non-duality magazine
Home About Enlightenment   Money Sexuality                 Subscribe Contact


Dāna and the question of charging for the spiritual teachings














Professor Findly graduated from Wellesley College in 1971 with a B. A. in Religion, from Columbia University in 1973 with an M.A. in History of Religions, and from Yale University in 1978 with a Ph.D. in Hinduism and Buddhism, specializing in the Rig Veda. She taught at Mt. Holyoke College from 1976-1978, was a visiting curator at the Worcester Art Museum in South Asian art from 1978-1980, and from 1980 to the present has been teaching at Trinity College.

Her commitment to teaching arises from two sources: a commitment to the material, and a commitment to growth in her students. In each class, she is reminded of how important it is to render the materials she is entrusted with as faithfully and honestly as possible. One of the most challenging parts is opening up the richness of the traditions in ways that are accessible and meaningful to the great diversity of students. She is also the author of a book on Dana.





Can you please tell me a little about your background concerning Buddhism? Are you a practicing Buddhist and how did you become interested in Buddhism?


Ellison Banks Findly: Well those are two different questions. Let me begin by how I became interested in Buddhism. When I was quite young, I tried to understand the theology of the Christian Church at around eleven and twelve. I began to write little essays that I took to my Episcopalian minister and he was completely unresponsive to anything that I had to say. Then I began to go to the library and read books about various traditions and Hinduism was immediately appealing to me visually. Buddhism and Taoism then became more appealing to me at an early age but I wasnít quite sure.  I was probably to an early death of a dog that was hit by a car. My mother tells me that I was overwhelmed by the idea of what happened at death; where we went and what it meant and this sort of would reemerge again in various places.  In Scotland we went to churches where they would tell fire and brimstone.  It became clear the ministers in the church were unwilling to answer questions and they actually told me that they did not want teenagers coming to their catechism classes. I decided that this church was not interested in anything that I wanted to do.  So by the time I was in college, I was completely away from the western tradition. I was looking at indigenous shamanic traditions, which I have actually returned to now.


But by the end of my college transition I was enamored with Indian ritual and wanted to learn Sanskrit.  I began working with a monk from Sri lanka the summer after my senior year in college and it was at that point that I really decided that a life connected to the practice of Buddhism is what I wanted. I had a very traumatic moment at the end of the second summer of learning Pali where he told me that he had a treasure of something he wanted to give, since he was returning to Sri lanka and now found the person that he wanted to give it to. Immediately I knew that he knew he was talking about me and what he was asking me to do was to go forth from the home and into the homeless life and become at least a high level Buddhist lay person.  But I really think he knew I could not make this work out here, me taking the robes, and I was overcome by fear and immediately stood up and walked out very rudely and never went back again.


I went on to teach Hinduism and Buddhism for a long time until I got a divorce and began dating somebody from school who had a Buddhist meditation group and then began going to the group and realizing this was something I could do in terms of Buddhist practice. And there was a strain of Tibetan Buddhism in that things appeared to me in meditation which is not a story I would want to go into. (Laughs)


I began to recognize the effects that a practice had on me and over the years I have found that I no longer am angry; I was once a very angry person. Now I respond fairly calmly and serenely to things and itís always because Iím able to take things to the cushion.  Itís been a life-long quest and Iím now at a place, a very wonderful place, and the situation Iím in is that I teach as a faculty member at Trinity College but I also run a meditation group here. Iím not a dharma teacher so I really sort of facilitate conversation. I donít want to have influence on peoplesí lives in terms of how they should react to things so we just talk about options.


So the other question is a linguistic question. When students ask me if I am a Buddhist, my response is if you were a Buddhist and you asked me if I were a Buddhist if I said yes, you would know that I wasnít, because itís an application of nomenclature to me that ascribes an identity to something that might be a self and I donít want to have very many descriptors of a self. But I am willing to say that I have a Buddhist practice. And that it is really a very minor meditation practice. Primarily itís relating; itís about being a faculty member, about being a teacher which I try to give and I try to be open and to offer to my students and allow them to sort of come to where  they are coming to under the guidance that I give.


So I would say I have a Buddhist practice,


Can you please tell me what motivated you to write a book about Dana? (ďDana, Giving and Getting in the Pali BuddhismĒ)



Ellison Banks Findly: Well I have been interested in the topic for a long time. This was not the first thing that I wrote.  I wrote a long paper when I was in graduate school about it. I think that outside of Buddhism, I've always been interested in giving and one of the big questions in the Buddhist trial material, and that I think is very much open to discussion these days, is whether we give to get results and I do want to come back to that as a theoretical question.


So I came to this because I donít give to give results but out of a belief that the context of which I live is to be made better by doing these things and because I love and care for the people that I give to and its not just family and friends, but somebody who comes and has to rake the yard. So we belong to a part of the community. I donít give to measure that community in some measure or because I have to feel satisfied by some kind of results, but I feel that it is related to the well being of the community that I give and itís not an intellectual belief; itís a deeply held emotive sense that I want to support this inter dependant community that I live in.


So in coming to the book, Iíve always been interested in the question of economics. So let me come back to the other work that I have done before and about how economic transactions are involved in the development of religion and how larger things like trade and so forth have an effect on religion. But it seems to me that in the Buddhist tradition, a great deal has been written about dana. It is a critically important factor. The cultivation of dana happens on so many different levels. It is sort of a part of the early lay precepts dana, morality and then if we had King Ashokaís focus on non violence that we need to do. It is there for Theravada lay people and itís also there at the beginning of the paramita structure for bodhisattvas. I think it is also part of the practice of monks. I want to say that if Iím a layperson, itís dharma dana I have the duty of dana. If Iím a monk in exchange for that and Iím not sure if itís really an exchange, but if I respond to that then I have dharma dana.  That means I give the gift of the teachings so there is a reciprocal way that monks and lay people in the traditional Theravada tradition have this contractual reciprocity.  So I came to this realizing out of my interest in economic lines, religion is based on that and itís a very important practice and that Buddhism canít go anywhere without dana. The founder would not survive without dana. The actual practice and cultivation of certain mental (word missing here) possible without the beginning of dana. So I came to it realizing it was a much more complicated doctrine than simply to give food to monks or to give money to a sangha.


When you give these meditation classes, do you do that on a dana basis, by suggested donation, or some kind of a fee? Do you have to rent out a space for example?


Ellison Banks Findly: No, the history of this is that my second husband died six and a half years ago of a brain tumor. He was a practicing Buddhist at Trinity and he was the man I started meditating with and he had pulled together this group that was non-prepaying and which was really oriented towards sitting and then having a potluck supper.  After he died, I continued it and it became a womanís group.  It was really much more doctrinal and more seriously Buddhist. I give this freely because my meditation is 100 times better when itís in a group than when itís by itself.


And because I feel that there arenít many opportunities in the Hartford area for the people to do the practice that I do which is insight meditation. We do something very simple. We sit for 45 minutes then we have a short break for tea, then we read passages. So, no I do not ask dana; I donít want dana.  If people want to bring in something, they can do that but I do this because of the community.


You mentioned something in your book about guru dakshina?


Ellison Banks Findly: Yes.


I know in the Vedic tradition there is guru dakshina and thatís how it works. But in the Buddhist tradition, there is also a mention of ďgift worthinessĒ as you pointed out in your book.  Do you feel that a layperson can actually even be ďgift worthyĒ to even receive dana?


Ellison Banks Findly: I believe that the worthiness of a teacher is determined by the people who have come to that person and have decided that they are worthy. We have had for some time a woman who has become a nun. She is now in full retreat in her home and was meditating with us for about three years and she was saying that somebody who was gift worthy had to have certification and had to go through training; that kind of thing. I donít believe in that. I believe that there are auspicious friends and they decide if they want to come here and be with me and they donít owe me anything. They give to me their presence so I get a tremendous amount from their being here. I do this in my home. If I would have to pay for something out of my pocket for the meditation, that would be a different thing; if I had to buy special cushions etc.  As it is I can provide everything that they need with everything that I have in my home. So in terms of my worthiness, ( word missing here) decide if Iím worthy.


Today in the west there are many lay people who go to traditional teachers and monastics for vipassana or jhana instruction.  Then they come back to the west and open up their own non profit organizations or ďmeditation centersĒ.  What is your view on that?


Ellison Banks Findly: I think a center has to have somebody. What can I say?


Iím sorry, can I just say one more thing?


Ellison Banks Findly: Sure.


And then they charge in their centers for the teachings; for these meditation instructions which they attained from monastics for free.  Itís a 100 percent markup so to speak.


Ellison Banks Findly: Well, Iím opposed to people setting themselves up as teachers and saying come to my teachings and give me money. I think that the Buddha arose out of what he ever arose out of and he gathered monks around him as he taught because they wanted to hear what he had to say and that was not necessarily what we have with these centers. I think that a center should begin in a very organic way. And in the history of religion we always say that things begin as a kind of cult and then become institutionalized into some kind of space and structure and so forth and I do believe that if we follow the Buddha, that the practice of Buddhism and that the grouping of people that do that practice should begin organically. And to start from the top down, to say that Iíve got certification, that Iíve got teachings and Iím going to have this house and you guys can come and get these teachings from me, itís really the kind of wrong way around it. You need to begin with just get together and sit in my house and see how it works. You need to begin from the ground up and build an organic community in that way is what I really believe myself.


I know that we have these really large groups all the time that donít know each other and sit in silence and meditate together. Itís probably very powerful. I think itís even more powerful if these are people that you live with, or that you know, who are part of a community and also do other kinds of things together, that is my preference.  That is how I want to practice. I donít want to practice with people that I donít know.


Itís not to say that these canít be effective or to say that something that has grown up organically canít involve into some kind of gift giving transaction. Boy I didnít imagine I was going to go down this road. (Laughter)  Itís sort of an indictment of all the dharma canters around.


(Laughs) Ok, after we can edit that part out if you donít feel comfortable with this later on.


Ellison Banks Findly: Iím fine I just never thought I believed that until I started talking.


(Laughs). Yes, that happens.


Ellison Banks Findly: Iíve never gone to any of these things and I guess thatís why and Iíve been to Cambridge, Insight meditation, Iíve been to Barry, I used to teach at Barry. I think these communities need to be organic and I think thatís how I have lived my life.


What do you think of this Buddhist type entrepreneurial system, or modal of teaching? Do you think itís going to affect the monastery sangha in  terms of donations? For example, if someone were to start up a modernized center very close by to a monastery, then compete with this monastery by advertising retreats, workshops, satsangs, meditations and so on?


Ellison Banks Findly: Well, dharma centers in terms of what was around. In the time of the Buddha there were dharma centers. It was a monastery or nothing and in South East Asia where I do my research itís the monastery or nothing. So there are not dharma (Dhamma Pali) centers. Everything happens in the monastery. And the monastery compound has teaching halls and libraries and temples and stupors and all kinds of things, so the temple grounds are all purpose so that the notion of being a dharma center as far as I can understand is a western sort of development. I think it has to do with the wrestling with the question of whether Buddhism can go ahead without the moral rules for the monastic system. I once thought that once Buddhism came to the United States, with the fourth turning of the wheel of the law, that monasteries were really going to be defunct and thatís not the case. Thereís a strong interest in ordination.  There are many people that become monks and nuns who are born westerners. So I think that itís a challenge to the tradition in a kind of way for a monastery and a dharma center to exist side by side. Now it seems to me that the monasticsí material support in the case of the monastery is through donations. What Iím seeing now in terms of these days in ethnic Buddhism is that we have a lot of large Vietnamese temples. We have a lot of them around where I live. So a Vietnamese temple will have donor day. And theyíll have volunteers bring food and then three or four hundred people will come and will make donations so that seems to be a good way in being able to raise money.


So in the case of the dharma center, that could be more entrepreneurial if we are talking about different models where, like Barry, would be a good example where you offer a series of courses and your people pay for the courses.  You are given a salary but then people who go to these courses can also give dana. That would be an extra optional thing for the course.


So I think that they can exist side by side. Iím very happy to see that there are Americans who become monks and nuns. There is certainly a place for that.  Itís a different kind of role we have for monastics that we have in the Catholic and Episcopal churches. I donít know how itís going to end up. I think that so many things in modern times are a part of a great revolution thatís happening in Buddhism today.  We are so lucky to be in these times. And I think this is one of them. It will be interesting to see how the dharma center and the monastery will grow together. I think they will both survive, but they will have to have a more symbiotic relationship with one another.


I have one last question which has to do with the ultimate intention of practicing Buddhism, which is attaining enlightenment or becoming an Arahant. Is it possible to have those sorts of attainments just by going to a dharma center and practicing vipassana and going on retreats once or twice a year?


Or do you think that you would actually have to become a monastic, a renunciate, and live the life 24/7 - 365 days of the year to actually attain something like that?


Ellison Banks Findly: It is the belief of monastics in the United States, American monastics, that the only way they can experience enlightenment or become an arhat is by renouncing the world.


I can just tell you this story about my friend and Iím not going to name her. She is the one who became a Zen monk. She has now gone on full retreat in her home. She has given up all of her duties at the temple and she has dropped out of everything. I need her for something but Iím afraid to ask her for it. I feel Iím not angry at her because I canít feel angry, but I really feel that what sheís doing is betraying her tradition. She doesnít go to sangha, she doesnít have any interaction with people, and she lives entirely on the gifts of her ex-husband. So she has no sangha and she is basically living off somebody and not giving anything back.


So I think that thereís a role for the relationship between the monastics and society. I lost my train of thought.


The other part of the question is that do you think itís possible to become an arahant outside of the monastery?


Ellison Banks Findly: Well I think that people believe that.  I think monastics today in this country who are not Asian born Buddhists but who are converts believe that.


I believe though that many people who do what I do, which is to practice a meditation that is oriented towards developing a sort of cultivation of the mind, and practice in the world. The notion of enlightenment is not preeminent. With their spiritual development and for me spiritual development is about becoming more even minded, becoming more open hearted, becoming more generous with my time and energy and material things when I can. But being enlightened, I can give back to the world without being enlightened and I can have peace, be without anger, be serene without being enlightened. It is not a goal for me.  Itís not a goal for the people that I work with so it may be that would be a marker of the difference between monasteries and dharma centers. That in monasteries people are actively on the path that has as its end nibbanna.  Although all notion of there being a goal that you are holding onto is antithetical to what Budhsim is all about. (Laughs) In terms of being attached to things.


How about overcoming the fetters, the 10 fetters, like the last section of the fetters?  Do you think that itís possible in a lay system? The difficult one that I see people having problems with, if you are not a monastic or a celibate for example is the sensual desires. Thatís the one that seems to snag people the most, the celibacy issue.


Ellison Banks Findly: Well when you are a layperson, you are traveling the dusty path. It becomes clear. If you think about the precept, the lay precept, it is sexual misconduct, so there is sexual behavior which is not problematic and sexual behavior that is problematic. And if you are going to be layperson, marriage is obviously an option for you.  Buddhism was taken from Hinduism, where marriage is not just for reproduction, marriage is also for pleasure. Those are the two rati (pleasure) and praja (progeny). Two objects of marriage. And for a layperson, there is no problem with that. But the misconduct is where the focus is.


I guess Iím sort of bordering on, although I feel like Iím working the Theravada tradition, I feel more like the householder bodhisattva is much more where I am. So I donít know actually about celibacy.  Itís not a possibility for me.  Itís not something that I want, but I certainly want to be careful about how I behave in the world.


Hereís another story, do you mind if I tell you another story.


Please go ahead.


Ellison Banks Findly: This couple lost their children and then became Buddhists as a result of that, because the loss of their children was their fault. And they now are the dharma teachers at a center in Thailand called Insitthani (not sure of correct spelling).  And they are a lay couple who tried as a part of their relationship to become celibate. But that was not possible and so they run this center and people come from all over Europe and from America and they have a number of Thai devotees there. I think they are still lay so I think they can give very high qualities and are worthy of being teachers. I actually wrote an article on this ďWorthy to be my teacherĒ, for women teachers in the early Buddhist tradition.


So I donít know about Celina. The problem about celibacy is that itís related to pleasure and it is related to desire and the degree to which those are problems towards equanimity.  The answer is probably yes, celibacy is a requirement for reaching the final goal I guess I would have to say that.


It depends on how you want to live your life. Thatís the choice you make.


Ok, because I spoke to a Bhikhu yesterday about this and asked him this same question.  He answered that if somebody did become enlightened and they were a layperson, then they would probably renounce their life as a layperson and become a monk and live as a celibate.


Ellison Banks Findly: He is assuming that someone can become enlightened as a layperson?


Yes as a layperson. He said well if they did, they would probably want to become a monk.


Ellison Banks Findly: Ok, so hereís another example; I have worked with a lot of Tibetan monks who come to the US. There was one man (name or not here) who did the first (could not make out word) at Trinity and he was a fairly high ranking monk in the tradition. When he came here, he was a very charismatic guy and women were attracted to him and I have no idea if he ever responded to him.  I think he felt that the way in which women greeted him by putting their arms around him and the fact that he was this object of affection and desire, he could not do his work in the US to pass on the Tibetan dharma here. He couldnít do it as a monk, but he could do it as a high-ranking layperson in the Tibetan tradition so he asked the Dalai Lama to release his vows. So that would support the answer which the Bhikkhu gave which is that you have to be celibate to retain a higher status.


Is there anything else you would like to add?


Ellison Banks Findly: Well Iím torn about this. I guess itís because I donít hold on to the notion of enlightenment that much. I think that, which is a Hindu idea, that whatís important is to experience all possible things that you can experience in this world.


And that is what gives you knowledge. Once you have experienced all of those things and of course there is rebirth, then you have full knowledge of the human condition. And thatís suffering as well as the pleasures and so. Iím just going to stop there; there are just too many historical things to add in here.


Ok, getting back to dana, is there anything else you would like to add?


Ellison Banks Findly: Yes, there are two issues. One is when you give, whatís important is intention as it is in action (chaitana).  Thatís certainly with dana. The question is if whether you give only because you have an intention for the person, for the wellbeing of the being that you are giving. Or whether, letís say the merit of the act is also affected by the result. The standard in that view is that itís only the intention in fact when you look at the Buddhaís text there is more merit when the result is good. So if I intend to give a meat soup to the monk, that happens a lot in the canon, and I intend not only for their well being but I intend in part for some kind of healing that happens. The merit is sometimes seen to be greater if in fact a healing does happen. This is not a cut and dry issue if itís just based on intent; that the canon supports some consideration that comes about as a result from an act or donation.


So the second issue that is very important in the United Sates that has to do with the idea that people here accumulate wealth.  So I would like to talk a little bit about the relationship between dana and wealth. 


Wealth is not looked down upon in any way. You can become as rich as you want to become except that the means by which you gather wealth has to be appropriate and that means involved in that is concern for others.  Or, non-violence a practice of non- violence, so that you use that wealth in a certain kind of way. So that dana from a rich person is fine. Dana from a middle class or a poor person is also fine. Itís really how you acquire what you have to give and how it is you use it and that is you give with good intent for the well being of others. So I think that in the American context, itís a very important thing to think about dana. That it assumes that wealth is ok and this is one of the things that makes Buddhism such a great option for Americans.


So the practice of dana Buddhistically.  So why is it that it becomes at the beginning of lay practice with dana shila and also ashoka with non violence and the beginning of the paramitas and so forth.


Buddha said dana is important as a practice because it does a couple of things. First, it begins to cultivate the notion of non attachment.  Second, it begins to cultivate a sense that we are interconnected, that other peoplesí well being depends upon things that I do, and that they do has an effect on me. So there is an interconnection, also an interdependence that is sort of a part and parcel that dana is a part of our training. That the cultivation of dana is a part of Buddhist training.


And then down the road, the whole question of metta that I translate as empathy and karuna is compassion and an early version of karuna is called anukampa, which is in the book is a kind of a subtle feeling which involves an appreciation for an act done for others. So I think dana is involved in all those kinds of things and I think itís the fabric of the recognition of transitory-ness and the fragility of human beings in the transitory world.  And of our ability to respond to and come to terms with change as a cause of our suffering, and our attachments to these things that we want to be permanent. That dana is based on the resonation of importance and suffering and that it is in part the basic Buddhist response to that which then leads to a recognition of the wisdom, not just the knowledge of Buddhist doctrine that goes beyond dana. Ok Iím done.


Ok, thank you very much.