This year on my birthday I was in Leningrad. People gave me flowers, art work, chocolate, books and perfume. We had a feast—an extraordinary dinner of many courses, culminating in a cake with candles, and even bananas (last year our tour guide said she hadn’t seen a banana in seven years). All this happened in a country where soap is rationed, where sugar and tea haven’t been available for months, where there are huge lines to buy a loaf of bread and where a surgeon earns 170 rubles a month, while a winter coat costs ten times that amount. I learn over and over again that receiving is a practice in itself.
In bringing vipassana meditation from Asia to the West, we have maintained the commitment to offer the teachings freely. In establishing our lives as dependent on donations (dana), we have had to learn a lot about receiving. Dana reflects the principle that the teachings are given without charge, and people give donations if they choose to support the teachers. (Dana, giving, is one of the paramis, or ten perfections, the fulfillment of which carries the practitioner to the “other shore.”)
This year, through great generosity, Joseph Goldstein and I built a duplex next to IMS. Not only did this provide us each a home (a new experience for both of us!), but it allowed us to house Sayadaw U Pandita for two months and will allow us to provide housing for other teachers in the future. The gift was enormous and extraordinary to receive. The feeling of receipt was one of being blessed—that people could care so much about us (not us personally as two people, but for the dhamma and the commitment of our lives to it). It is a transcendent feeling, like faith affirmed and mutual love for the dhamma completely known.
I feel this at the end of every course when people give dana, of whatever amount. We are joined, and the dhamma is our greatest bond and this is what we really share. And I feel it when offerings come, as with the generosity of people here that allowed us to go the U.S.S.R.
This works easily if you are relatively free and independent—you can happily wait for the magic. It is harder if you have mortgage payments; impossible if you have children or dependent parents. To be responsible then means to find security. Some vipassana teachers in the West have other sources of livelihood—therapy practice, business interests, royalties—that help them. Many rely completely on donations. Donations from leading retreats come to, as an approximate figure, based on my own experience, $8,000 to $12,000 a year, before taxes. (And we do pay taxes!) Assistant teachers and new teachers often receive much less than that. Some years we receive more, some less, depending on how much we teach and how large the courses are. This is a lot of generosity from a lot of people, but it is not a lot with which to lead a householder’s life. There are vipassana teachers in the U.S. who cannot afford health insurance and go without. There are three in the West this year—Christina Feldman, Michele McDonald and Steve Smith—who feel they may not be able to go on teaching because of financial pressures.
At this year’s teacher meeting in California, we talked extensively about money. The dana system is part of our heritage. I personally can’t contemplate changing it; we get so much more than money through it. Yet, in reality we are caught between many different and perhaps opposing forces—wanting to keep dana intact, wanting to teach a lot, wanting to maintain our own study and practice, wanting to teach rather than devote ourselves to other means of livelihood, and wanting to lead household lives with some security.
It’s a quandary! We joked at the meeting about selling coffee and brownies at retreats—it could provide a large and steady income! We also talked about trying to let people know the ins and outs of how we live, the beautiful aspects and the difficult aspects.
I write this as part of that effort and not because I have easy answers, or an answer for every teacher’s situation.
The entire system of giving and receiving works only through the openness of the people involved, and so we need to keep communicating about it. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, we would be happy to hear from you.
May everything you have given lead to the end of all suffering for all beings everywhere.