please tell me what the word dana means in the Theravada Buddhist tradition?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: It literally means, “gift.” It’s associated with the
word caga, which
means generosity or liberality. The two go together.
the requirements for somebody to accept dana? For example, does somebody
have to be a monk taking certain precepts or living a certain way?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: No. Given the fact that dana means gift, it covers
everything from an everyday gift you might give to a member of your family
or to a friend, all the way to what you might offer to a member of the
Sangha. The expectations, though, differ based on how or why it’s being
given. If you’re a member of the Sangha living off peoples’ dana, there’s a
set of requirements on how you behave before receiving a gift and how you
handle the gift once you’ve received it. This is to preserve the good faith
of the donors, and to help keep the monastic institution alive.
up front for a “suggested donation” technically dana in the Theravada
Buddhist sense of the word?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Technically speaking, it would count as dana. It’s like
the gift you give to panhandlers. But it’s an abuse of the tradition of how
dana in the Buddhist sense is taught and practiced. One of the rules the
monks adhere to is that you’re not supposed to ask for a suggested donation
in any way. If people make an offer beforehand, such as, “If you need
anything, let me know,” or if they word it in a way that places restrictions
on the offer, then you can ask within the range of the offer. But even then
you have to take in consideration what the person is capable of giving and
would like to give.
Theravada tradition, the culture of dana is designed to maintain trust on
both sides. In that context, it would be considered an abuse if one asks for
a suggested donation. A gift should be freely given so it can be freely
received. That ensures that there are no strings attached.
the student feel obligated in some way? Or feel like they owe a debt for the
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: The only obligation is that you treat the teachings with
respect, as you would any gift. In other words, you sincerely put them into
unhealthy dana? Such as giving too much, too little or giving in an
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Yes, if you’re harming yourself or the other person with
the gift. That means, on the one hand, giving a gift beyond your means, and
on the other, giving something that the recipient shouldn’t be using. That
would be considered inappropriate.
the requirements for a lay teacher to accept dana?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: There are no specific rules for how lay teachers should
behave around dana, but when this becomes an institutionalized practice,
they’re going to see the wisdom of the traditional Buddhist culture of dana.
If you keep putting pressure on people to give, or if you misuse their
generosity, there’s going to be a backlash. I’ve met many people, for
instance, who have been offended by dana talks at the end of retreats,
because no matter how tastefully the words are crafted, the underlying
intention is obvious: Give to us. Give more than you intended to give. That
kind of intention is really offensive when coming from people who have been
teaching you to be compassionate and unattached.
your view on a layperson charging for a meditation class?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: One problem is the appropriateness of charging for
something that originally was freely given. Lay teachers originally got
their knowledge about meditations from monastics, but then they turn it
around and charge for it. It’s like Walt Disney taking a fairy tale from the
public domain and turning it into a Walt Disney product and claiming
ownership rights over it.
second problem is that those who pay for a service are in charge of deciding
whether they’re getting their money’s worth. They begin to have a say in
what’s worth and what’s not worth teaching, because after all, it is their
money that they’re paying. They’ll pay for what they want, and not for what
they don’t want.
In a case
like that, teachers become very sensitive to what kind of teaching the
audience likes and doesn’t like. Even when the sensitivity isn’t conscious,
it begins to shape what does and doesn’t get taught. For example, if you
start teaching about karma and rebirth, and the people in the audience show
through their expressions that they don’t want to hear about these things,
you start leaving them out. It’s in this way that Dharma-for-sale inevitably
becomes Dharma distorted.
heard of a behavioral psych class taught by a professor at MIT. The
professor had the habit of pacing back and forth in front of the room while
he was lecturing, and the students—being MIT students—decided to perform a
behavioral psych experiment on him without telling him what they were doing.
When he was in the left corner of the room, they’d look at him intently and
take notes. When he was in the right corner of the room, they’d look out the
window, look bored, whatever. It wasn’t long before they had him trained to
stop pacing and stay in the left corner. And he never realized what they had
sort of thing happens all too easily when you teach Dharma for money. The
teacher isn’t even aware that certain topics have been dropped from the
Buddha said that the Dharma (Dhamma, Pali ) should not be traded, are there
exceptions to this rule or are there any loop-holes or ways of working this
system in some way?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Not within the monkhood. The rules are very clear
that the monks and the nuns should never trade Dharma for favors. There was
an occasion once where a layperson offered the Buddha a “teacher’s fee.” The
Buddha regarded it as so inappropriate that he told the man to throw it
principle that people should be allowed to give of their own accord is an
important illustration of one of the distinctive aspects of the Buddha’s
teaching on karma: that you have the power to exercise choice in what you
do. Allowing people total freedom in how they give gifts makes the power of
choice real in their lives.
about bartering? Is that considered trading?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Yes.
of the other Buddhist traditions, some teachers ask for a set fee for
retreats, workshops, meditations, or lectures. They use words like
“cost,” “concessions,” “pay at the door,” “entrance fees.” Some use
“suggested donations” but make it clear that without paying this fee you are
not going to receive any teaching at all. No money, no honey, so to speak.
What are your views on this?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: I think it’s unfortunate that they do that. The
Dharma then becomes a commodity, which makes it subject to market forces.
One of the most basic lessons of the Dharma is generosity, and one of the
best ways to inspire other people to be generous with one another is by
being generous with the Dharma—teaching the Dharma for free. It creates the
right atmosphere for people to receive the Dharma as a gift, in which case
they’ll treasure it more. If they receive it as a commodity, it’ll be easier
for them to throw it away.
of markets, you mentioned Walt Disney earlier and the selling of the Dharma.
I’ve actually seen certain Buddhist teachers trademark aspects of the
Dharma. Have you heard about that?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Yes I’ve heard about that.
you hear that, what first comes to mind?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: It’s prostituting the Dharma. Or maybe it would be
better to say that it’s turning the Dharma into a “processed
Dharma-product”—the same sort of thing as when they have to label things as
“processed food-products” because they’re not really food.
the karmic aspects of prostituting the Dharma? What did the Buddha say
about trading the Dharma? Did he ever say anything on that?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: He basically said that, as a teacher, you have to look
at your motivation for the teaching, and the motivation should never include
the idea that you expect a monetary reward. The Buddha never explained the
karmic consequences for going against this principle, but it’s easy to see
that you’ll end up distorting the Dharma. When you distort the Dharma to
others, you’re going to be exposed to nothing but distorted Dharma yourself.
And you won’t have to wait to the next lifetime for that to happen. You’ll
start justifying your actions to yourself now, and that will deaden your
sensitivity as to what’s genuine Dharma and what’s not. Even when you hear
genuine Dharma, your attitudes will distort what you hear.
would you say is the better option or lesser of two evils, no Buddhist
teaching at all or teaching it to someone but for a fee of some kind?
Is a compromised Dharma better than no Dharma at all?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: (Laughs.) Those are never the only options. There
is a third option: to offer the teachings for free.
of these teachers say that they have no choice and are driven or called to
teach or to “share,” to communicate the truth to others. These
teachers say that in order to teach/share/communicate full time they need to
make money to pay their bills, pay their mortgage, car payments, travel
expenses, hotel rooms, food and so on. This is what they tell me.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: The teacher would do better to find another occupation
and then, with any free time left over, offer the Dharma for free.
saying that there’s no reason to teach this for money at all? People should
get a job to earn money and teach the Dharma for free on the side?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Right.
about setting up some kind of not-for-profit meditation center of
professional lay teachers asking for fees and donations to run it? What are
your thoughts on this?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: I’m concerned that in organizations like that, the needs
of the organization come to be paramount: paying for the staff, paying for
the middle level management, paying for the advertising. Even non-profit
organizations need to make ends meet, and it would be all too easy to start
cherry-picking the Dharma for what coincides with the needs of the
organization and to drop what doesn’t. This is not to say that the monastic
orders are totally incapable of distorting the Dharma, but they are designed
to minimize the pressures that would lead in that direction. Overhead is
low, and the monastic culture encourages frugality and places a high value
on being unburdensome. Large organizations with large operating
budgets, however, are burdensome by nature. Their needs tend to shape the
views and ideals of the people working for them.
about giving other “guidance,” or “mentioning,” “coaching” and charging by
the hour for suggestions or advise on spirituality, jhana, or vipassana
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: When teachers say that they expect “fair compensation”
for their time, and they’re measuring compensation in terms of money, it’s a
sad commentary on how the capitalist market mentality has invaded every
aspect of our culture, including the minds of Dharma teachers. Even
economists are beginning to see that there are moral limits on markets, that
there are certain areas where you can’t let the market intrude on peoples’
interactions or else everything gets corrupted. You would think that people
teaching the Dharma would actually be ahead of the curve in realizing this.
such a thing as being “inspired by dana”?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: There are three ways in which dana can be inspiring.
is when you are the recipient of something that obviously required some
sacrifice on the part of the donor. When I was a monk in Thailand, there
were a number of poor homes on the road where I went for alms. Some of the
shacks were barely enough for two people to lie down together. And yet
sometimes the people in the shacks would put food in my bowl: a piece of
sausage or dried fish. Every time that happened, I felt especially obligated
to practice hard that day, for I had been the beneficiary of a poor person’s
generosity. That always made me feel inspired.
second way is when you’re the recipient of a free gift of Dharma. My teacher
and the other teachers in his generation really had to put their lives on
the line to find the Dharma. The fact that he gave it freely to me showed
his genuine concern for my welfare. The sense of his compassion and concern
was really inspiring. It was as if he regarded me as family. You can’t get
that same sense when a price is being charged for Dharma. As Lewis Hyde said
in his book, The Gift, charging a price for something creates barriers
between the sellers and the potential buyers. Freely given gifts erases
way of being inspired by dana is when you see other people being generous
with one another. It reminds you of what makes human interaction valuable,
and you want to participate as well.
you see this heading in the future? To more of a westernized entrepreneurial
business model like trademarking or setting up lay meditation centers, or
back to a traditional model of dana?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: I think we’re going to end up with both. When you
trademark the Dharma, there is going to be advertising to promote the new
processed Dharma-product, to convince people that it’s an improvement over
the old Dharma, and there are people who will go for that. But then there
are those who are going to rebel, who will value the type of Dharma they can
learn in a culture where the teachers embody the principles of the Dharma in
how they teach. So I think we’re going to end up with both models, and
people will have to choose whether to go for the hype or to look for
something of substance.