Often at the entrance to a meditation center there will be a donation bowl, sometimes with the Pali word “Dana” over it, and maybe it’ll also have a sign saying that the center or the teacher rely on donations so please donate to support the teaching.
This is fine, and perhaps it is a necessary explanation for Westerners, but this is not Dana.
This is exchange or a form of payment. This is the way we Westerners approach all services, with a requirement of reciprocity, “I get so I give and I give so I get”—this is the equation dominant in our minds. And this equation is fine and dandy. On the face of it, there is no problem at all, but this equation is not Dana.
The Pali Dictionary (on page 318) gives the Vedic roots for the word Dana: da (davati = to give), to deal out, distribute. Dana is a charitable gift to the sangha, a meritorious act, (to give to virtuous people), giving to a Bhikkhu.
It took doing service for my teacher before I finally began to figure out what Dana meant.
My principal teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche, had a senior student who served as attendant preparing all of the teacher’s food, handling travel arrangements and so on.
One day, early on in my Dharma training, I was asked to replace the attendant for a day. I was in awe of Rinpoche and so I was nervous about doing things right as I took on the responsibility of cooking for him during the day.
The first meal was lunch and Rinpoche was quite easy on me. When I asked what he wanted, he suggested perhaps a ham sandwich with mustard. I went digging in the fridge for the mustard.
He said, “It’s on the left side.”
In my nervousness, my dyslexia kicked in, and I kept looking on the right side of the fridge.
He asked, “Are you looking on the left side?”
Convinced that I was, I said, “Yes” and kept shuffling the bottles on the right side, trying to find the mustard.
After a few minutes of this, Rinpoche got off the couch, came to the fridge, reached over my shoulder and pulled the mustard off the left shelf, right in front of my face.
He put the mustard on the counter top next to the ham and bread and he quietly said, “I’m quite capable of making a sandwich you know. If you want to make this sandwich, you can, but you don’t have to. Do you want to make lunch for me?”
And he waited. He was smiling and calm.
I said, “Yes, please let me make the sandwich.”
The way the sandwich was made, proportion of mustard, probably would have been more to his liking if he’d made it himself. But out of compassion, he allowed me to prepare him some lunch.
If a bowl says, “Fee for teaching” that’s one thing, but if the sign says “Dana” it has the same connotation as offering food. Making that sandwich was an opportunity for me to give. I was not doing it to get something in return, to receive a teaching or to pay my teacher. In the same way, if we choose to put money in the Dana bowl, it’s as if we are hearing the teacher say, “I’m quite capable of doing things myself, but if it would benefit you to give in this manner, then I will accept it, out of compassion.”
Making that sandwich was supposed to be (and it was) good for me. Putting Dana in a Dana bowl is also good for me so long as the teacher is willing to accept it. If I want to put Dana in the Dana bowl then I should do so whether the teacher is offering a class or not.
For a teacher rooted in this tradition, if you offer them a glass of water and if they have a deep understanding of the dynamics of Dana, even if they are not thirsty they will at least touch the glass to indicate their acceptance of the gift and to convey that your generosity has been recognized, acknowledged. They may not necessarily drink the water, they may not eat the sandwich, they may not spend the money in the bowl, but, in order to confer a benefit on you, they will give some sign (if you are looking) that your generosity is acknowledged.
Can you see how this is completely different than paying for a service? These are two totally different types of activities, two totally different dynamics. Just to repeat, there’s nothing wrong with paying for a service, but that is not what Dana means.
If you go to Burma today, and if you’re willing to get up at 6am or so, you’ll see the monks carrying their bowls, accepting alms from the laity just like they did 2500 years ago in the time of the Buddha. Both my teachers were ordained as monks in Burma and talked about the importance of understanding this tradition of alms round if you wanted to understand the dynamics of Dana.
Namgyal Rinpoche use to say: “Don’t call it a ‘begging bowl’—the Buddha didn’t ‘beg’—he provided an opportunity for others to accumulate merit.”
Rinpoche told a story from his time as a young monk in Burma, in order to describe the interaction of the giver and the receiver of Dana.
One day, while Rinpoche (then known as Anandabodhi) was on alms round, a woman from a very poor family came forward to offer alms. She piled his alms bowl full with rice, actually with too much rice, because it’s against the rules of the order for the recipient monk to spill any of what the laity has offered. But when Rinpoche made the sign that he wished to continue on, to indicate “that’s enough”, she kept piling rice into his bowl, until it was overflowing.
When he went back to the monastery with this overflowing alms bowl some of the rice fell out of the bowl onto the floor of the hallway of the monastery… At which point one of the senior members of the order jumped on his transgression, and criticized the young Canadian monk for breaking the rule, saying he was committing a “sin”.
And Rinpoche replied:
“It is not my sin, it is her glory.”
Sonam Senge likes to cite another story, from the Visuddhimagga, that also sheds light on this dynamic of Dana.
One time an elderly monk was nearing death; he had not eaten in several days, and he sat near a road, under a fruit tree, with his alms bowl, to wait for someone to offer food. As he was waiting, a piece of fruit fell from the tree, nearby. And so he was forced to ponder: what would be the best course of action to take to benefit all beings?
If he ate the fruit, he took away the possibility of someone gaining merit from offering him the fruit. He didn’t want to deny someone that opportunity; so he continued to wait. More time passed and he got weaker. Eventually a layman came by and noticed the bhikkhu, and picked up the fruit and put it in his bowl; but by this point the monk was too feeble to eat it. So the layman picked up the monk and carried him toward his home, where he hoped he could take care of him.
The monk died while he was being carried. And at the moment of death the monk attained Arahat, the fourth (final) stage of sainthood.
The layman carrying the monk attained the first stage of sainthood: Sotapanna.
A member of the order accepts offerings out of compassion, in order to allow the giver to benefit. This is obviously completely different than how ‘Dana’ is usually explained in Buddhist circles in the West. Western Buddhists usually talk about Dana as if it is just another word for “donation bowl/fee for teaching”. As if Dana belongs to the same set of dynamics as cash payments, ticket sales, and market relations.
It does not.