On the topic of dana...

I’ve been working on facilitating a Finders Course program in February, and somebody asked me about dana. If you aren’t familiar with the term, dana is the widespread Buddhist practice of making offerings of money when receiving a teaching. I’m writing this article because I find the practice of dana as it is done in modern non-Buddhist cultures hugely problematic, and I wanted to unpack that.

The first thing to say about this is that any kind of teaching that brings you a significant improvement in your general level of happiness is arguably priceless. Unhappiness, depression, existential angst, all those fun things really suck the joy out of life, and getting free of them is a benefit of literally incalculable value. I’ve had at least one dharma teacher observe that you literally can’t give me enough money to compensate me for this gift, and I agree with him, although he went on to say that you should give all that you have, which I really don’t agree with.

So there are a couple of problems with dana in non-Buddhist cultures. The first is that people imagine that dana is a payment. It’s not. You aren’t paying for the teaching when you give dana. On a practical level, the amount of money that people generally give when they give dana isn’t enough to sustain the teacher. So even if you were just paying for the time/opportunity cost to the teacher of giving the teaching, the dana you give almost certainly wouldn’t be enough.

Because we don’t really have a culture that properly supports Dharma teaching in a way that would make dana practical as a symbolic gesture, the act of giving dana almost certainly harms the student. There are two obvious forms that this harm takes. The first is imagining that you have paid for the teaching. When you imagine this, you don’t need to feel gratitude for receiving it, because you paid for it. And gratitude is a really, really important part of any spiritual practice. So giving dana robs you of that. If you give me dana with this idea in mind, arguably I’ve harmed you tremendously by accepting it.

The second issue is that if we are at all conscious of how things work in our culture, it becomes obvious that the amount we ought to give in dana is really substantial, and then there’s this calculus that goes on where we try to figure out what the right amount is that would actually compensate the teacher for having given the teaching. And that amount is large. Uncomfortably large. It’s probably not more than we can afford, but it’s a lot.

This leads to a state of mind where we recognize that we don’t have to give the amount that we calculated we probably should. And then this leads to the formation of a stingy state of mind, that enters into this bargaining process to try to come up with a more comfortable number, because the number that we came up with when we thought about other educational opportunities that we have to pay for was too high.

So again, this is really harmful. Of course the struggle with both of these states of mind, when we recognize that they are problematic, is a good struggle, and worth doing, but I think dana is a really lousy context in which to have this struggle. Of course when I describe this struggle, I’m not talking about struggles that my students have gone through—I’m talking about the struggle I’ve gone through as a student.

A friend who did an early read of this article pointed out that she actually went through the struggle with dana the same way I did, and that she really benefited from the struggle. I have to admit that that was my experience as well—I’m sure that this struggle helped me to make progress. The reason I don’t think that’s the right thing to do isn’t because it doesn’t ever have that effect. It’s because I don’t think it’s a skillful way to achieve that effect. There are lots of opportunities to struggle with the practice of giving. As a dharma teacher, it feels like I’m creating a problem if the way I support myself triggers that struggle. I will freely admit that there is probably some cultural bias in this, but that’s not necessarily wrong: the cultural bias exists on both sides of the experience, and produces a markedly different experience than the traditional experience of giving dana.

As a result of my experiences in the past, when people offer me dana, I ask them to give it to my teacher. This creates a situation where I literally don’t know what they give, or if they gave, and they know that. They further know that no matter how much they give, it’s not going to make a difference to me. So they don’t have to struggle with those states of mind that I described, at least not in the same way. I think this is actually a little closer to how dana would feel in a Buddhist culture, although I don’t actually know since I don’t have personal experience of it.

What I think is different about our culture as opposed to a Buddhist culture is that in a Buddhist culture, the teaching is generally paid for before its given, just not by the recipients. It’s paid for by sponsors, or in some countries by the government. If you offer dana, it’s with no sense of pressure: you give an amount that you can give happily, and you never imagine that you are paying for the teaching. You understand the background process that exists to keep the monastery afloat, and it’s got nothing to do with the dana that you offer.

This is not to say that Buddhist cultures are superior or something like that. It’s just to set the context. I don’t live in a Buddhist culture. I live in a secular culture, in the United States. Some people claim that we are a Christian nation, but realistically we are relentlessly secular. Being Christian here is optional, not compulsory, and you can be Christian in so many different ways it beggars the imagination: there is no established religion, your taxes don’t go to pay for your religion, and there is no culture of supporting some religion that can then offer teachings for free.

So in this culture I think it’s important to simply figure out how the teaching will be paid for, and be completely open and up front about that. Should the Dharma be free? Sure, if you can’t afford it. Ask for a scholarship. If you have some extra money, more than the teaching costs, offer to support the scholarship. I think transparency is a good thing here, but that brings me to the next point.

That is that realistically, unless you are a pretty high profile teacher, it’s going to be difficult to make a living that pays for your health insurance and your mortgage if you live in the U.S. I have friends who’ve moved out of the country, and when I ask why, this is one of the reasons. To sustain a fifty-something Dharma teacher with a decent income and the ability to get health care in the current market is really difficult.

As a consequence, I have no plans to give up my career as a computer geek. And so for me, there is no point in anybody giving me dana. I’m paying my way. Sure, I could do more dharma teaching if I lived off of dana, but I don’t think I can—I’m old enough that health insurance is going to be quite expensive, I have a house I don’t want to move out of that has a fairly substantial holding cost due to taxes, I have people who depend on me for support, and so I just have to accept that I’m going to be teaching in my spare time for the foreseeable future.

And, since I actually feel like my work is beneficial to the world, this has been an easy decision for me, thus far. But that’s why, if you ask me about dana, my answer is that I don’t want any.

So how can we have dana in this crazy modern world? If you are interested in this topic, Brad Warner wrote a nice post about Dogen’s teachings on this topic that I really recommend—what Dogen says about this makes total sense to me. What he says boils down to this: the idea that there is ever an exchange, that anything is ever paid for, is a fiction.

When you go into Starbucks and buy a cup of coffee, what actually happened is that you went in and asked for a cup of coffee, and someone there very generously spent their precious time preparing it for you. And then you very generously gave them some money. The two acts seem like they are connected, but there is no reason at all to think of them that way. Really, someone did a very kind of act of generosity for you, giving you sustenance. And you did a very kind act of generosity for them, giving them something that they can use to live and be, to the extent possible, free. This is what that whole “pay it forward” thing that was going around a couple of years ago was about: you’d pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line, and then maybe they’d do the same, and then nobody could make the mistake of thinking that an exchange had happened.

Suppose, though, that someone wants to make a living as a dharma teacher. And they put up a shingle and start charging for teachings. Because of my involvement with the Finders Course, which is a paid course, with a fixed price, I’ve seen a lot of criticism about charging for teachings. There’s a culture in the Dharma world that this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

But think about how much pressure it takes off of you if you pay for teachings. There’s a price. There’s no haggling. You don’t have to make a decision. Either you pay, or you don’t. That stingy mind never forms: if the price seems to high, you just think “huh, can’t afford it,” rather than “hm, maybe I’ll donate a little bit less.” I think this is much healthier than the “name your price” view of dana. And if you really can’t afford it, then you can ask for a scholarship—if I were charging for teachings, I would definitely set something like this up. I might even include scholarships in the price.

The other result of this is that you’ve actually supported your teacher. You’re clear on what happened. If you took the scholarship, you know that the teacher was taken care of. If you paid for the course, you know the teacher was taken care of. There’s no uncertainty or ambiguity.

And then, if you want to give dana, then what you need to do is the Starbucks thing: stop thinking of it as an exchange. Stop thinking of you paying for the course as being connected to you receiving the teaching. Rejoice in your teacher’s kindness in giving you the teaching, and rejoice in your own kindness in giving the teacher what they need to live on. And just let go of the idea of exchange. And then you have given dana.