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“How can I ever repay you for your teaching?”

Good meditation teachers often hear this question from their students, and the best answer I know for it is one that my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, gave every time:

“By being intent on practicing.”

Each time he gave this answer, I was struck by how noble and gracious it was. And it wasn’t just a formality. He never tried to find opportunities to pressure his students for donations. Even when our monastery was poor, he never acted poor, never tried to take advantage of their gratitude and trust. This was a refreshing change from some of my previous experiences with run-of-the mill village and city monks who were quick to drop hints about their need for donations from even stray or casual visitors.

Eventually I learned that Ajaan Fuang’s behavior is common throughout the Forest Tradition. It’s based on a passage in the Pali Canon where the Buddha on his deathbed states that the highest homage to him is not material homage, but the homage of practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma. In other words, the best way to repay a teacher is to take the Dhamma to heart and to practice it in a way that fulfills his or her compassionate purpose in teaching it. I was proud to be part of a tradition where the inner wealth of this noble idea was actually lived—where, as Ajaan Fuang often put it, we weren’t reduced to hirelings, and the act of teaching the Dhamma was purely a gift.

So I was saddened when, on my return to America, I had my first encounters with the dana talk: the talk on giving and generosity that often comes at the end of a retreat. The context of the talk—and often the content—makes clear that it’s not a disinterested exercise. It’s aimed at generating gifts for the teacher or the organization sponsoring the retreat, and it places the burden of responsibility on the retreatants to ensure that future retreats can occur. The language of the talk is often smooth and encouraging, but when contrasted with Ajaan Fuang’s answer, I found the sheer fact of the talk ill-mannered and demeaning. If the organizers and teachers really trusted the retreatants’ good-heartedness, they wouldn’t be giving the talk at all. To make matters worse, the typical dana talk—along with its companion, the meditation-center fundraising letter—often cites the example of how monks and nuns are supported in Asia as justification for how dana is treated here in the West. But they’re taking as their example the worst of the monks, and not the best.

I understand the reasoning behind the talk. Lay teachers here aspire to the ideal of teaching for free, but they still need to eat. And, unlike the monastics of Asia, they don’t have a long-standing tradition of dana to fall back on. So the dana talk was devised as a means for establishing a culture of dana in a Western context. But as so often is the case when new customs are devised for Western Buddhism, the question is whether the dana talk skillfully translates Buddhist principles into the Western context or seriously distorts them. The best way to answer this question is to take a close look at those principles in their original context.

It’s well known that dana lies at the beginning of Buddhist practice. Dana, quite literally, has kept the Dhamma alive. If it weren’t for the Indian tradition of giving to mendicants, the Buddha would never have had the opportunity to explore and find the path to Awakening. The monastic Sangha wouldn’t have had the time and opportunity to follow his way. Dana is the first teaching in the graduated discourse: the list of topics the Buddha used to lead listeners step-by-step to an appreciation of the four noble truths, and often from there to their own first taste of Awakening. When stating the basic principles of karma, he would begin with the statement, “There is what is given.”

What’s less well known is that in making this statement, the Buddha was not dealing in obvious truths or generic platitudes, for the topic of giving was actually controversial in his time. For centuries, the brahmans of India had been extolling the virtue of giving—as long as the gifts were given to them. Not only that, gifts to brahmans were obligatory. People of other castes, if they didn’t concede to the brahmans’ demands for gifts, were neglecting their most essential social duty. By ignoring their duties in the present life, such people and their relatives would suffer hardship both now and after death.

As might be expected, this attitude produced a backlash. Several of the samana, or contemplative, movements of the Buddha’s time countered the brahmans’ claims by asserting that there was no virtue in giving at all. Their arguments fell into two camps. One camp claimed that giving carried no virtue because there was no afterlife. A person was nothing more than physical elements that, at death, returned to their respective spheres. That was it. Giving thus provided no long-term results. The other camp stated that there was no such thing as giving, for everything in the universe has been determined by fate.

If a donor gives something to another person, it’s not really a gift, for the donor has no choice or free will in the matter. Fate was simply working itself out. So when the Buddha, in his introduction to the teaching on karma, began by saying that there is what is given, he was repudiating both camps. Giving does give results both now and on into the future, and it is the result of the donor’s free choice. However, in contrast to the brahmans, the Buddha took the principle of freedom one step further. When asked where a gift should be given, he stated simply, “Wherever the mind feels inspired.” In other words—aside from repaying one’s debt to one’s parents—he imposed no obligation to give. This means that the choice to give is an act of true freedom, and thus the perfect place to start the path to total release.

This is why the Buddha adopted dana as the context for practicing and teaching the Dhamma. But—to maintain the twin principles of freedom and fruitfulness in giving—he created a culture of dana that embodied particularly Buddhist ideals. To begin with, he defined dana not simply as material gifts. The practice of the precepts, he said, was also a type of dana—the gift of universal safety, protecting all beings from the harm of one’s unskillful actions—as was the act of teaching the Dhamma. This meant that lavish giving was not just the prerogative of the rich.

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