A meditation teacher once said, “Dharma is free!” to encourage us to share and ask questions about our meditation experience and the dharma. I will admit that his exclamation worked and got our group to open up. Free, as in beer, usually encourages greater demand and fortunately for us, this situation was without the indulgence of the sacking of the commons. But even information and experience has costs, namely the costs associated with memory, transference and time. So dharma is not free as in beer, as appealing as that may sound. In fact, I don’t think it ever was.
The Buddha and his followers found their support from their society, as did many other mendicants such as the Jains. As Ajahn Geoff notes, the Buddha’s society supported their dropouts, those who felt their lives were meant for something other than making do or making money. In fact, he had a huge web of support. His daily alms came from the surplus food of his ordinary lay supporters. Political support and protection came from King Pasenadi. And so appealing was his message to the merchant Anathapindika, that an elaborate park was constructed and donated to the Buddha and his followers, a place that would become the center of his movement while he was still alive.
I still find such support systems here in the states, imported from other countries that have hundreds of years of this kind of history. Wat Metta has a money tree each Thai New Year and Kathina celebration. Ven. Cheng Yen and her penny-pinching house wife followers have a worldwide non-profit relief organization to provide aid to the tired, the poor, and others yearning to breathe free. These are nevertheless still young cultural imports which take root with immigrant populations.
In the same referenced essay, Ajahn Geoff also notes that American society has no ready support system for people with aspirations of samvega. According to the essay, such people who act on these feelings are likely to be relegated to the fringes of society along with other cast-offs who have no use for the economy. There are exceptions to the rule for unproductive members of society: alternative lifestyles such as early retirement extreme and van dwelling; authors who become popular enough to live off the royalties of their writings, and speakers who command exhorbitant fees. But there can only be so many authors before our bookshelves are full and so many speakers before our wallets run dry.
What we do with the surplus of our economy seems to be as important as what we do not do with it. Maintaining the centers and support of dharma is certainly not free, just as arunlikhati and Will Buckingham point out. But if we are working so hard to produce this surplus, what value do we want it to bring for us?