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Supporting that which supports you

Some thoughts on dana (giving)

If you generally give the minimum or below, what does this say to you? If you give more than the suggested donation, you are directly supporting the dharma work of others who are not in a position to pay very much. Some people like to offer non-monetary contributions. The choice, as always, is yours.

It is customary to offer dharma teachings on a donation basis. There are many reasons for this. Not all of them apply to contemporary ‘western’ culture, and this can cause quite a lot of confusion. In some cases this confusion has even resulted in genuine economic hardship for some teachers and centres. Because of this kind of confusion, and the different cultural contexts in which the teachings are now being offered, each teacher may have their own policy on this.

We can sometimes forget that the teaching that is freely available in many monasteries and ashrams is supported by local communities, students and supporters, who contribute time, energy and cash to make buildings and take care of the people studying and teaching in the monastery. What is our contribution?

In east Asian cultures giving to that which supports us is valued as a great place for the path to unfold – i.e. generosity, giving freely to whatever supports growth and understanding of both ourselves and our community, is a direct way to make this support widely available to all, regardless of means, and everyone benefits from this. It is widely recognised that this support needs to be effective, needing to take care of the teacher’s food, shelter, clothing, medicine, study and travel. Support is given either by directly offering one or more of the above (a meal, a ride etc), making in-kind donations, and/ or offering money or pledges so the teacher can meet ongoing expenses (of which the giver may be quite unaware), expenses for travel made to offer teachings, for ongoing training such as attending retreats, etc. The totality of this support is actually behind the Pali word ‘dana’ or freely giving – which is often translated as offering or making ‘merit’. For many ‘westerners’ conditioned to see seeking ‘merit’ as some kind of brown-nosing, this is just not a helpful translation. So let’s replace this ‘translation’ with a question instead: “how can I best support the dharma, its ongoing availability to my self and others, and just what is needed?”

When westerners hear that a course is ‘by donation’, we may have one of several reactions –

  • ‘oh good, this is a beautiful opportunity to freely support my own and other’s practice – with absolutely no strings attached – no expectations and no deal-making’
  • ‘it’s wonderful that these kind of explorations are available to me and all others – I am happy to support it so it can continue to offer these resources to all’
  • ‘please tell me exactly how much I should “give”‘ – give is in quotes here, as what is usually being asked is ‘what is the price for this deal?’ In this approach, we run a real risk of relating to a beautifully rich, free and open giving on both sides as an impersonal transaction, a commodity
  • ‘oh good, I can afford this’ (because of next thought)
  • ‘donation’ means ‘really cheap’
  • ‘if she isn’t asking for a fee, the teacher or the centre must be supported by a wealthy institution of some kind’
  • we may imagine that ‘spirituality’ is somehow a dollar-free zone, implying that teachers (or ‘real’ teachers anyway) do not have the same bills to pay as we do, and meditation centres also do not have expenses to run the facilities, keep them in repair, improve facilities over time, etc etc

Which one most closely reflects your response? (Feel free to comment if your reaction is not covered here!!)

Assess your own donation according to your means and how you personally wish to support the teaching. You may give more or less than the suggested donation.  Through practicing dana we learn to support that which supports us. This brings us to an ever deeper appreciation of the myriad ways we are supported by life in each moment – now… and now… and now…


opening to receiving deeply,
giving openly,
opening to giving,
are all an integral part of meditation training –

which is about opening to our life
as it is
and opening to
the openness
– all ready alive in our hearts –
each breath
each step
each moment