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Idiot compassion and panhandling

The late Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa described a dynamic he called “idiot compassion” as follows:
Idiot compassion .  .stems from not having enough courage to say no. . . .In order that your compassion doesn’t become idiot compassion, you have to use your intelligence. Otherwise, there could be self-indulgence of thinking that you are creating a compassionate situation when in fact you are feeding the other person’s aggression. If you go to a shop and the shopkeeper cheats you and you go back and let him cheat you again, that doesn’t seem to be a very healthy thing to do for others (from Glimpses of Mahayana, pgs 36, 39-40).

This principle came to mind not long ago when I read an article about young people living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (near where I live) who make $150 a day panhandling in Manhattan. That’s almost $40,000/yr, with the weekends off. The article implies that much of that income funds substance abuse in most cases, which is consistent with what I’ve been told by social workers in the field.


As a New Yorker, I’m confronted with panhandlers on an almost daily basis. More or less without exception, I completely ignore them, and don’t think twice about it.

I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t self-serving. It’s often rather horrifying to confront other people’s suffering and wretchedness, and much more comfortable not too. But I tend to think it is nonetheless the right thing to do, and I don’t feel much in the way of misgivings about it. Giving money to panhandlers, it seems to me, not only prolongs and enables addictions, but it also enables exploitative behavior and degrades the fabric of the public realm. That is not to say I believe that it is appropriate to lord over anyone in judgement, or that the very real needs of people in desperate situations should go unaddressed.
I know other people feel differently. What do you think?
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Patrick Groneman

posted October 20, 2009 at 5:16 pm

It’s often so difficult to tell in the moment of being asked for money whether or not you are being helpful or hurtful. I am pretty lost on this, though wish I could develop more skillful means in discerning situations where I can simply give change to someone who really needs it.

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Lynn Somerstein

posted October 20, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Sometimes if someone looks really hungry and desparate I may buy the person something to eat, or if the homeless person has a dog I donate money because shelters don’t accept dogs, but that is an exception.

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posted October 20, 2009 at 9:02 pm

I live in the Portland area and recently stumbled on a sign with a URL -items to provide homeless. These included packaged food (granola, oatmeal, etc), water, toothpaste, toothbrush, etc. I also plan to buy tickets to a local shelter for food. I struggle with providing money as I do think that contributes to the problem. I too don’t know if it is the right or wrong thing, but doing nothing feels wrong too. I also volunteer for homeless shelters and hope to do something that helps with poverty issues.
I don’t like providing money because have no idea what they are going to use it for and would prefer to provide food or water if I can. In my younger days I used to walk with homeless youth to a store and buy them what they wanted. I found I was then sought out. With age I have gotten more fearful and more jaded so do not put myself in situations I may come later to regret.

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posted October 21, 2009 at 12:28 am

I try to live according to the Zen principle “Give to the rich and take from the poor.” The idea is that when the rich receive something or are given something they did not expect–precisely because they are afraid someone is always going to ask them for something–they are pleasantly surprised and potentially transformed. And when the poor give or are asked to give, they too become wiser. A Zen story: in Nara, Japan, there is a massive temple called Todai-ji which the emperor asked Master Genjo to build. So Master Genjo went to a bridge under which lived many beggars, and after bowing to them he asked them for alms. At first the beggars were puzzled and taken aback, but then felt proud. Every day, Master Genjo returned and performed sampei and every day the beggars gave him a little money which was earmarked for a massive Buddha stature sitting on a lotus. The beggars’ speech became wise; no longer did their words consist only of “I’m sick; help me please.” They gave half of everything they earned begging, and after several years the temple and statue were fimished.

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Becca Faith

posted October 21, 2009 at 10:28 am

A teaching from the Jewish tradition ascertains that one should not, in fact, give to someone asking for money; instead, a person is REQUIRED to stop and help someone who utters the words “I’m hungry.” I think this is one of the more practical, beautiful teachings from this tradition in large part because it encourages discernment between compassion and idiot’s compassion. Rinpoche also writes that “Real compassion is uncompromising in its allegiance to basic sanity. People who distort the path — that is, people who are working against the development of basic sanity — should be cut through on the spot if need be” (tHotB 126). The Jewish teaching acknowledges the fundamental madness of hunger, and the disparity between the fed and the hungry, and seeks to alleviate such a breakdown in “basic sanity.”

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posted October 21, 2009 at 11:15 am

Giving to panhandlers is a classic and much discussed dilemma for Buddhists – and for good reason. I think our approach to this situation – as any other should not be ordinary. With wisdom we know that our ordinary mind cannot know the ultimate result of our actions. Many times when we try to help others we end up hurting them. We try to help others the best we can – but at the same time we try not to be ordinary.
I think we over-analyze the panhandlers situation with ordinary minds and so I’ve chosen to simplify things. When I encounter someone asking for money there is only one question I ask myself – can I afford to give? If the answer is yes – then I give while saying to myself “just as I give this dollar to you now may I someday share the holy dharma with you.” If I can’t I still think “I can’t help you monetarily today my friend, but may I someday meet you again so that I can share the holy dharma with you.” This is the very essence of my practice – improving the mind of bodhichitta.
Part of my practice – with wisdom – is to improve my generosity. This virtuous act allows me to collect merit, and protects me from future suffering. I realize that Buddhas can and do emanate as many things. They may be emanating as a panhandler trying to help me improve my generosity – how kind of them.
Even in a more ordinary sense the couple dollars I give them today may allow them to buy a beer that helps them get through one more day before there karmic potentials ripen in a way that turns their life around. It is not a given that you are hurting them.
We need to battle our miserliness daily, improve our generosity, and recognize that anyone – everyone may be a Buddha trying to help us along our path. With bodhichitta in mind what is the most beneficial thing to believe?

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posted October 30, 2009 at 12:02 pm

I’m on disability, and I attest to being a compassionate idiot……and I give from time to makes me feel good, and I don’t judge what they do with the money. I’m not here to judge if someone is living their life in the way I think they should be.
Whatever need they have, I’m not sure…but if I were to turn someone down that actually may be starving, than what kind of person would I be?

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Ryan Parker

posted November 6, 2009 at 1:41 pm

I’m surprised nobody has mentioned that Buddhists monks were charged with the *duty* of panhandling. 😉

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