“Play the odds”: selfless or self-serving?

How does Geshe Michael Roach’s method of giving differ from teachings by Buddhist masters?

Geshe Michael Roach stated that he still considered himself a Christian and so attempted to rationalize his calculated and un-Christian way of giving:

There was one lady and she raised her hand and she said, “That’s sounds a little selfish or self-serving, you know… So it sounds like you are just helping other people because you want to get something for yourself. That doesn’t sound very Christian in a way.” And I said, “Let’s say I want a candy bar, okay, so I am a Buddhist monk, I’ve studied for many years, I know how to get a candy bar. How? I have to give one away. I have to, you see, and not just one. If you give away one, you get like seven back. I know the odds, I know how it works. [laughter] No, I built a $250 million company, I know how it goes. How? I just kept giving the money, you see. So I know how it works… So if I give you a candy bar, one person has a candy bar. Because I gave you a candy bar, that echo bounces off you, comes back to me, echos are always bigger… And I know that and I play the odds, I play that, very consciously. You get the things you are looking for. So you give the candy bar, you know you are going to get it back. So if I give you candy bar, then how many candy bars are the people in this room enjoying it, so far? It’s one, right. And then I get seven candy bars back. Then how many people are enjoying candy? Two. I have doubled the amount of candy bar in the room, you see. Why did I do it? Does it matter? Does it really matter? Yeah, of course I wanted seven candy bars back but to get that I have to give you a candy bar. So now I doubled the happiness in the room. I doubled the candy bar eating in the room, which is ultimate goal in mind, you see. And you see, if you keep this up, lets say you keep it up with money, right. To get my company to grow, I had to give money to the Tibetan refugees, I had to, no choice. So they got money and I got money. So I just doubled the amount of money, you see. That’s good that’s the goodness.”

If Geshe Michael’s “karmic management” — which he supposedly learned from Tibetan lamas — could quickly and easily bring results in this life, the Tibetans would have used it themselves to become perhaps the wealthiest people in the world. How karma works is not so simplistic as Geshe Michael presents, and the type of calculated giving that he promotes is not compatible with Christianity or Buddhism. The first and foremost Buddhist practice is the “perfection of giving” (dana paramita) and its purpose is not to acquire material possessions, but to let go of our habitual possessiveness.

Expecting a high return on investment, Geshe Michael plays the odds “very consciously,” but Buddhist teachers throughout history have emphasized a selfless generosity which is free of any self-serving motivation and expectations:

The practice of all the Bodhisattvas is to give out of generosity, with no hopes of karmic recompense or expectation of reward.” – Gyalse Tokme Zangpo (1297-1371)

Also you must practice giving without expecting anything in return, or any [karmic] ripening effects.” – Pabongka Rinpoche

Cling not to self-existence, reward or karmic fruit. Guard against not giving or giving for a lesser goal.” – Asanga (300-370)

The key to generosity in its transcendent sense is to give without reservation, …. and as long as you’ve given with an open, selfless heart, then your act of generosity has been completed and is pure. Transcendent generosity is simply a willingness to be open and do whatever is necessary in the moment, without any philosophical or religious rationale.” – Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Generosity is the wish to give, rather than the actual act of giving, so we don’t have to be rich …; we just need to have a generous heart…. what we need is the generous mind. Fully developing our generosity means completely eliminating our clinging to things such as possessions, body, merit and so forth. We can be completely generous even if we have nothing material to give. Generosity is a state of mind.” – Lama Zopa Rinpoche

When you persevere in Dharma practice, it is essential to always train in turning any virtuous root of action, through body, speech, or mind, to be for the benefit of others. First, train gradually in this with the smallest deeds. From time to time, check to see whether or not you are tainted by the defilement of self-interest. You will not be successful if you retain even the tiniest taint of selfishness. Make sure not to be tainted by the defilement of self-interest. – Padmasambhava

Both virtuous and nonvirtuous actions are formed in the mind. Actions, though more apparent, are secondary to our motivation. Even an apparently virtuous action is of little benefit if the root of our motivation is selfishness.” – Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche

Never hope for anything in return for an act of generosity, and do not expect as a result that in your next life you will be treated well or be happy and prosperous. Generosity is complete in itself; there is no need for any other reward than having made others happy. If you give something motivated by self-interest, the joy you might have felt will be spoilt, and further unhappiness is certain to follow. But giving out of sheer devotion, love, or compassion will bring you a feeling of great joy, and your gift will create yet more happiness. The motivation behind the act of giving makes all the difference.” – Dilgo Khyentse Ripoche

Generosity is free from desire, which means free from desiring for oneself…. In Buddhism, the idea of generosity is giving without expectation. That is the paramita, or transcendental, aspect. When you give something, you transcend the gift and you do not expect anything in return.” – Chogyam Trungpa

The essence of generosity is giving without any attachment or expectations, without thought of receiving something in return. It is doing something purely for its own sake, with no strings attached.” – Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche

'Non-attached' charity is when you give something totally, both mentally and physically…. if you cannot truly give wholeheartedly with no strings attached, then the person who receives your gift may benefit but you may end up with a poisoned mind.” – Akong Rinpoche

Generosity doesn’t have to do with outer things; it is inner… It depends upon how we think. It is a state of mind that really wants to help others through giving…. So, whether or not we actually have the opportunity to give or not is not so important. What is important is our pure motivation.” – Thrangu Rinpoche

If one’s motivation is in any way connected to seeking one’s own benefit, this is not genuine generosity.” – The Dalai Lama

Generosity should be practiced not only in accordance with the understanding of emptiness, but also with bodhichitta, where there is no trace of self-interest.” – Geshe Tashi Tsering

The crux of these instructions is constantly to try not to be influenced by attachment to “our own side.” We are training ourselves to give everything — our property, body and positive energy — without any hope of reward or return. If we hope for anything in return, even a good rebirth or enlightenment, it is just like a business transaction. Making a small outlay we hope for large returns. If we could learn to be as generous as Bodhisattvas, we would find that all our needs are met. As beginners we must practice in imagination sincerely giving everything to others and dedicating our physical, verbal and mental actions to their service. In practice we shouldn’t overreach ourselves but do what is within our capacity. Nor need we feel compelled to do everything others ask of us.” – Geshe Sonam Rinchen

The third wrong motivation is expectation. If we sincerely want to practice the perfection of generosity, then it is very important for us to try not to have any expectations. The kind of attitude we should generate is that we should regard those we are helping as our great spiritual master, regardless of whether they are highly realized persons or deluded ones, poor or rich. We should show them great respect and must make sure that our motivation is really to benefit them and not expect any kind of reward…. Even though we may give a lot of material help to others, if our motivation and way of giving is not correct, this spoils our practice. Tsongkapa says: 'No one is forcing us to practice Dharma. If we want to practice, it is better do so in the pure way.'” – Geshe Namgyal Wangchen

Geshe Michael claimed to be a first level Bodhisattva, but according to traditional understanding: “Thus the Bodhisattva at the level of the first bhumi develops generosity. He is not acting generously in order to get something in return, but he is just being generous and warm… He does not expect anything in return at all.” Giving away 1 candy bar and expecting 7 coming back, Geshe Michael “very consciously” plays the odds, but his expectation for a 7-fold return seems unfounded because:
 1) Without an intense and pure motivation, an action is likely to bring results not in this life, but a future lifetime.
 2) Even if karmic results manifest in this lifetime, his calculated giving is unlikely to get the desired outcome because mixed motivations lead to mixed results.
 3) Even if the desired outcome is going to happen in this lifetime, there’s no guarantee that it will happen “within six months” or anytime soon: he may get back candy bars many decades later when he’s too old and weak to enjoy them. In “experiencing the result similar to the cause”, there’s no guarantee that he would get exactly candy bars rather than cookies or strawberries in return.

Given how Geshe Michael’s method seems so flawed in theory, what are the odds that his karmic management is going to work in real life? As tested and tried out in his own life, it did not work.

Additional quotes:
“The second impure motivation is lack of respect. When we give material help to others, our intention might not be to harm them but genuinely to help. Yet sometimes we forget to show respect to those who ask for help. We may look down on them or humiliate them, or we may be tempted to think how great we are and feel proud. If we want to practice generosity purely, then this kind of attitude must be abandoned. Bodhisattvas always regard those who come to beg for any material help from them as their great spiritual master and show enormous respect.
… Another important thing to be aware of is the purpose of giving help. What this means is that we should thoroughly check on whether the help we give is going to harm others. Sometimes our motivation may be correct from our side and we feel no miserliness toward our possessions, but unskillful giving of help can sometimes harm others.” – Geshe Namgyal Wangchen

“Generosity without a price tag, expectations, or strings provides a glimpse into the fourth view, the truth that liberation, enlightenment, is beyond conception. If we measure the perfection of a virtuous action, such as generosity, by material standards—how much poverty is eliminated—we can never reach perfection. Destitution and the desires of the destitute are endless. Even the desires of the wealthy are endless; in fact the desires of humans can never be fully satisfied. But according to Siddhartha, generosity should be measured by the level of attachment one has to what is being given and to the self that is giving it. Once you have realized that the self and all its possessions are impermanent and have no truly existing nature, you have nonattachment, and that is perfect generosity. For this reason the first action encouraged in the Buddhist sutras is the practice of generosity.” – Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Related posts:
Blatant dishonesty, blind devotion, and breathtaking delusions How did Geshe Michael’s method work out for him and 7 of his top students?
Mission Implausible: “Coffee Meditation” and the Four-Step Method Does Geshe Michael Roach simply misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent a key Buddhist doctrine?


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