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Ignorance causes suffering
June 30th, 2018
Ignorance causes suffering
("free" as well as "non-profit" are illusions)

The attached article was praised on FB for its clarity, alongside a praise of the author (well-known Joseph Goldstein) and a critic of fee-based courses…

Putting Joseph Goldstein and a critic of fee-based courses in the same post is quite funny though. Because Joseph Goldstein produces a lot of high-quality work… and yet he's also part of "$2715 + dāna" retreats like

It's easy to criticise fee-based courses, but the basic truth is that when it's dāna-only, Westerners abuse the system: the very very very large majority doesn't make an effort to give as much as they can, on the contrary they tend to seek a good deal and pay as little as they can get away with… and then this is not sustainable, even for renowned teachers with high-quality productions.
I remember a decent buddhist teacher on g+ providing dāna-based online programs who once had several hundreds of participants, but with an average dāna of a mere $0.32 per participant, for an 8-weeks program! This didn't cover the production costs, let alone feed him. People gave positive feedback, but no dāna.
Easterners have a better cultural understanding of what it takes to keep a living tradition alive, and of the value of an ecosystem / virtuous circle of mutual support. But Westerners are influenced by consumerism, by "pay per session" logic, by "seek the best value for money".
When people withhold dāna, the Dhamma will indeed decay, but it's a mistake to think it's caused by fee-based courses: the fee-based courses are just symptoms, caused by people not making enough effort to give sustainable dāna, caused by people holding back, caused by greed and materialistic hoarding (minimising dāna to avoid 'losing' money). If people gave dāna properly, if they practiced the first pāramī (or pāramitā, depending on the tradition), then fee-based courses would not arise: they're just symptoms, and what needs be addressed is the cause, not the symptom.
Of course, sometimes Easterners give dāna to "buy" some (karmic) merit, and this is flawed logic and a misunderstanding of causality; however, this still works better to perpetuate the Dharma than withholding dāna (on the Western excuses that merit is 'empty', that the Dhamma 'should' be given for free, etc.).

A last point: this is hardly a new issue, and the Buddha gave many speeches about the value of giving, hence providing us with evidence that this was not clear / natural to people in his environment either.
But Westerners are extremely naïve / greedy about the "Dhamma should be given for free". Because early buddhists were wanderers, and they'd teach where they received alms… not receiving alms, they'd continue walking, to the next village then the next… The "for free" means something like "there's no minimum (very small dāna is highly meritorious from someone with very small ressources)" but it doesn't mean "you'll get taught even if you give nothing at all, in particular when you could give something"! Wanderers just kept walking until they got alms, or were invited for a meal, then they stayed… and if they stayed in one place, then they taught…
Naïve calls for "free" are misguided and denying historical evidence that even the Buddha wasn't giving the Dhamma "for free": it's actually not supportive to people to let them get away with hoarding / not giving / greed… to the point that all spiritual traditions (not just Buddhism) praise generosity. What mattered was not how much donation was received (there was no minimum, and many people are poor, and there's a vinaya rule forbidding the focus on richer houses during alms rounds), but the effort to give. An 'effort' usually requires going beyond what's simply convenient "pocket change".

Some may argue that it is always better to seek our teaching from the ordained, because it's on average cheaper, dāna-based and it is rare that a temple or monastery has to close. This would suggest that where the organisation is part of a recognised lineage, people are more comfortable giving appropriately, secure in the knowledge that it isn't profit-driven.

This'd be a funny argument after praising the clarity and benefits of Goldstein's teachings, who's not ordained, but OK…
Dāna-based events in other setups actually do occur regularly… but there's a "survival bias" at play here: they occur, then either the teacher stops or (s)he switches to fee-based, forced to acknowledge that this doesn't work. So what remains to be seen is only fee-based. But that's not proving that dāna-based don't occur, they just vanish fast precisely because it doesn't work out.
This "survival bias" is a classic issue in economics: if you do statistics on the stock markets for example, you only see the stock prices of companies which didn't vanish by bankruptcy until now… This can mislead you dramatically, e.g. if you expect the average portfolio to provide similar returns (even though the average portfolio provides no warranty whatsoever that no company of it will go bankrupt). So if you're looking into the economics of Buddhist institutions, you also have to consider the survival bias.
Traditional setups / temples receive more dāna from local Easterners culturally "buying merit" through dāna, but this is not exactly a sign of quality of the lineage. They also receive dāna from tourists visiting, to see the bells and whistles and statues and robes and ear some exotic chants, which is not exactly a sign of quality of the lineage either. And at the end of the day, temples struggle, many closed and disappeared (survival bias again); it's a massive struggle in Japan at the moment, it has been in Sri Lanka during famines and hardships, it has been in India, in China, etc. The logic is the same everywhere: it requires subsequent donations to provide food, shelter, clothes and medicine (the "four requisites") to practitioners. Calling it "profit" because someone pays their bill themselves at the supermarket, or "non-profit" because someone receives food paid at the supermarket by the giver himself, is misleading.
And if some places receive more donations (enough to keep some people ordained on site, not immediately starving), and a practitioner focuses on these because the practitioner has to give less to attend, then (s)he's ridding off the generosity of others! I'm not convinced it's a good sign for the practitioner… it's actually another sign of greed, of seeking "good value for money" rather than seeking to support places where there isn't enough yet (to provide for permanent guidance). If you want the Dharma to spread, for your benefit as well as others', then you need to think about funding practitioners and setups that are not yet fully-funded, not yet sustainable; falling back onto the lower-risk and cheaper doesn't equate "effort", it equates "complacency".

#Buddhism #Dharma #Dana
PS: yes, I'm aware that 'Westerners' and 'Easterners' are broad categories, caricatural and with exceptions (and yet, most people who will react to / complain about this caricature will do so as a feeble way to deny that they too are actually withholding dāna. They'll use the "I'm insulted" to avoid looking inward)… and yet, my personal observations still support that Easterners living in the West have more cultural understanding of the "mutual support" logic of dāna than Westerners!
This is the fourth post of the "needlessly provocative" series, a.k.a. "not for the sake of popularity" series ( On dāna-paramita, see also
Buddhism has no specific guideline on supporting teachers, it simply asks for you to consider causality: if you want this living tradition to survive, how are you participating, in practical terms, to make this happen? Nice words, exposure or social media ‘+1’ might feel good, but they do not actually help with the basic necessities: