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Gift Economy & the practice of dāna
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, yet try to continue the spirit of offering the teachings we’ve been gifted by the Buddhist traditions as freely as we can. This is challenging partly because as non-monastics, our expenses are high, and institutional support minimal. In many places (like my home in California), people who want to explore the Buddhist teachings may also have no cultural framework for understanding the practice of dāna.
Different from some other Insight Meditation teachers, I use the term Gift Economy rather than dāna, partly to differentiate our model from that of the monastics, and also to emphasize its beauty as an economic method outside Buddhist practice and culture.
The term “Gift Economy” is borrowed from academic analyses of some pre-industrial societies, and refers to a culture or community that sees the movement of resources between people as a means to deepen connection, not as competition or commerce. Here’s a short TED video on the concept. And here’s some of my writing on its beauty for American convert Buddhist communities.
In addition to being traditional within Buddhist cultures, an all-donation structure is a gesture toward creating a more radically inclusive community, as all interested practitioners are welcome to receive the teachings, regardless of ability to pay or access to resources.
It is not just the support of those who need to come for free that motivates offering my work 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. Please join me in this resistance if you are so moved, and to give the gift of the Dhamma as freely as possible in this world.