THE PRICE OF
question of charging for the spiritual teachings
40. BHIKKHU BODHI
Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American
Buddhist monk from New York City. Born in
Brooklyn, New York, in 1944, he obtained a BA in
philosophy from Brooklyn College (1966) and a
PhD in philosophy from Claremont Graduate School
Drawn to Buddhism in his early 20s, after
completing his university studies he traveled to
Sri Lanka, where he received novice ordination
in 1972 and full ordination in 1973, both under
Ven. Ananda Maitreya,
the leading Sri Lankan scholar-monk of recent
He was appointed editor of the
(in Sri Lanka) in 1984 and its president in
1988. Ven. Bodhi has many important publications
to his credit, either as author, translator, or
editor, including the
A Translation of the
(co-translated with Ven. Bhikkhu Nanamoli
Discourses of the Buddha ó a New Translation of
the Samyutta Nikaya
In the Buddhaís Words
In May 2000 he gave the keynote address at the
United Nations on its first official celebration
of Vesak (the day of the Buddhaís birth,
enlightenment, and passing away). He returned to
the U.S. in 2002. He currently resides at
Chuang Yen Monastery
and teaches there and at Bodhi Monastery. He is
currently the chairman of
Yin Shun Foundation.
When you first became interested in Buddhism, was it through Theravada or
Bodhi: Actually when I first became interested in Buddhism, this would be
back in the period of 1965/66, the books that were most easily available
were the writings on Zen Buddhism by DT Suzuki and his English American
interpreter, Alan Watts. That was my initial introduction to Buddhism. This
was my last year in college, in Brooklyn College. Then I went to graduate
school in California to Claremont graduate school. My first year at graduate
school, there came to live at the same residence where I was living, a
Buddhist monk from Vietnam.
from the Vietnamese Mahayana tradition. Vietnam is quite close to Cambodia
and partly because of a result of a wave of modernization that was sweeping
over Vietnamese Buddhism, there was a lot of interest in the text of early
Buddhism, the Pali cannon. My Vietnamese Buddhist teacher had the English
translations of the Nikayas in his personal library and he stressed to me
the importance of learning the Nikayas to get a foundational understanding
The way in which your teacher taught, was this system set up as a monastery
system, a school or through formal classes of some kind?
were both graduate students together at the same university. So occasionally
he would give some instructions in Buddhism to me or give me things to read.
But it wasnít quite in the sense of a formal instruction studying under a
teacher because we were both doing our graduate studies.
back to Vietnam in 1970. The next year a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka came
to the United Sates. He was coming through Los Angeles and at the time I had
become associated with a Buddhist mediation center in Los Angeles. I was set
up by another Vietnamese monk that was a friend of my original teacher.
this monk from Sri Lanka, his name was Venerable Piyadassi. In a few days I
had the task of driving him around and showing him Los Angeles and we became
friendly. This was just over about a week or so when he was in Los
Angeles. And when he departed at the Los Angeles airport he said one day
you should come to Sri Lanka and if you like I could arrange for you to stay
in a Buddhist monastery. So then over the course of the next year, I decided
that I wanted to go to Sri Lanka and become ordained as a monk. I wrote to
this monk Venerable Piyadassi and asked if he could arrange for me to take
ordination in Sri Lanka. And then he connected me to an elder Sri Lankan
monk named Venerable Ananda Maitreya.who would be able to give me ordination
and instruct me and guide me in my studies. I wrote to Venerable Ananda
Maitreya who was completely fluent in English and he wrote back saying that
I would be welcome to stay at his monastery. In early November of 1972 I
arrived at his monastery in Sri Lanka. Then I was ordained a couple of weeks
sounds like this happened over a very short period of time; from the time
you first met this Buddhist monk in college.
that was 1967.
three or four years?
Altogether it was about a five-year period.
from the time you met the Buddhist monk that you were studying with and the
time that you decided to become ordained, was that one year or two years?
Actually, I became ordained as a novice in the Vietnamese system with the
first monk; the Vietnamese monk that I became friends with. So I guess after
a few months; I suppose it just happened pretty quickly in my mind.
How old were you?
It sounds like your decision was made pretty fast.
seemed to happen over a couple of months, yes a few months.
Can you recall the process that you went through? About becoming ordained,
was it easy for you?
Bodhi: Yes it
was. There was no struggle at all with the decision. In a way it just
seemed like what I was aspiring for. And now it just seemed like the
encounter with this monk from Vietnam was removing the roadblocks and
opening the driveway to the path that I wanted to take.
And leading up to that as a child, what interests did you have?
Bodhi: It was
not religion or monasticism in any way. I was just like an ordinary student.
Did you have a Christian upbringing?
family was Jewish, but secular Jewish, not religious Jewish. When I was a
child we went to the synagogue maybe just on the high Jewish religious
holidays, but at home we werenít religiously observant.
Was anyone in your family religious, such as your grandparents or relatives?
fatherís side of the family was conservative Jewish and I think in my
fatherís home, he was brought up to be religiously observant. But by the
time he reached adulthood he pretty much rejected his religious heritage and
wanted us to assimilate into secular American society. So he didnít give
much attention to religious matters apart from preserving the sense of
Jewish cultural and ethnic identity. And this was quite common in the United
that age in time?
that period, young Jewish people were brought up in secular Jewish homes.
any point during these Buddhist teachings, was it always through dana or was
there any type of monetary transaction?
there was never any type of monetary transaction.
With none of the teachers?
all of the teachers that I studied with, stayed with, especially after
becoming ordained, there was no expectation of payment at all because all of
the monks lived in dependence and on the charity of lay people.
you know if the Buddha had any teachers in the Vedic tradition that had
studied the Upanishads? In the secret forest tradition?
is an interesting question. First Iím not so sure that from the texts of
early Buddhism that we can find clear evidence that the Buddha was familiar
with the Upanishadsí teaching. I mean the Buddha has a critique of atma or
atta which is the doctrine of self. But it seems that the Buddha is dealing
with the doctrine of self. Also he critiques various philosophical views of
the self, but he also is critiquing the ordinary clinging; to the notion of
I or the conception of the ego self.
with the five aggregates as an identity?
identification with the five aggregates as even being the self or in some
way possession of the self. Ok, but we donít, I havenít found a direct
critique of what is the cardinal doctrine of the Upanishads; what is the
identity of the Self or atman?
with Brahman, the ultimate reality or the ground of the universe. Now we
donít find any formula like that in the Nikayas.
havenít found it either and have searched through it, but I know he mentions
mentions Brahma but we donít find mention of the neuter impersonal Brahman.
Yes, nirguna Brahman? Without attributes, non indicative type of all
encompassing absolute truth.
Bodhi: Yes. I
havenít found the clear evidence for that. There are a few little statements
here and there that seem to be playing off this.
you know those?
is one that comes in the Majjihima Nikaya that is in the end of sutta 51
where he is speaking about the progressive development of the disciple where
he goes on through the different stages of mediation and insight and at the
end he becomes an arahat. A liberated one and he says he dwells, atma bhutto
brahma vihara. He dwells with a self that has become Brahma. So it seems
almost to be echoing the Upanishads formula of the self that has become
Yes, there is a distinction between Brahma and Brahman.
in this particular grammatical form Brahma Bhutto, one canít determine
whether Brahma here represents Brahman or Brahma; the impersonal absolute or
Brahma as the supreme deity. And then the word Brahma in the sense of holy
or supreme occurs in numerous compounds in the Pali cannon. Whatís called
the spiritual life or the holy life is brahmacharya. Literally itís the
course or path to the holy or to the divine, the divine life. And then the
Buddha himself is said to be Brahma bhutto, one who has become Brahma which
is understood to mean, become the Holy, become the supreme. But thereís not
an explicit statement or an explicit formulation that uses Brahma clearly in
the sense of the impersonal divine absolute.
also looking at the development of Indian religions historically, we usually
assume that Indian spirituality had been diffused throughout the whole of
India, pretty much in a homogonous way. But recent scholarly studies
distinguish between the types of spirituality that flourished in northeast
India and in central north India and it seems that the center of Brahminic
culture and Brahminic spirituality would have been in central and west
India. Where as in north east India, a different type of spirituality was
dominant which was that of the
Of course the Brahmins were
already spreading to east India and making their influence felt. But I think
they had not achieved the dominance there required in later times. Itís
quite possible that the Upanasadic type teachings were cantered more in
north central India rather than in east India. Thereís an interesting book I
just came across a year ago. I have it upstairs. Itís called the origin of
yoga and Tantra. The author is Geoffrey spelled in the British way.
Buddha was obviously exposed to yoga, Jainism and they all practiced these
various ascetic type of practices.
read in the Pali cannon that the Buddha also practiced breathing methods
like khumbaka (breath retention), but all of these methods gave him
Yes, there is something called the upanicajhana which means the non
he tried that?
Restricting the breath yes.
Then he said that he didnít feel that it was conducive.
Then nirvikalpa Samadhi or nirodha samampatti, is that how you say it?
is that meditation (jhana) the same steps of the meditation that you go
through with yoga more or less? What would you say is the difference?
This is, here is an interesting problem that arises from the texts.
According to the suttas where the Buddha gives his own biographical account
after he left his family life and came down to the state of Magadatta and
became an ascetic. He then learned and studied under two prominent
meditation teachers of the period and under one he practiced and reached the
attainment. He uses the terminology, in the Buddhaís text the base of
nothingness, (Pali term here). Then he became dissatisfied with that. Then
he studied under another teacher and under him he reached the forth. The
state of nothingness is the third of the four formless meditations. Then
under the second teacher he learned the forth of the four formless
meditations which he reached the base of perception or non-perception and
again he was dissatisfied with that.
went off by himself and practiced for several years these extreme
austerities, self-mortifications, until he came to the verge of death. Then
he realized that this was not the way to enlightenment. He then had a
recollection of an experience that he had when he was just a youngster. Are
you familiar with that?
Where he sat under a tree when his father was plowing the field and he
entered into a state which he calls the jhanas. So now he reflects back on
that experience and he sees that, he asks himself could this be the way to
enlightenment. Then he has the intuition; yes this is the way to
enlightenment. The he develops the four jhanas and on that basis he reaches
the higher knowledges and then he achieves full enlightenment.
what is puzzling here is under the first two teachers, whom under he learned
the highest formless meditations, there is no mention of him reaching the
jhanas. And yet it would seem that in order to reach the formless
meditations one would have to go through the jhanas because the lower four
jhanas are like the lower four rungs on a ladder.
four formless attainments are like the four higher rungs on a ladder. And
you donít jump from the ground to the fifth rung on the ladder but you go up
through the first four rungs.
mention is made of that. In the suttas themselves, why is it that he
finished with the ascetic practice. Why did he recollect this experience of
the jhanas when he was a youngster rather then the experience of jhanas he
might have attained when practicing under these teachers.
know the answer to that question.
what point did the Buddha first mention dana?
The practice of dana was in no way an invention or an innovation of the
Buddha. The practice of dana seems to have been already a well established
practice in Indian religious scenes of the period. I think it operates first
within Brahmanic culture because the Brahman were the ones who devoted
themselves to the study of the Vedas, the performance of the religious
rituals, and so those Brahmins who were probably following the duty of
Brahmins and being supported by donations from lay people . Particularly
during later times by support from the kings and even in the Pali cannon we
read that prominent Brahmans had received gifts of land from the kings;
gifts of cattle. So thatís in brahminic culture, then in sramanaic culture.
In the culture of the renunciate ascetics they would all depend on their
livelihood on donations and offerings from householders. So this was already
a pretty well established culture at the time the Buddha appeared on the
even before the Buddhaís enlightenment, from the beginning of his quest, as
soon as he renounced and cut off his hair and beard and went forth as an
ascetic, he would have gone with his alms bowl, through the towns and
villages collecting offerings of alms food from people.
And what exactly would be the reason for not charging somebody for the
say that charging for the teaching would be in a sense a travesty of the
basic underlying principles of Indian spirituality. During that period,
particularly within Buddhist culture, the idea is that householders provide
monastics with what is called umnisa dana which means a gift of material
things: robes food, dwelling places, medicines and then the monastics
provide lay people with whatís called dhamma dana, the gift of the dhamma.
So itís considered like a kind of exchange, but itís not conducted in the
sense like a business transaction, like you give me food and I teach you the
dhamma. If you donít give me food, I donít teach you the dhamma. Itís just
that the monastics take the responsibility of spreading the dhamma, teaching
the dhamma. And then lay people understand it. The monastics live with the
support of the offerings that they make. And so itís done as a kind of
exchange of love and mutual support rather than of a business transaction.
Some are saying that Buddhism should be more like psychology where you have
clients. Have you heard about that?
Bodhi: Yes, Iíve come across that.
And where they charge by the hour?
Bodhi: Oh no. (Laughter) I have to say I understand that at least from the
perspective of some teachers. They remain as lay people but they are living
pretty much full time through teaching and so their conditions are different
from that of monastics. I donít like the idea of making a payment of a fee a
necessary condition for somebody to be entitled to take a course, but I can
understand how meditation centers have to pay for their fuel, during the
winter. They might have rent to pay, or have payments on the buildings to
meet. They have to provide food for the meditators, or various other
expenses. So I could see that they would levy a charge for meditators to
come to take courses there. So I wouldnít condemn or blame them for doing so
or say that it is a betrayal of the spirit of Buddhism.
would concern me and what happens in some of the insight meditation centers
that I know of is that the expenses of the lay people / meditators who
meet to take the course, do not go as fees to the teacher but go to
maintenance of the center.
then after that, an announcement is made that the teachers depend on dana,
on offerings from the retreatents. So itís requested that people give what
they can according to their means.
case I would say itís acceptable and understandable under the circumstances.
But then you probably know more about meditation centers that charge for a
lot of courses (laughs) where rather extravagant fees are charged and
teachers say if you want to see me then you have to meet a certain fee for
the hour. Then I would say this is going quite contrary to the spirit of
What about ďsuggested donationsĒ, making some kind of a suggestion or
implanting a thought in a personís mind in terms of a monetary figure? Would
that be considered dana or something else?
Bodhi: I think I would prefer it done in the form of suggesting that the
students give a particular amount to support the teacher, or rather I would
say what would be in the range of acceptability for the organizers of the
course or retreats to announce approximately what it would take to support
the course. Or they could mention an expected figure, let me just see how to
phrase this. Perhaps they could give a suggested amount of a donation but
then they should also include a rider saying that if one is unable to meet
this amount, they shouldnít feel ashamed in any way or humiliated, but one
should just give according to oneís ability within reason. I would say that
would be in my view acceptable.
this would be within the context of lay teachers. Within monastics I think
itís just sufficient to announce that the monastic depends on offerings from
the laity and that the donations are not going to the monastics as an
individual but going to the support of his own temple, monastery or center,
or to provide the airfare for the teacher.
Ok, letís say that a lay person/teacher already has their basic needs met:
they have a house, or some kind of a roof over their head, they have food,
clothing, heat, and enough material possessions to live a comfortable life.
Then why would they need extra money?
Bodhi:Yes, thatís a good question. On the one hand I would say, imagine that
there are always ongoing expenses that anybody has to meet. Even though that
one might have enough, one has covered oneís heating cost for one winter but
there is going to be another winter with new heating costs. There will
always be the need to buy more food.
(Editors note). The tape
ran out at this point and we did not get a chance to finish this interview,
or to elaborate on what he was going to say, (so much more ) so hopefully we will finish this in the future.