Dāna & the ancient practice of Gift Economy

In my home tradition of Theravāda Buddhism, teachings are traditionally given freely, without a set price or limitation. When this works well, those with more material resources and those with less can both give to support the community, each in a way that is sustainable for them. This free giving is called dāna in the early Buddhist language of Pāli, and traditionally referred primarily to the support of renunciate monastics.

As Buddhism has entered the global capitalist system, many teachers and organizations have had to modify this ancient practice. Many teachers are no longer monastics, living in renunciate simplicity, and in many places (like my home in California), people who want to explore the Buddhist teachings may have no cultural framework for understanding the practice of dāna.

“How much should I give?”
“Is it ok to only give a little?”
“Do I get more if I give more?”

These questions naturally arise under Capitalism, where resources must be quantified, gifts are discouraged, and we are told again and again:“there is no free lunch.” Many of us find this a heartbreaking system, and see all around us its effects: profound inequity, exploitation of resources, planetary desolation.

An ancient solution, central to the Buddha’s radical social vision, is to share freely the resources a community has access to. For monastics, that means being fully supported by the generosity of lay people, and giving their entire life’s energy to preserving the dhamma for the well-being of everyone. For lay people that means cultivating generosity, supporting both monastics and those in need in our communities as fully as we can.

One modern version of this ancient practice is sometimes called “Gift Economy,” recognizing the spirit of openness that underlies it, and its radical challenge to the capitalist model that reduces every experience to a price tag. You can read more about our use of Gift Economy for online courses, and make donations to support this work, here.

Your generosity allows me to offer practice events in this way, open to all, and supportive of an inclusive practice community. It also supports the studio to continue to offer donation classes and to value this model for spiritual practice as an important counterpart to the standard business model. If you are new to donation as a model for a class or event, you might reflect on how much you generally are charged for similar classes or events, and how Satsang is similar or different from those, as well as whether the donation model itself affects your feelings around offering money to a teacher or space. Gift Economy is a practice, and can be deeply transformative if we engage with it sincerely.

An all-donation structure also is a gesture toward creating a more radically inclusive community, as all interested practitioners are welcome to join, regardless of ability to pay. It is not just the support of those who need to come for free that motivates offering Satsang in this way, however, but the value I feel in resisting the overwhelming pressure within our neoliberal capitalist system to bring every human activity into the marketplace. These beautiful teachings were given to me in an open-handed, generous way, through a Gift Economy model, and I hope to honor that tradition by doing the same.


Dāna for Monastics

Because the practice of Gift Economy is descended from the ancient Buddhist practice of dāna, and that practice is still the only source of support for renunciate monastics in the Theravāda tradition, I encourage students to give generously to monks (bhikkhu) and nuns (bhikkhunī), who truly sustain the Buddha’s unique teaching (sāsana) through the offering of their whole lives in service to the dharma. I consider support of monastics a form of supporting my own teaching, which wouldn’t exist without their example and guidance. Supporting the monastics can be joyful and deeply rewarding, and an expression of love for the practice and for this tradition.

Cultivating a relationship with the monastic tradition can be a powerful refuge and support for practice, and I encourage both casual and dedicated students to visit their centers, attend ceremonies, and discover the beauty of this ancient lineage. My family primarily supports monastics descended from Ajahn Chah’s Thai Forest lineage, based at Abhayagiri in Redwood Valley/Ukiah, and Āloka Vihara in Placerville. You can find info on visiting and supporting them on their pages.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.