Dharma Teaching: the Highest Form of Dana

In the Buddhist tradition, Dharma teaching used to be offered completely free, as Dana.  Teaching traditionally was freely given by a Dharma teacher, completely outside of the dynamics of exchange.  Again, please let me be clear, I’m talking about tradition.

Traditionally, Dharma teaching was not considered a service.  It was (it is) a gift.  In fact, Dharma Teaching was considered the highest gift one could offer.

Now, today, with market relations colouring almost everything we encounter, it’s no surprise we make the mistake of thinking that a Dharma class is a service that we ought to pay for.  In fact, a Dharma class may be so moving and enlightening that if we were to view it as a service, we might even feel it is worth more money than we can give.

But the class is not a service, it is a gift.

At least this is the traditional way.

Namgyal Rinpoche once was leaving the rural meditation center 2 hours north of Toronto, and in the parking lot he stopped and asked us, “Do you know where I could have been this weekend?  A leadership seminar group asked me to give a workshop at a fancy hotel in Toronto for $600 per person per day.  Instead, here I am, giving the Dharma freely.”

I don’t think we appreciate how powerful and helpful Dharma teaching is.  I don’t think we appreciate that it is priceless.

In fact, IF it is given freely, to Westerners like us who only really understand market relations, then we tend to devalue it.  It’s for this reason that some teachers have started to charge fees in order to impress upon students how valuable Dharma teaching is.  This may be the way Dharma teaching evolves in the future.  But I kinda hope not.

I hope that some teachers and students continue to preserve this rare and completely different activity called Dana which is so thoroughly misunderstood in the West today because Dana is a different plant, a different species, than exchange-relations.  And Dana contains something that exchange-relations do not.  Dana has the potential to liberate the giver.  Dana is an enlightenment activity.  For the sake of awakening, we should keep the Dana tradition alive.  Even though it is very difficult for buy-and-sell-Westerners to understand it.


2 thoughts on “Dharma Teaching: the Highest Form of Dana

  1. Hi Derek, I’m just getting around to touch the topic on my blog. It troubles me to see ‘star’ teachers being marketed at the price of several hundreds $$ for a seat at a stadium. Moreover, to what degree will attendance at such an event translate into everyday practice of compassion and generosity? That said, I’m getting ready for tonight’s sitting group in my living room.

    peter, victoria, BC

  2. As a Western nun who has vowed to uphold the vinaya, I do not charge for teachings, nor will I ever do. Westerners, though, seem to want a dollar figure for the teachings. When I tell them that there is no dollar figure, and if they wish there is a box for dana, they still want to know an amount. One person actually told me they wouldn’t come if I didn’t tell them how much dana to give. So, after discussion with a Theravadan monk, I came up with a “suggested” dana, but with the caveat that nobody would be turned away if they couldn’t give.
    Unlike in SE Asia, where the monastics are taken care of for their teachings, either with food or money, Western monastics would starve to death if they waited for food to arrive, and unfortunately, even though it is against the vinaya, many have to find jobs. Ethnic ie. Vietnamese monastics in the West don’t have a problem as their community understands this and helps them out. But, it isn’t part of the culture of the West.

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