Dharma, Dana (Donations), Teachers and the Retreat

The Buddhist tradition has a beautiful, long love affair with the tradition of dana – a Pali word meaning generosity, donation, gifts, the practice of offering support.

Dana has as much significance in the Dharma as ethics, mindfulness, meditation, kindness, renunciation, non-violence, compassion, wisdom, liberation and full awakening.

The Buddha showed the immense importance of dana when he referred to Dharma-dana – meaning inseparable from the body of the teachings.

Dana provides an immense service. For example, the staff of some Buddhist centres including managers, office workers, cooks and gardeners earn a modest monthly stipend equally distributed to all.  This stipend ensures a much lower daily rate. This makes it possible for a much wider range of people to attend a retreat – students, the elderly on a state pension, unemployed, single parents and so on. Such staff will be included in the appeal for dana at the end of a retreat.

The Dana Talk in the closing period of a retreat matters. Really matters. For teachers, voluntary staff, the centre and the retreatants. All benefit.

Dana serves as an indispensable feature of Dharma teachings with its emphasis on sharing, support and preservation of the Dharma. It is important that teachers stay true to the dana when offering teachings. I have heard teachers say: “People only value something if they pay for it.”

Such views express crude and discriminatory generalisations about people. These views have no place in Dharma teachings.  Numerous people deeply appreciate the teachings and practices. They give real financial support to the teachings and the teachers, via the dana. They do not hold such views that everything has to be paid for. They do not think it is appropriate to charge high prices to make the Dharma available. They do not agree that the high cost of a  course or retreat proves its value.  It does not indicate that at all.

It shows the unexamined mind of such teachers and organisers. Such unhelpful views mirrors views to support self-interest rather than selflessness. They do not agree with Dharma teachers using dana to support an extravagant lifestyle or making substantial sums of money for their personal satisfaction.

It is not easy living on dana or mostly on dana. We have to find the middle way between romantic idealism at one extreme and pursuit of a substantial income at the other extreme.

Teachers and other practitioners share together a common purpose and vision – empowerment for change, for transformation. The practice of generosity and kindness in various ways includes real support for the gift economy. We must not give up on it. Some Dharma teachers in the West have. Teachers in monasteries, monks and nuns keep the flame alive. We can as well. We are the servants of people, animals and the environment. We challenge consumerism. That is our job. That is the business we are in.

I hear regularly of new teachers, and others teaching for years, of their personal struggles with the tradition of dana.

“Will the dana support me?”

“Will the dana support me and my kids?”

“Should I switch to payment for teaching the Dharma?”

“I find it very difficult to ask for money.”

“If the dana is low, I start to doubt if I am a good enough teacher.”

“I feel nervous and uncomfortable talking about money.”

“It is much easier to ask for support for something outside of myself.”

“I had no idea how difficult it is to live on donations.”

It would be worthwhile mentioning here one or two aspects of the development of dana in the West.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Dharma teachers and staff gave their services to centres on a dana basis. In different places, a number of the staff went on to become established teachers. To their credit, teachers continue to offer teachings in retreat centres on a dana basis. The centre will cover the travel expense with the teacher providing the receipt from the airline, train or petrol costs.

Students are informed of this approach beforehand and know that there will be an appeal for dana at the end of the retreat. In the 1970s and early 1980s, teachers did not give the dana talk. Teachers left the Dharma hall, as if we did not know what would be talked about.

The manager then gave the talk. Some managers around the world found it a worthwhile responsibility while others found it a very difficult task. It takes a skill to explain dana, which speaks of it in terms of the tradition of Dharma-Dana and the real support for the teachers.

What the manager said or didn’t say made an immense difference to what went into the dana bowl outside the meditation hall or in the dining room.

Quite often, I received a very supportive dana in the four continents where I taught. On a few occasions, the manager of the retreat centre would speak about the 2500-year tradition to support monasteries. S/he would speak on dana for two or three minutes, sometimes in a rather apologetic tone. “I am sorry to ask you but do you think you might be able to offer a small donation….”

In July 1981, I became a father. I now had a mother, daughter and myself to support. Friends would come out of the Dharma hall and say to me that the manager did not understand the significance of dana. I remember one practitioner at IMS, the centre in Massachusetts, USA, said to me that the dana appeal sounded like an invitation to meditators to offer coffee money.

He said: “Don’t be concerned. I asked the manager if I could speak for a few minutes. I stood up and spoke about the importance of giving dana to support our teachers. People in the hall were smiling and nodding.”

He was right. I did not have to be concerned. The dana bowl was full.

The Teacher gives the Dana talk

After that, I gave the dana talk myself. Since then, many teachers give the dana talk rather than rely on a manager. Some managers told me they were relieved as they were thinking about their talk the whole week. A manager in Australia gives the  dana talk but that person has decades of retreat experience, managing retreats and can communicate the value and tradition of dana.

We give the dana talk in a caring and kind way as it is an invitation to support our work, and nothing more. If later a person feels they gave too little, then then can transfer dana to the teachers after the retreat. If a person feels they gave too much dana, and they worry about their financial circumstances, then they give less or nothing the next time they attend a retreat with that teacher(s).

One practitioner, a veteran of retreats, attended a retreat. She told me that the teacher on a retreat elsewhere gave the best dana talk she ever heard in 20 years. I said to her. “If you go and sit with that teacher again, please record it. I will encourage teachers nervous about giving the dana talk to listen to it. They could even memorise it. I would love to listen to it. I am happy to plagiarise.”

Sometimes, the dana from a retreat is very low. The practitioners may have the impression that the teachers have a full-time livelihood or have private income. If low, the teachers can send out a short email of appreciation for the dana and share a little extra outline of the personal needs. With a comprehensive view, some may wish to offer a Paypal payment. One only needs a Visa card or similar to make a transfer. It is easy and quick. You do not need to sign up to Paypal.

I speak for about 15 minutes or longer in the late afternoon of the final full day. The dana bowls were put on the table, so the yogis have the rest of the final full day and the final morning to put dana in the bowl. We also collect dana for the staff living on a modest monthly stipend. Some centres have a third bowl to support the centre.

Practitioners grow into a sense of Dharma and equally into a sense of dana. There is the benefit of the overview of 2600 years but the personal details also matter. We rely on the heart rather than the usual secular approach of payment per hour for services render. That is a shift in the spirit and letter, which challenges both teachers and meditators.

This is where the personal comes in. What does the teacher need the money for? The students have a right to know what the teacher will use their money for.

Keep a home. Rent, mortgage, maintenance, food, heating and so on.

Payment to others, such as IT, website design, office equipment, telephone and more.

Some Dharma teachers live in very modest circumstances. A single room.

Some teachers are saving up to do more training or have debts from training in mindfulness, psychotherapy, yoga and more. These trainings offer real benefit to those on retreats and workshops.

Some teachers make monthly bank transfers for various kinds of support in terms of health care insurance, skills, knowledge, accounts, social media and to support charities, foundations and important projects.

A number of teachers are parents. Some are single parents. For example, my daughter has four children aged from four to 18 years. Many grandparents, like myself, give financial support. The weekly cost of running a home, a car to take the children to school and elsewhere, payments to electricians, carpenters, mechanics etc. Imagine the cost of a single week’s holiday for a family of five or weekly riding lessons etc.

I know Dharma teachers who will spend a week or more preparing a 40-minute Dharma talk.

It does not come easy to give a talk. Participants may not realise how much preparations goes into teachings, instructions, talks and study.

I know:

  • New Dharma teachers who spend €2500 for a training, such as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme) to get a certificate of qualification, even though they have more experience and understanding than the MBSR trainers.
  • Dharma teachers, who travel to the East to spend time in a monastery in Thailand or Myanmar to deepen their practice. Airfares, trains, visas and dana for the monastery takes a lot of money. Their students benefit from the depth of experience of their teachers.
  • Dharma teachers, and many others, who shared a flat (apartment) with their partner. The relationship ends. The cost of the flat or a new flat immediately doubled.
  • Dharma teachers, who live with a parent in order to minimise living expenditure.
  • Dharma teachers, who ended their relationship/marriage because he or she felt little in common with the partner. They prefer to struggle alone to make ends meet.

The dana enables teachers to pay the bills and support further practice. The teacher commits her or himself to using every penny of the dana in a respectful and caring way. One does not use the money for expensive holidays, luxury goods and pursuits of personal pleasure.

Dharma students often have much love and appreciation for their teacher(s). I remember initiating the closing circle on the Insight Meditation retreats in the 1980s to mark the end of the retreat. Plenty of teachers have adopted the form which gives yogis an opportunity to share with the other participants. People will speak with so much appreciation for their experience on the retreat. Some will refer to the retreat as a life-changing experience.

Dharma is a powerful resource grounded in first-hand experience.

Sharing of Dana between Teachers

Teachers have different approaches to sharing of the dana between them. One approach consists of sharing the dana on a 50-50 basis regardless of years of experience or seniority. Another approach consists of recognising different financial outlays. A single parent with two children might receive 60% of the dana while a single person with no dependents receives 40%.  A teacher, who has numerous financial outlays (secretary, IT, running an office, websites, Dharma organisational involvements, service to the Sangha outside a retreat, would receive more than a person with weekly employment or little expenses in the service of Dharma.

There is a sharing between teachers according to need.

I used to teach Dharma Gatherings in Australia and India with between 90 – 140 participants. I would invite eight or nine to teach with me. I still received 30% of the dana.

Years ago, one new co-teacher, a single woman, said to me: The dana should be divided equally between the two of us, instead of 60-40.”

I replied: “Fine. I will happily take the 40% if you would kindly reimburse me for the weekly costs for my 10-year old daughter and her mother. I can provide you with all the receipts.”

She said: “Oh. I am happy with the 40%.”

Dana from Present to Future

The strictly secular approach is simple. This is what I offer. This is what you pay me. This is the standard approach. There is little departure from it. You might pay less if you pay sooner rather than later. You might get a discount. You might get it cheaper the longer you stay. You might get a reduction due to financial circumstances.

Dana is the act of kindness. Dana invites trust, love and appreciation of service. The Sangha supports teachers and teachers supports the Sangha. Dana challenges us, challenges our heart, whether teacher or participant. Dana remains firmly rooted as a practice.

This gift of money is probably the fastest act of giving. You put your hand in your wallet or handbag and take out the money, chequebook or card and give. People are very happy to support their teacher. They understand the thousands of hours of practice they have put into become teachers. As students, they paid to attend retreats, trainings, perhaps travelled to the East and gave up much else.

Practitioners realise the number of sacrifices they make to teach residential retreats. Parents leave their child or kids behind with the parent, grandparents or friends for the days they are away teaching. In daily life, teachers may find odd work from one to ones, skype calls, working on websites, part-time office work and more to be able to offer residential retreats.

The network of Dharma teachers make a major contribution to keep alive the teachings and practices of ethics, mindfulness/meditation and wisdom. The outcome of all this is right action for the welfare of all beings.

As servants of the Dharma, we are very grateful to you for your support.

Note to Readers:

This essay is a chapter from a book, due out later this year. Title: The Buddha in the West. The book explores  the development of the Buddha Dharma in the West. The book addresses important issues in society if the Dharma is to be a worthwhile force for change.




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