This column breaks one of the biggest taboos in the vipassana community: talking about dana in dollars and cents. Dana is a practice of generosity by which we support dharma teachers. It is an opportunity for us to experience giving, to reflect on how much we value the teachings, and to respond in kind. We talk about dana all the time, in idealistic—and vague—terms. We students don’t tell one another what we give. Teachers rarely, if ever, talk about how much they receive. But we students have a responsibility to continually discuss dana among ourselves to ensure that the system remains viable.
We have good reasons not to talk about dana amounts. One is to avoid creating implied norms that may discourage those who can give more from doing so, or dishearten those who can’t afford that much. The essence of dana is that it be based on how much the student values the teachings and what she or he can afford.
We also have reasons to talk dana specifics. The teachings are the responsibility of the entire sangha. Teaching depends on the willingness of teachers to give of their time, for which the sangha must support them financially. Students need to ask ourselves whether we are living our practice: Are we practicing generosity? Does our dana reflect how we value the teachings?
Teachers are essential to our individual practice and to the vipassana community. Get practitioners together and the conversation often turns to teachers. We often speak about them with appreciation and affection. We talk about their support in times of difficulty; the turn of phrase that clarified a point of practice; the interview that sent us back to our cushion with renewed effort.
Few teachers can afford to live entirely from dana, but the teaching life makes a salaried job difficult if not impossible. The teachers are living in the same economy as the rest of us, paying the same bills. And many have no employer to provide them with health insurance, sick leave, paid vacation, disability insurance, or a retirement system.
We may see our dana as reciprocating for a specific event: a talk, a retreat, an interview. But, more generally, we are supporting the teacher to be a teacher.
Teaching is hard work, and dharma teaching harder than most. I teach at a university, and among my colleagues the rule of thumb is three hours of preparation for one hour in the classroom. The effort and preparation required increases with the size of the group. And dharma teaching requires that one give more of oneself more often than do many other kinds of teaching. Week after week a teacher addresses fundamental issues of the meaning and purpose of life—that which is deepest, most precious and ultimately ineffable—usually for a disparate group of new and old students. In interviews a teacher is often asked for help with problems that touch on the most fundamental—and often personal and painful—issues of life.
Dana-supported teaching accounts for only part of the teachers’ time. Many spend time in meetings and on the administration of organizations like Spirit Rock, work for which they are not paid, but which maintains the community and the integrity of the teaching. They take phone calls from ongoing students and potential ones. They speak about the dharma to non-dharma groups from whom they don’t ask dana. They teach people who can’t give dana: in prisons, in poverty, in trouble. They study the dharma and go on retreats themselves, enriching our practice as well as their own. And they have spent years of study before they ever begin to teach.
Here are the numbers: Average dana per person for a one-day sitting is $5-$6; for evening sitting groups, $1-$2. Retreat dana varies. Long retreats with few students (and many opportunities for interviews) are the least financially beneficial to teachers, as the dana is not directly proportional to the length of the retreat or the number of teachers. After a recent two-week senior students’ retreat, dana amounted to about $2 per student per day to each teacher.
To give these figures some context, here are others. A fifty-minute session with a psychotherapist: $80-$150 (or more). University extension classes: one day, $110; weekly, $25 per evening. First-run movie in a theater: $7. Video rental: $3.50. Rental for a pair of in-line skates: $14 per day. Paperback mystery: $7. Monthly no-frills cable TV: $28.
And here’s an interesting comparison: I grew up in a Mormon community, where people were expected to tithe ten percent of their income to their church.
Dana is not the only cost for dharma events, and the other costs affect students’ ability to give dana. Indeed, many students give the maximum that they can. For now I am not looking at what students can afford to give and why but at the current pattern of giving.
In supporting the teachers, we give something back to the entire sangha and help bring the teachings to others. To support means not just to finance, but to shore up. The image that comes to my mind is the flying buttress of a medieval cathedral: a delicate arch that holds up the massive stone wall. By supporting the teachers who play a critical role in disseminating the teachings and maintaining our community, we buttress the entire sangha.