What role can religion realistically play in the eradication of poverty?
Rev. RAY INNEN PARCHELO is a novice Tendai priest and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario.
Poverty is not simply material deprivation but includes information, food, physical health, community, our natural environment and spiritual experience. Poverty does not exist in a vacuum, it is the flip-side of wealth.
Only the most naive would ignore that the roots of poverty and its relief lie in unjust and discriminatory social and economic structures, combined with political and social values which place personal advantage over collective well-being.
The belief that fostering greed will somehow trickle down to create wealth among those exploited to feed that greed is surely insane. As long as we are driven to value and strive after “bigger, better, more” — an obscene accumulation of wealth, in all its forms — indifferent to the costs for the rest of the world, we can only undermine and nullify any hope of relieving poverty.
Similarly, the most basic teaching of the Buddha is that the cause of our individual and collective sorrow is greed, clinging to what is impermanent as if we could own it. Buddhists are taught to actively express the virtue of “dana” (generosity) as part of the end of suffering. Mirroring the Buddha’s generosity in his teaching us the Way to relieve suffering, we too are directed to act generously for the same goal.
It is through these habits of generous action for the benefit of all beings that we sustain a wholesome life which benefits us as it does those who receive.
Ultimately, it is selfless and virtuous action — generosity, compassion and community care — in all spheres that lead us to our spiritual goals. Poverty will not disappear through “programs” or “strategies” sponsored by well-meaning but extravagantly privileged individuals, organizations or nations.
It will occur through a transformation of the meaning of our daily lives based on an understanding of our inextricable inter-connections with all life. Poverty will continue as a human catastrophe and shame until we can seek our fulfillment in serving the larger world rather than feeding personal or national greed.
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