Why Buddhists Don’t Give

One of the major complaints in the probably over-cited Buddhadharma article was that Buddhism is too expensive. Retreats cost so much that centers now offer scholarships. The Buddha Dharma is supposed to be a life-altering experience, so why aren’t Buddhists forking up enough to support their community through simple donations?

One might guess that Buddhist centers have excessive budgets and could use some fiscal restraint, but I doubt this. I’m more convinced by conclusions drawn in Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece, “Bleeding Heart Tightwads.” My favorite part is Kristof’s quote from Arthur Brooks:

“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”

There you go. Liberals are stingy hypocrites. Now according to Tricycle magazine’s own Buddhism By Numbers, “[p]erhaps unsurprisingly, Buddhists were the most liberal of any religious affiliation surveyed.”

So perhaps unsurprisingly, Buddhists are stingy hypocrites. Are they really talking about donations when they write, “suggested donation”? I know I always sound like a hater, but I’m not the first person to make this claim. Again I cite Tricycle: over a fifth the Buddhist community makes over $100,000 a year. There should be no reason for the community to be Scroogy! Unless, of course, we’re talking about a bunch of liberal Buddhists who are simply being liberal (just not with their pocketbooks).

To be fair, it’s evident that generous American Buddhists do exist. For example, I was quite impressed with S.N. Goenka’s vipassana centers because they operated on the principle that a center must be supported by its community’s donations. If the community won’t support the center, then the center has no need to exist. The fact that these centers continue to flourish is a testament to the generosity of thousands of Buddhist practitioners, not to mention the efficacy of the teachings.

Part of the reason for Buddhist stinginess may lie in the culture. In the temples I grew up in, dana wasn’t just something that people did, it was a teaching in itself. There was a common saying along the lines of: people who had material gain received it only because they had previously given sincere dana, whether to charity or the Mahasangha. There was also a big sign on the wall showing the temple cost breakdown — and families would write their names next to whichever item they would support. It was all but written, “You should give!”

In other Buddhists settings, I’ve noticed that dana is usually a non-discussed topic at the centers I’ve visited. Perhaps it hasn’t been properly woven into Western Buddhist cultural values. Maybe people don’t know they’re supposed to give. Or maybe they’re just liberal.

Okay, I admit it — I’m really out on a limb here making this connection between Western Buddhist stinginess and liberal stinginess. If I’m wrong, then I’m only wrong because it means that there are tens of thousands of liberal Buddhists out there who are matching their loving-kindness with actions of generous giving. I hope you’re one of them.

18 Replies to “Why Buddhists Don’t Give”

  1. I’m trying to figure out from the piece above how you know that “Liberal” Buddhists aren’t giving? Are there numbers somewhere? Is the evidence that cost of retreats in many places or something else that you don’t mention above? How do you know this is true?

    In regards to myself, I donate on a monthly basis to two Buddhist organizations, the Nitartha Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies in Seattle and Orgyen Dorje Den, a Nyingma temple in Alameda. I do this to help support their work, especially the education work at Nitartha. I also donate to non-Buddhist causes, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU.

  2. I m try to help with my small donation, but the organizations charge a high “dana” for meeting with a buddhst teacher or monk: $95 dollars per section!. Sometimes this is hard or rude! Please check for this in the advertising section on magazine, newsletter, etc

    What happen when you are an HIV+ people? unemployable?

    Thank you!

  3. Miquel, I’ve never had a teacher or monk charge to meet with me. In fact, other than paying for costs, which are openly discussed, I haven’t had anyone require obligatory fees (as opposed to dana) in a number of years. Perhaps you are connecting with the wrong sort of people.

  4. Arunlikhati, perhaps you are out on the tip of a limb, here. In the Pacific Northwest (my home area), a number of Buddhist communities have made significant purchases of land and buildings over the past ten years – in both urban and rural areas. These purchases represent one aspect of the foundational anchoring of the Buddhadharma in American soil. In every one of these cases where I have some knowledge, the money for these purchases has come from solely from the generosity of members. When the center of which I was abbot had the opportunity to purchase a remarkable building, we raised $200,000 in sangha donations and $300,000 in sangha loans in less than six weeks.

    Although I know this practice is not universal, most sanghas of my acquaintance charge exactly as much as needed to cover the cost of retreats, teacher visits, etc. That is, events break even, and not more. In addition, many sanghas offer work scholarships for those who cannot afford the break-even fees.

    I’ve occasionally run across those who say that they cannot afford a retreat or event, but who also will not accept a work scholarship. In my view, this kind of person fails to perceive the interdependence that is at the core of Buddhist teaching. If Buddhist centers cannot bring their core values into all aspects of their operations, they help neither themselves nor their students.


  5. Al, Miguel & Barry: Call me old-fashioned, but in the community I was raised in, no one was charged anything. The fact that centers must charge fees or propose “suggested donations” tells me that the community is pinching its pennies a little too tightly — that or the centers don’t have enough faith in their community. Even fees that just cover expenses indicate that a center is operating beyond the simple generosity of its members. To be more blunt, in the words of my more conservative cousins: fees and suggested donations constitute “a corruption of the Sangha.”

    Al: That’s how I figure liberal Buddhists aren’t giving. If you’d like to see me eat some umble pie, I’ll be happy to. Just make sure to have it wrapped in a list of the Buddhist centers that have neither fees nor suggested donations. I’ve got my fork and knife at the ready.

  6. This is tricky stuff. I don’t think any of us are right here. I don’t think that fees and suggested donations necessarily constitute a corruption of the Sangha. On the other hand, I’m not sure that we can make blanket statements about the legitimacy of charging for access and apply that to a wide swath of Sanghas. Or that those who do charge are “the wrong people.” I think it goes without saying that most Sanghas are going to have their own particular financial issues that they’re dealing with and as a result come up with creative ways to deal with them. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re way off the mark.

    But I think we need to be clear about one thing: America is expensive. If you want to open a meditation center, if you’re on the Board of Directors of a small sangha and want to invite some semi-important teacher to come and give a talk to your community, if you’re running even a moderately-sized community of renunciants, you need a place to house those people. You need to pay for land, for utilities, for food, whatever. And all of that’s very expensive.

    Throw into this mix this weird affectation that many Americans have that “real” spirituality is tainted by “impure” money, and you’ve got a recipe for financial ruin.

    I’ve argued elsewhere that communities need to be open and accessible to a large number of people. But I also recognize that it’s difficult to sustain a community in a capitalist economy.

    There’s no easy answers here.

  7. arunlikhati, what do you suggest? That the money magically appears with no one dirtying themselves by mentioning it in public?

    I mean, I know that the process in some countries is that people already know what they are “expected” to give, culturally, and envelopes will appear containing money in those amounts or more. Unfortunately, Americans, due to our mercantile history and lack of familiarity with expectations in Buddhism, aren’t going to either just leave money without being *told* that it is a good idea or explicitly told what to give as a minimum.

    My grandparents’ church, which is a form of Methodism, passes the collection plate every service and people drop in envelopes. How do they know what to give? Well, “everyone” knows that you tithe 10% of your income to your church so that’s the bar.

    I don’t see how telling people, and making books fairly open, that it costs X amount a month to run the Sangha is somehow a failure or telling people that attendees need to give $40 (for example) at an event in order for it to be paid for is a failure of the sangha. It’s just good sense.

    Realize that your Church, like my gradparents’, is dealing with people who are raised in that actual church or an affiliated body. Their families are there and it is a part of their lifelong community. For most of us, the Sangha organizations that we join are just that, something we’ve joined, often after looking around for a group to practice or study within. There is not that existing familial and community connection. These are assumed connections that we’re now making so there is no history of shared expectations and norms between members.

  8. First off, my name has changed (it used to be Rinchen Gyatso) as I’m in the process of joining the Jogye order in Korea. I’m now Yeojun.

    As for the money issue, I don’t think there is one answer. There are both very generous people and penny pinchers. Popular centers may not need to let people know what is needed, whereas smaller centers may have no choice. I do feel unconfortable with minimum donations as it often feels like a thin veil for a price, but I’ve also never run a dharma center, so I don’t get the financial end of things.

    I have met some people from a Christian background who felt that the community they were raised in focused too much on money, so talk of money at a Dharma center gives them a bad feeling. This leads them to turn their backs when the issue is raised. Then there are people who have the money but for some reason dont’ think it’s their responsibility to help pay the bills. There is real stinginess out there.

    I do think that there needs to be a lot more education in the convert community about dana and it’s importance for practice. Any suggestions on how to go about that without looking like money grubbers?

  9. Al and Ven. Yeojun: I was determined to give a comprehensive reply, but as I looked over notes from the time I spent on a financial committee, I saw there was too much to list in a single reply. I will give you guys a more serious post in the new year!

    In short, I believe no one should be asked to pay for the Dharma; not even for retreats or building costs. It’s perfectly fine to talk about money and to refer to the benefits of donation. There are plenty of teachings about money and donation in the Buddha Dharma. It should be an obligation for centers to have a completely open-book policy, listing their donors and donations. If you nurture a culture of generosity, then people will be generous — but maybe I’m just a dying relic of the Old World, believing in something as stupid as a no-fees Dharma.

    Merry Christmas 🙂

  10. I’d love no fees Dharma but I don’t think the community exists everywhere to support it happening.

    Maybe this is the difference between a Buddhist church with longstanding ties to a community and the families within it (which is what yours sounds like) and, for example, a Zen Sangha established five years ago and filled with people who have wandered in (and out) over the last five years. It is not unreasonable to think that the latter is not going to be on as firm of financial footing as the former nor that people may be unaware (or not as forthcoming) of the expectations to donate without anyone saying anything to them at all.

    I’d rather have a Zen Abbot say “We need at least 30 people to give $40 a month in order to pay the lease” than have the place close because he was unwilling to tell people what was needed.

  11. Al: I guess this is just where we disagree. I believe the community exists everywhere for a no-fees Dharma, but some communities’ material expectations are a little too high for that.

    Now my point of shame. Looking through my notes, I realize that at the time I was a big advocate for a hands-on approach to getting donations. It seems my views have changed now that I don’t actually have to deal with the money. There’s a fine line between educating the community about temple finances and compelling them to donate. I consistently argued for the latter, though now I have more sympathy with the former.

    By the way, my “church” isn’t a longstanding family temple. I come from an ethnic minority and most of our institutions have vanished with our language and culture. I’m just another one of those fakes who blends in with another culture’s 17 year old temple.

  12. I think of dana to my monk as the same as paying a church. Although a church has higher expenses, my monk as less members of his sangha. So I think it should be the same. For me that is $20 per week. I don’t know what others think. For a family of four I am low income. But if I obtain a job I think I’ll be middle class. Either way I think I should pay $20 a week. And then if I ever rise to upper middle class or upper class I’d up the ante of course.

    Does that sound like a reasonable amount of dana? My monk has bills to pay like the rest of us. He is on his own also.

  13. This is a really interesting topic, and I think we can easily consider three cases for comparison:

    1) A Dharma group meets in someone’s home. There are a few zafus and zabutons, some incense, a Buddha image. Expenses are low. No one pays anything, ever.

    2) A Dharma group grows bigger, and they begin to rent space at a local yoga center, church, etc. Now they’ve got to cover the rent. Donations must be made.

    3) At a three-day retreat, everyone is fed. Toilet paper is used. Water flows from faucets. Many tea bags are used! Even if everyone who works on preparing the retreat location beforehand and cleaning up afterward is donating their TIME, real money is spent on these things — especially food! Feeding 30 people three meals a day for three days is NOT cheap!

    I think we get into a more complicated discussion when we have a temple, with land and property taxes and insurance to be paid. Those are very real expenses.

    The issue of paying the monk or the priest is also complicated. In my school (Kwan Um), most of the teachers and Zen masters — including the head teacher of the whole American sangha — have regular day jobs. They are not making a living from being a Dharma teacher — they do that for free. Of course, if they travel somewhere to lead a retreat, to give precepts, etc., their travel and expenses need to be paid for (and not by them!).

  14. This is an interesting discussion that touches on different perspectives of culture, finance and entitlement. Perhaps a definitive characteristic of “American Buddhism” will be the financial one, where Buddhist centers will be run in the same way that synagogues and churches are run. For all the liberal Buddhists out there (many of whom have been decrying corporate America), it’s somewhat ironic to observe the fee-for-service models they turn to in order to fund their own Buddhist groups.

  15. Tantric Buddhism is mega expensive. Whilst Lama and consort build new house and retreat centre – which is great don’t get me wrong! – I have to pay for it because they won’t get a job??! I can hardly pay my rent as it is. Something needs to change….people fly round the world to listen to these teachings and the money quickly runs out. I am not going to work and work to continually pay for retreats.

  16. Did the one called Buddha charge for teaching?
    Did the one known as Jesus of Nazareth charge for teaching?
    Did the one known as Mother Teresa charge for helping those less fortunate or in need?
    Did the one known as Father Damien charge the lepers for his assistance?

    Did any of them ever refuse anyone from listening to any of their messages or teachings?

    We should follow their example.

    People give as they are lead to give.
    Whether it is Merit worthy or not.
    Whether it is Karmic or not, &
    whether Christians tithe (10% or not–Reasonable argument suggests as Jesus stated: Jesus fulfilled the Law & tithing is no longer “required”).

    *Also ALL Debts were (supposed to be) forgiven every 7 years.
    How does whether Christians donate relate to Buddhists giving (Unless one views Jesus as Vajrasattva or Avalokiteshvara or other Boddhisattva, or Buddha emanation)..

    *Perhaps contemporary creditors, lenders, & financial institutions should be required to follow this rule.

    Compassionate Wisdom should be the guide.
    I attended a S.N. Goenka sponsored Vippasana 10-day silent Retreat.
    No funds were required or asked on the front side. It was encouraged to donate as one felt lead afterwards & in the future as appropriate.
    There was no pressure.

    Giving should come from the heart. Not guilted into giving by others.

    1. RE: 7 yr Debt Forgiveness. To make this aspect of info a bit easier for review. I am not endorsing this organization. However, for a quick glance at written Jewish & Christian bible passages (in case some don’t have easy access to a Christian Bible); See:


      Leviticus 25:8-55
      Deuteronomy 15:1-3
      Deuteronomy 15:9
      Deuteronomy 15:12-15
      Deuteronomy 31:10-11
      Exodus 21:2
      Jeremiah 34:14
      Nehemiah 10:31
      Ezekiel 46:17

      Also an internet search on “bible 7 year debt forgiveness” yields additional interesting websites with potential related info.

      RE: Question of whether guilt complex part of our money system. I feel it is in someways. Thus, the concept “nothing is for free”; “There are no free lunches”.
      Yet Compassionate Wisdom usually gives without expecting anything in return. It gives from a place of Kindness regardless of the perceived outcome.

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