Monday, December 22, 2014

No Strings Attached: Giving

Amber Larson, Seth Auberon, Wisdom QuarterlyVen. Thanissaro (
Golden Buddha as the newborn Prince Siddhartha showered with gifts (Wpgaurav/flickr).
No Strings Attached: The Buddha's Culture of Generosity
Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff)
Ven. Thanissaro (DeGraff)
“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, Ajahn 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 Thai forest 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 (which is a violation of the Buddhist Monastic Code) about their need for donations from even stray or casual visitors.
Eventually I learned that Ajahn Fuang's behavior is common throughout the Thai Forest Tradition. It's based on a passage in the Pali canon where the Buddha on the verge of final nirvana states that the highest homage to him is not material homage, but the homage of practicing the Dharma in accordance with the Dharma.

In other words, the best way to repay a teacher is to take the Dharma to heart and to practice it in a way that fulfills that teacher's compassionate purpose in teaching it. I am proud to be part of a tradition where the inner wealth of this noble idea is actually lived out -- where, as Ajahn Fuang often put it, we are not reduced to hirelings. Instead, the act of teaching the Dharma is purely a gift.

U.S. strings
Ven. Thanissaro is a prolific translator.
So I was saddened when, on my return to America, I had my first encounters with the "dana talk": the talk on donating and generosity that often comes at the end of a meditation retreat.

The context of the talk -- the content making clear that it's not a disinterested exercise -- is often 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 Ajahn 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 would not 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 monastics (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 rather than the best. More

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