Here are some thoughts on this topic by Rebecca Li (5/31/2020):
Many years ago, someone asked the late Master Sheng Yen, my root teacher, why they charged a retreat fee because the Dharma should be free. Master Sheng Yen responded, “The Dharma is free. But what it takes to offer the retreat is not free. The food and heating and cooling of the facility is certainly not free.” What was left unsaid in Master Sheng Yen’s response is all the costs of supporting the living expenses of Dharma teachers so that they can do the work of sharing the Dharma and all the costs incurred to make it possible for even an online Dharma class or retreat to take place. I only came to know of these costs when I started handling the operation of the retreat center years ago and when I started teaching. For most, these costs remain invisible.
It is very important that the Dharma is accessible to everyone regardless of one’s financial situation. No one should stop or avoid attending any practice session or Dharma class due to financial difficulty. Otherwise, the Dharma will be available only to the society’s privileged members and that would not be in accordance with the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings. We need to understand that our current financial situation is the coming together of many causes and conditions. If we are at present in the fortunate situation to make offerings to support the Dharma, it is our blessing. If that is not the case for now, we are still supporting the Dharma through our sincere practice and participation; there will be no Dharma teaching if no one wants to practice. As many of you have come to realize, the Dharma is priceless and that we have the good fortune to encounter the Dharma is a great blessing. Any donation we give in gratitude to the benefits we have yielded from the Dharma is merely an expression of our appreciation; it is not a fee for service in the way we have been conditioned to think of all transactions by our capitalistic culture.
Over the past 2-3 years, I have given a lot of thought to the importance of supporting the Dharma financially. This pandemic has brought the financing of Dharma teaching into sharper focus. Many Dharma and retreat centers are in financial difficulty due to the stay-at-home order that resulted in cancellations of retreats and group practice sessions, depriving them of revenues while the costs of supporting the teachers and maintaining the facilities are fixed. Many online opportunities to practice have been offered to support everyone in times of great suffering. I am very concerned that it will breed the belief in practitioners’ minds that making the Dharma available is cost-free. Without the understanding that financially supporting Dharma teaching is crucial, there will be no viable institution to sustain Dharma teaching to be shared with the future generations.
So far, I have been able to finance my Dharma teaching with my own income because I am fortunate enough to have a job and the moral support of my husband and other family members. It is not the case with many Dharma teachers. Since many Dharma centers and teachers are offering online Dharma teachings for donation, I do not feel it would be right for me not to encourage you to donate as I would be inadvertently undermining the survival of many retreat centers and Dharma teachers by so doing. It is important to cultivate the understanding among Dharma practitioners that it is our responsibility to help make it possible for future generations to benefit from Dharma practice, the way past generations of practitioners have done for us in their support of the continuation of Dharma practice, financially and otherwise. Cultivating this understanding and doing our part in fulfilling our responsibility is part of the giving rise to the great Bodhi Mind.
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