The first thing the Buddha often taught to lay followers is the practice of dāna, or generosity. When we give freely from the heart we feel a natural sense of joyfulness and belonging. This inner experience, when consciously recognized and fostered, creates an important foundation of relational sensitivity and connection for the rest of the path to Awakening.
The teachings of the Dharma are considered priceless – beyond material value. Traditionally, monastics sharing the Dharma are supported materially by the lay community. In this spirit, we endeavor to offer our time and guidance as spiritual friends, freely whenever possible.
For thousands of years, the Dharma was preserved and taught primarily by monastics. Monastics make the commitment to give up certain aspects of worldly life, like handling money, storing and cooking food, trading goods, having sexual relations, etc. in order to focus on cultivating the heart. They offer spiritual and religious teachings to the lay community, who in turn offer material support in the way of food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. In this way, the monastic and lay communities have lived in harmony with and dependence upon one another for millennia.
Today in the West, for the first time in history, the teachings of certain schools of Buddhism are being held and offered largely by teachers who are lay householders. We have the same financial responsibilities as other laity, and live and teach in a Western culture that is rooted in a paradigm of value based on exchange (“I give you this for that”). These two factors – having financial responsibilities, and living in an exchange-based culture – create a unique situation for teachers and students in the contemporary Dharma world.
Because lay teachers depend on the financial support of students for their livelihood, it can be a challenge for both sides to experience the “freely offered” aspect of dāna. What’s more, the practice of dāna can become relegated in our minds to making financial donations – a tragic limitation of a practice that is much more about living with a spirit of broad, open-hearted generosity in all regards. To address such complicated areas of the relationship, we can make a distinction between “Teacher Support” – offering donations to support our teachers materially – and the practice of dāna – cultivating a heart of generosity. We hope these reflections may be helpful for you in understanding the relationship we are invited into through the these teachings.