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Three Ways of Looking at Paying for Spiritual Teachings

by Franca Leeson

Charity. Most people see the word "donation" and they think "charity". What this means, unfortunately, to most people is to think small. I know of one Tibetan lama who under this system had to resort to cleaning condos in his spare time to keep body and soul together!
[George Draffan comments: Nothing wrong with cleaning as a way to earn a living! And, some dilemmas are avoided if a teacher earns their living on the side so that they are able to teach without charging for it--assuming they still have the time and energy.]

Fee for service. In North America we are accustomed to paying professional educators and consultants fees anywhere from $25 an hour (for a group yoga lesson) to $500 an hour and more (for a corporate lawyer). If we view our spiritual teachers as professionals, who have gone through many years of education and poverty to acquire skills and knowledge they are passing on, where does that leave us in terms of donation levels?

A community garden. Imagine you and your neighbours decide to turn a neighbourhood space into a community vegetable garden. You work together, planning, cleaning up the space, turning the earth over, pooling your money to invest in topsoil, fertilizers, tools, seeds, and so forth. You invest your time, money, and physical energy. In return, the garden produces food, flowers, a beautiful spot to spend time in, and many more subtle positive results. But the basic formula is clear: the more time, money, and energy you all invest, the more the garden yields.

This third view is probably the most useful. It helps us understand that dharma is not just the teacher alone, but an undertaking that requires a personal commitment of money, time, and energy. It helps us see more clearly that what we get is directly related to what we give; if you only put so much into a project and then stop, then the project will cease to yield results. Similarly, if only a few people have to do all the work and all the giving, they will burn out and leave and the project will fall apart.

How to Give

Different people have different ways of determining how much to give for spiritual teachings. Sometimes there is a "suggested donation" level. You should give the minimum suggested amount and, if you are in good shape financially, give more. But if the amount is left up to you, try to balance two factors: the fees of a person offering a similar professional service in our society (such as a doctor or therapist), and your ability to pay. Remember to give more for a private consultation than for a group teaching.

If possible, put your donation in an envelope. This way, if your donation is small, you won't be embarrassed, and you won't be giving less experienced people a false idea of what to give (beginners usually look at what others are giving and match that). And if you're giving a large donation, you won't be embarrassing anybody else who can't afford that much!

Don't forget to keep a record of how much you give. That way you can be sure you get a tax receipt and claim back a portion from your taxes at the end of the year.
[George Draffan comments: In the United States, a tax deduction can only be taken if the donation is made to a tax-exempt nonprofit organization--another layer of expense and effort that some teachers choose not to engage].

Some people prefer to give a lump sum every year. However it's really much better to give a little every time you come. Why? You will probably find it easier to give a little at a time. And you are setting a good example: when people see you put an envelope in the bowl they are reminded of the need to give. Beginners won't get the idea that it's "free" and they shouldn't pay anything (this is a very common misperception). And you are able to practice generosity more frequently - this is very positive merit!


But shouldn't Dharma be free?

What exactly do you mean by "free"? In Canada we are used to "free" medical services, "free" education, and so forth. But are these things really free? Of course not. We all pay for them through taxes. The real cost of educating a child in public school, for example, is about $40 an hour!

Dharma should be freely available, but it is never "free" in the sense of costing nothing. Somebody has to pay the expenses: pay for the space, support the teacher, pay for miscellaneous supplies and publicity and so on. If the students do not make appropriate donations, then it is the teacher who must pay.

In Third World or feudal societies like Tibet and India, the bulk of support for spiritual work may come from rich families who donate in order to acquire merit for the family. Even the poorest refugees give something - probably a larger portion of their income than the rich people give!


What I can afford to give is so small, I'm embarrassed even to offer. I would rather wait until I have more money.

If you think a teacher judges your worth according to the size of your donation, should you even be following that teacher? Our advice is this: always give something, even if it's only a few dollars. Give it with good heart, in the understanding that when your financial situation gets better, you will give more. Put it in a small envelope so others can't see the amount: you won't have to feel embarrassed.

And if you really want to show the teacher gratitude, show it by paying attention and doing the work, by practising all the paramitas with a good heart. That's the teacher's best reward!

Written with gratitude to all my teachers

Franca Leeson - Toronto, 1994

To visit Franca's website, click here