even taking a financial loss, result in higher “noble profit” or merit.

For example, if a pencil costing ten baht is sold for twelve baht, the seller does not gain, but loses merit equivalent to two baht. However, if the same ten-baht pencil is sold for eight baht, the seller earns two baht “noble profit.” Asoke members don’t actually calculate merit this way, but it’s a frequent explanation. So for Srisa Asoke, Tangbun estimated that their Goodwill Store (the shop that sells community-made items to the public) gained 200,000 baht’s worth of merit at that year’s Noble Market. That’s a clear benefit for residents who contributed to this form of “giving to society.”

Yet perhaps more importantly, this market also allows Asoke members to help outsiders by introducing their way of life. Tangbun explained:  “It lets people see that it really exists—there are people like this. Then Asoke organizations have skits, songs—each person, each place—to show people what we do together.” Tangbun was referring to the Noble Market itself as well as the ongoing performances of music and comedy, an approachable way for Asoke members to share their beliefs and practices with outsiders. Many bargain shoppers come to the Noble Market knowing nothing about the Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform Movement, but they leave with at least an inkling that an alternative lifestyle exists.

The second major way the Asoke group “gives to society” is by offering trainings to non-members covering both the spiritual and practical aspects of their lifestyle. Srisa Asoke sees 1000 visitors each month for afternoon tours or four-day workshops, all free of charge. During the multi-day “Dharma Builds People; People Build the Nation” trainings, groups of 30 to 300 people (e.g., students, government workers, teachers, villagers, or members of the regional chemical-free agriculture group) listen to talks, observe Asoke life, and take part in daily activities at Srisa Asoke.

Payasin (librarian and cook at Srisa Asoke) expressed concern for her fellow Thais and then enumerated what Srisa Asoke teaches through their trainings:

There are still people outside our community who are anxious. . . . They must work hard to get a little money, and the price of things is expensive. They do not know that using and paying for luxuries makes them anxious. We help them by having them come train in Dharma.

We teach them to be economical, to stop abayamook—don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke, don’t gamble—and practice eating vegetarian food. Vegetables are cheaper than meat. We let them practice planting vegetables. . . . Then they will be economical with their expenses; that is, they don’t have to buy vegetables because they grow their own. And then don’t eat food that doesn’t have benefit, food that looks good, that they sell in the supermarket, you know? . . . We tell them so they understand not to buy luxury items. And then let go of the things they use in adorning themselves. Have fewer clothes. Cosmetics, they are not necessary. . . .

They may still have a small salary, but they will not be anxious. And then no one will take “crazy medicine” [ya ba, methamphetamines]—they will see the danger of addictive things and have ways to help themselves. . . .

This last observation about methamphetamines is an insightful one. Ya ba usage had become an epidemic among poor Thais after the 1997 economic crisis (the global one that started in Thailand). At that time, what was a hard life on a good day became unbearable for far too many.

So for good reason, Srisa Asoke residents gave large amounts of time, energy, and resources to perform these trainings. By allowing people to see Asoke life in action and to practice it for themselves (rather than merely reading about it or hearing about it at other Asoke events), the Asoke group hoped to have a greater impact on Thai society. Even if training participants were not inspired to become members and live at Srisa Asoke, they could certainly improve their lives by adapting the Asoke example.

Years later, I’m still mulling over the significance of giving. The most prominent Asoke nun, Sikkhamat Chinda, told me simply, “Giving is the heart of Buddhism.” We might relate this to what other Buddhists call karuna or compassion: we feel empathy for another’s suffering, and we take action to ease it. The funny thing is, compassion was not always so central to Buddhism.

Buddhism is fundamentally about individualsalvation, but back in the first century BCE, a heated debate among monks in Sri Lanka arose regarding whether a monk should also concern himself with humanitarian service. What decided it was a story about the monk Cullapindatiya Tissa, who did not sympathize with a female devotee when her house burnt down. He simply came the next morning as usual to receive alms. Seems pretty thoughtless, doesn’t it? From this it became clear that monks—and everyone else—must actively care for others because our wellbeing is interconnected. Now there’s a growing movement called Socially Engaged Buddhism that prioritizes care for others as a core practice in the pursuit of enlightenment. That’s the inspiration for this chapter on “being engaged.”

Lesson: Give of your time, talents, and treasure to boost both personal and public wellbeing.

Civic engagement has always had a bit of an uphill battle in America. When Ben Franklin organized the nation’s first volunteer fire department and voluntary militia, institutionalizing the ethic of civic engagement, he had to contend with the early Americans’ individualistic tendencies. After all, they came to America seeking religious freedom and suffered great hardships, each for his/her own personal salvation. But Franklin had different ideas: his philosophy was “one served not to save their soul, but to build a strong society.” 

Cultural psychologists might say that Ben Franklin’s exhortation to “prioritize society over individual souls” didn’t stick because the first Americans were inherentlyindividualistic.  Their theory is that individualistic cultures emphasize personal freedom and achievement, while collectivistic ones emphasize the embeddedness of individuals in a group. Psychologists further categorize “Western” cultures (European, American, Australian) as individualistic and Asian, collectivistic. I (as an anthropologist), however, would be wary of such generalizations. The individualistic/collectivistic characterization comes across as deterministic, which would prevent us from asking why this might be so and if it can be changed.

A better explanation is perhaps our divergent sense of self. As mentioned in the introduction, the Western assumption of an atomistic or isolated self emerged during the Age of Enlightenment in the form of “Economic Man,” the neoclassical economic rational actor model. Neoclassical economic theory featured Economic Man as an isolated unit who operates on means-to-ends rationality to maximize self-interests, whether for profit or some other form of satisfaction. So according to this theory, unless civic duty is clearly within one’s self-interests, it is not a priority. It could well be that Ben Franklin’s “Civic Man” came up against stiff competition with “Economic Man”…and ultimately lost.

In contrast, the Buddhist sense of self (based on the theory of conditionality and the law of causality) is connected to other entities rather than isolated; and as such, an individual’s actions have consequences arising in a non-linear fashion, possibly resulting in a karmic boomerang. This clearly expands an individual’s notion of “self-interest.” So while the neoclassical Economic Man’s rational choice process stops at satisfying a personal desire, a Buddhist version would factor in possible effects on all spheres of existence: individual, society, and nature. In this model, civic duty lands squarely in the realm of self-interest: what’s good for society is good for the individual, since each one’s existence depends on the other.

The point here is that our individual wellbeing and that of our communities and nature are, in fact, interdependent. Ben Franklin got it wrong when he positioned service to society and one’s personal soul as mutually exclusive. If instead he had presented them as one and the same, as the laws of nature would suggest, civic life in America might look very different today.

To be fair, an incredible amount of valuable work goes on outside the government and economy to ensure that people’s needs are met. Liberals argue that the government should ensure the wellbeing of all citizens (especially the poorest) through social safety nets—including cash, in-kind transfers, social pensions, public works, and school lunch programs. Unfortunately, the World Bank reports that social safety nets are inadequate worldwide, particularly in low-income countries where only 1 in 5 of the poorest are covered.

Some mission-driven businesses are picking up the slack, but the bulk of this provisioning work happens outside of the market. Feminist economists like Nancy Folbre have written at length about the value of non-wage caring labor in domestic, subsistence, informal economy, and volunteer sectors—sectors that are often dominated by women.  In 2018, McKinsey estimated that if women’s unpaid labor were accounted for at a rate equivalent to that of men, it would add $28 trillion or 26% to the global economy. Just think if we also add the value of men’s unpaid caring labor. It’s clear that community wellbeing depends on individuals who give freely, especially when government-sponsored social programs fall short.

If our potential to impact society is not compelling enough, we now have reams of research that says giving to others is a surefire way to boost our own personal wellbeing. A 2008 study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton found that giving money to someone else makes us happier than spending it on ourselves. Giving to charities actually activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, according to a 2006 study by the National Institutes of Health. And numerous studies point to the health benefits of giving. My favorite is a 1999 University of California, Berkeley study, which found that elderly people who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than were non-volunteers. This should be enough to convince the neoclassical rational actors out there!

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