Dana Paramita - How Practice is Supported at Red Cedar Zen Community
Dana Paramita is one of Buddhism’s six, or in some traditions ten, “perfections” (paramitas), sometimes termed the “immeasurables”. Dana means “giving” or “generosity”. The thought is that the qualities imbued in the paramitas have no limit – they can never be completely mastered, and yet the teaching and benefits they offer also can never be exhausted.
Dana is often listed as the first paramita in what could be seen as a progressive list, the generating principal from which the others emerge. The initial paramitas in this list are concerned with topics of ethics, since an ethical basis is seen in Buddhism as a fundamental starting point for religious practice, and so dana could therefore be seen as the essential beginning of ethical practice.
In a universe of ecological relationships, where energy freely transmutes from place to place, from being to being, and form has no distinct identity separate from emptiness, the act of giving is a fundamental means of exchange. In nature nothing is bought, everything is given. In human relations, as one Tibetan teacher has said “nothing comes to you except through the kindness of others”. To practice dana paramita is to bring the truth of this statement into our lives in a vital way.
Traditionally Buddhist monks begged for alms and received dana each day for the food they needed to eat, and offered teachings and the example of a moral and religious life freely as a gift back into the world. A similar understanding was often found native peoples through gift based economies. In today’s North American Buddhist communities dana is often employed to support the activities of teachers. This comes from the idea that there cannot be any honest and equitable way to define or quantify the benefits of the Buddha dharma, which also when received are in turn not retained but are constantly dedicated for the benefit of all beings.
An economy based upon the ideal of dana is not familiar to the way of life of modern day North Americans, living as we do within a strict monetary system of exchange for goods and services based upon labor, wages, and profit. The rising prevalence of user-supported-services, such as donations to non-profits and National Public Radio, are examples of economic exchanges that seem to function something like dana – where service is gained through donation or financial support.
But the essential ground of dana paramita goes beyond a fee-for-service model. It recognizes that true wealth is imbued in the act of giving itself, and not in the thing given. An economy functioning through dana is an environment where what is given is given so that others may experience the benefits that you have experienced, and so thereby the cycle of giving is continued. These days this is often expressed as “paying it forward”.
At the same time we recognize the realities of this life as we need to live it – the effort and work that life requires. “Time is money” the old saying goes, and for most of us this is literally true. Those who work and set aside time to give the gift of teachings still have to pay mortgages, buy gas for the car, and purchase groceries. Those who come to receive teachings have to set aside time from family and life obligations.
Seen through the immeasurable lens of dana paramita a different story can be seen. Those who teach are given the opportunity to express what they love and know to be of immeasurable benefit, and those who receive teachings offer willing attention and open minds and hearts to the exchange. Everyone receives and the wheel of dharma continues to revolve, to the benefit of all beings.
Red Cedar Zen Community has adopted what we hope is an equitable strategy for accommodating our common reality of fees and costs, and the practice of dana paramita. It is a multi-faceted strategy which accounts for many different areas of costs involved in running an organization. We recognize from the outset the dichotomy we live within, and how it cuts both ways. Those who teach need money to run their lives, but offer something for which an amount of money can’t honestly be quantified. Those who receive teachings may have money they can offer, and yet also offer their help, encouragement, labor, and willing participation to make the exchange possible. Some people may be very lightly burdened by the costs of our retreats and classes. Others may be hard pressed to come up with even the basic costs.
Commonly the “hard costs” for our retreats (the rental of the space, the cost of the food, etc.) are covered by the base cost of a retreat or class, but none of this fee goes to the teacher. This fee is usually presented as a self-choice sliding scale. The bottom of the scale generally is the minimum base cost to cover expenses. Those who can contribute toward the upper end of the scale help provide the opportunity for a few people with low means to be offered scholarship opportunities. All of the labor to organize and run the retreats is offered freely by an active network of volunteers. We usually try to structure our retreats to be just in the “black” so we can continue to keep a positive bank account and make plans for the future.
In addition to this those who teach at Red Cedar events, and have gone through the step of acting in the head monk capacity for an extended period, may receive dana offerings in recognition for their effort and time involved when they teach at a retreat. We encourage everyone to support the activity of our dharma teachers and instructors so that they can continue to give freely back to the community, and please recognize that this constitutes essentially an added financial contribution beyond the fee listed for the event. Please consider strongly the time and effort that may have gone into a particular retreat and teaching when choosing how much to offer for dana. Donations are handled carefully and kept as confidential as possible.
Opportunities to offer dana are typically:
Red Cedar Zen Community has other significant costs beyond those which are accounted for during a retreat – the rent on our dharma hall being the primary cost. We also provide a small stipend for our spiritual director, who spends regular significant time helping guide our activities. To cover these operational costs for the organization we offer the opportunity to become a member. Members usually pay regular dues each year, in an amount of their own choosing, through a variety of available methods. We also offer the dharma hall for rent to other groups as a significant supplement to our member dues. Through this combination of methods we continue to support a growing and active dharma community of practitioners, and offer an involved slate of events and retreats throughout the year for everyone’s practice. Thank you for all your generous gifts and contributions.