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The Buddhist Practice of Dana [Giving]
by Wayne Codling, Times Colonist, January 4, 2012
San Francisco, CA (USA) -- The traditional religious life in ancient China, Korea and other Buddhist countries includes an emphasis on the mutually dependent relationship between lay people and their spiritual teachers.
This relationship is characterized as being “spiritual friend[ship]” (Sanskrit: maitri). This spiritual relationship is embodied in the tradition called dana, a sanskrit word which means ‘generosity’ or ‘giving’. In addition to having a religious value (the “perfection of giving” [dana paramita]) it also embodies a social value of keen interest in this modern age; it leaves the control of the role of spiritual teaching in the hands of those who are the purported beneficiaries of said teaching. In other, more free market oriented, words; the consumer sets the value of the service, not the ‘vendor’. Were this idea to catch on in society, many professions could be affected.
Typically, a Zen monk’s sojourn in a monastery is a temporary thing. Historically, the vast majority of Zen monks leave their monastic community and lifestyle and return to lay life. Most simply return to regular livelihoods such as farming or manufacturing but some find a special place within the spiritual life of their communities as a teacher; and those who value the role make donations to sustain a teacher. These donations are generally anonymous, completely voluntary and intended as a direct expression of gratitude.
Zen monks are not entitled to charity. Monks who have little to offer of an intrinsic and widely acknowledged value will not receive any donations because there’s no special value; at least in theory. I know ssomething called dana is often routinized and practiced automatically, but in my opinion any formalized remuneration, such as titheing, ought not to be called dana. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I just say it’s not that subtle religious idea; Buddhist dana. True, everyone’s free to take it or leave it, but that is not a spacious enough sentiment to contain the depth of the spiritual friend relationship. Plus, it leaves out anyone who wants to hear the Dharma but cannot afford the price.
As a Zen monk living in the world I want very much to teach meditation in a way that ordinary, intelligent people are able to see a real value for themselves in their real, everyday life. I believe that people will recognize that value and reflect it by giving what their means allow toward retaining that value. Alternatively, the teacher will become unavailable through the need to work a regular job.
My coaches in the business world disagree with me on this, by the way. They consider me hopelessly naive. They say that people will just take the value and pay nothing even if they can afford it and even if they would cheerfully pay other counselors’ large fees. My experience so far proves this common but cynical analysis to be only sometimes true. This is encouraging, and one cannot help but wonder how professional relationships with lawyers and accountants would be affected if consumer-determined value became the ethical norm.