a pink lotus flower with green leaves floating in water
May 04, 2023

Nonprofits, Merit Transfer, and Common Good Services

How Buddhist practices can influence organizational practices
by Tam Do
A Klingenstein Center administrator explores his experience in "Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard"*

As a nonprofit sector administrator in New York City, I am mindful that work in this sector can often be characterized as common good services. Having worked specifically in nonprofit education institutions for a number of years, I have seen young teachers and employees being drawn to the mission of these nonprofits and civil society organizations while paradoxically being subjected to demanding work expectations, challenging management practices, and work-related stressors hindering their wellbeing. This became increasingly more concerning during the pandemic, when working from home further exacerbated the challenge of maintaining a healthy boundary between one’s personal and professional life. When the common good for all comes at a personal cost to employees, one can begin to see the transactional nature of nonprofit services and the sector’s shortcomings in supporting its employees.

Having been brought up in a Vietnamese Buddhist family, I am also deeply grateful for the respite, clarity, and opportunity to contextualize my learning experience through Buddhist teachings, particularly via the lens of merit transfer practices. Not too dissimilar from common good services, merit transfer practices—rooted in the the notion that one’s good deeds can be performed on behalf of others (Xue, 2003)—can serve as an appropriate framing to explore how nonprofits can and perhaps should support and nurture truly altruistic, rather than transactional, practices for delivering their services. As nonprofit education institutions, temples can also provide a suitable learning environment to reflect further on this question about nonprofit services.

Particularly through the practice of seeing and listening first before wondering, a guiding principle of the Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard (L2BB) project, I am immediately reminded of the many altruistic services that temples provide to the public despite their financial constraints. Seeing the abandoned Native American statues haphazardly adorning the perimeter of Wat Buddhabhavana, the American bunting flags hanging from the ceiling of Wat Lao Mixayaram, and the floral stained-glass, European motif panels anachronously buttressing the shrine of Guanyin and Budai in front of Chua Lam Ty Ni, for example, one can surmise that temples often have to make do with whatever is available. Not unlike grassroot nonprofits, these temples are resourceful and serve others with little regard for their own aesthetics and material resources.

Moreover, the breadth of services and depth of the teachings we experienced through the L2BB project were a subtle reminder that displaying the right kind of outward appearance is not the primary goal of these places of worship and community building. But rather centering people and communities is most important in common good services. As evidenced by the immediate sense of belonging we experienced at Wat Lao Mixayaram and Wak Samaki Santikaram—being honored with blessings and asked to be featured in their rituals—this theme of community-centric value and people-centric approach is seemingly central in these Buddhist rituals. Although a people-centric service may be an espoused value for many nonprofits, I am uncertain that it is at the core of nonprofit practices. However, it is abundantly clear that the profound kindness, authenticity, and generosity that these temples have afforded our group do highlight the important principle of common good services—to be there for others despite one’s current circumstance.

We saw this specifically through the reading of the sutras and chanting prayers on behalf of a deceased family member at the American Wisdom Association, the blessing of a funerary urn at Wat Lao Mixayaram, and the offering of gifts for building a library abroad at Wat Samaki Santikaram. It was interesting for me to witness seemingly private affairs being played out in large public spaces. Similar to my memory of the Vu Lan ceremony in the Vietnamese tradition, a merit transfer ritual that advocates for “collective power of sangha [i.e, community]” into the family domain (Truitt, 2015, p. 209), arguably, these rituals were meant to highlight the importance of community engagement in Buddhist practices. As such, they also suggest a more inclusive, non-individual centric, and less transactional approach, i.e., a more altruistic connotation of services.

While these practices struck me as quite emotional and have profound personal meaning for temple members, in their simplest gesture, they highlight the importance of doing good for the sake of and being kind to others. Observing these communal practices filled with sensory experiences and imbued with altruistic aspirations for deceased loved ones, community members, and others not yet part of the community reinforces the notion that our personal journey on this earth is not as disparate as we are led to believe. Ven Manzhong, the nun who led the ceremony at American Wisdom Association, further suggested that the reason for our presence at her temple was largely due to karmic connections created in our past lives. In other words, we are bound together by deeply rooted practices and the various spaces we inhabit together. We are all part of this cosmic community. Arguably, we owe much of our potentially comfortable lives to the generosity of others before us. Furthermore, we too play a part in the cultivation of and service of others.

Therefore, I am deeply humbled by the opportunity to explore merit transfer practices and common-good services from the perspective of marginalized and under-resourced communities living in the US. Being cared for and welcomed by these immigrant communities, whose generosity to strangers frequently outpace their own resources, I am continually compelled to reflect on the question of what it means to be kind and good to others, with limited means.

Relevant to this discussion of doing service for others despite one’s circumstances, a temple member at the Wat Samaki Santikaram has stated that the first thing his community did in America, having escaped the Khmer Rouge, was to set up a temple. While temples are places of worship, here, they also serve as a reminder of the journey disenfranchised communities like Khmer immigrants have endured to be where they are today. Arguably, Truitt (2015) also touched on this topic through the discussion of Vietnamese rituals and affiliations as “critical models of belonging that foster both social incorporation and civic engagement” (p. 305) among Vietnamese immigrants.

In these cultural contexts, common good services and religious practices seem to echo the need for Mahatma Gandhi’s advice for serving others, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” In other words, one must place the needs of others at the center of one’s service if true altruistic goals such as common good services are of any concern.

Conclusion

My understanding of what it means to work in the nonprofit sector, be part of, and be present in one’s community has forever changed, especially through learning about the practices of merit transfer and how they relate to common good services. Working in a nonprofit education institution—which mimics the corporate sector in many ways given its bureaucratic structures, transactional business approaches, and antiquated belief systems—pursuing common good services can be taxing. These institutions can present a paradox for employees, whose livelihood depends on the very same organization adversely affecting their wellbeing. It may come as no surprise that many employees, including myself, left our nonprofit organizations at the peak of COVID to focus on our personal lives. Reflecting on my decision to return to the sector, I am not certain that we can truly separate our personal lives from our means of living. Nor can we expect nonprofit workers to do so knowing what draws them to the sector.

Arguably, there are opportunities for nonprofits to better support their staff, especially for those who are newer to the sector and may not be fully prepared for the demanding work. It is also important to explore and understand whether employees’ motivations are aligned with the values buttressing the work of these nonprofits. If anything can be further surmised from our short visits to these Buddhist temples, it is that common good services can be achieved if serving people is at the heart of their mission. If the mission is inclusive, welcoming, and altruistic, then the goal of pursuing common good services is certainly attainable, even with resource constraints.

References

Truitt, A. (2015). Not a day but a Vu Lan season: Celebrating filial piety in the Vietnamese diaspora. Journal of Asian American Studies, 18(3), 289-311.

Xue, Y. (2003). Merit transfer and life after death in Buddhism. Ching Feng, 4(1), 29.

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Tam Do is an administrator at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is interested in learning how Buddhist practices can influence organizational practices, particularly those relating to one’s capacity to care for and learn from others in workplace environments.

*In early January 2023, three graduate students and one staff member from the Klingenstein Center of Teachers College, Columbia University, arrived at the Tang Institute for an immersive learning experience. Throughout the week, Tang Institute director Andy Housiaux and institute collaborator Chenxing Han led the students through an abbreviated version of "Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard," a project birthed during the 2022 Workshop.

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