Dana ~ The Art of Voluntary Donation

Another post from an old blog I kept.  This one I wrote in April of 2011


Dana is a gift joyfully given.  It is the art of voluntary donation.  In Buddhism it is in Dana that we find the heart of the symbiotic relationship between the Sangha and the layperson.  The Sangha cannot exist without the support of the householders; through donations of food, clothing and other necessities; and the householder’s spiritual growth is accelerated through hearing the dhamma that is taught by the community of renunciates that makes up the Sangha.

When the householder gives to a renunciate, ascetic, teacher, or any in need, a multitude of good results.  In the act of giving, the layperson experiences non-attachment as they let go of the food or money or other gift, and so right there exists already a lesson.  Also in the act of joyful giving is inherent generosity, goodwill, compassion and empathy.  Giving is never a one way action, for if it is done with joy, immediately the giver benefits and progresses on their spiritual path.  For this reason Dana is one of the three practices that The Buddha laid out for the layperson to embrace.


Dana can be a complete act unto itself, but it is often part of a larger exchange between those who offer dhamma teachings and those who would hear them.  Bhikkus and Bhikunis do not exist on the goodwill of society without giving back; indeed, what they offer back is one of the most precious gifts possible as they give us the teachings of the Buddha, guidance in our exploration of the teachings, and support in our spiritual journey.  In Thailand the monks with their begging bowls are not simply receiving, they are providing the laypeople with a chance to be generous, to earn merit, to experience right action.  These rewards for giving should not be the reason for giving, but simply a realistic side effect.

The Buddhist Sangha is not the only place where the Dana relationship exists.  Anyone who chooses not to set prices for their services, but rather to accept voluntary donations enters into an alternate realm of exchange in which the service must inspire true generosity.  In Thailand there are many walks of life that do not allow for required payment for services, but instead must rely upon voluntary giving.  Shamans and medicine men, midwives and magical tattoo artists, those who work with spirits, and of course, any who teach the dhamma; they must all give their healing treatments, lessons and other services to all who ask, with no expectation of specific payment.  Like the layperson who gives food to an ascetic with no intention of receiving reward, yet reward comes, these people give their services because they are called to do so, and in a culture that understands dana, they are supported; their needs are met.

My teacher is a traditional medicine practitioner and a yogi; as such he does not set prices for his time teaching individuals such as myself, or even formal classes such as those I sometimes host for him.  In the U.S. this causes a certain amount of distress for the students as they struggle to know what is correct payment for his teachings and treatments.  They ask me frequently “how much should I give”?  It is the hardest question I face from my students, and one I struggle with myself, because there is no answer.  Having said this, I’ll do my best.

In deciding how much to give to a teacher or service provider, it is good to think of how much you appreciate and value the teachings and/or services.  Also think of what these teachings/services might cost in a space where prices are set.  Of course, if the teaching/service touches you deeply and inspires a desire to give generously, preconceived ideas of what a class is worth become irrelevant as you instead look to your own reality as to what you can afford to give.  It is important to keep in mind that those who work for donation only, have many of the same needs as the rest of us.  They have travel expenses, clothing needs; they often have their own teachers who they may wish to donate to (and you learn from that teacher as well through the vessel of your own teacher).  In the case of my teacher, he is a traditional Thai medicine practitioner, so he also has the expense of medicines, which he gives freely to those he treats.  And so whatever you give to the one teacher may reach far beyond the single gift.  We must also keep in mind that dana is part of the treatment or lesson process; without it, the treatment efficacy is potentially decreased, the lesson may not sink as deep, for we have not completed the energetic exchange.

Generosity is relative term.  A rich person who gives large sums of money may be a terribly important factor in the existence of dana based systems, yet this person is not necessarily more or less generous than a poor person who gives a small donation.  Sometimes the rich person giving large sums may be less generous than the poor person if perhaps the rich person gives without joy, or gives what they have so much of that it cannot be missed while the poor person sacrifices something from their life in the process; like maybe they cannot have coffee for a week because they gave ten dollars, or because they have no money they instead find the time to sweep the temple daily.  It is not for us to judge whose donation carries greater weight, it is not a system of judgment or competition, right or wrong.  Simply give what you can realistically and joyfully afford to give and trust that the receiver, if they give healings, teachings, services in the same light, are likewise doing so joyfully as their own process and unconnected to your dana.

Dana is not only about renunciates, ascetics and healers.  Giving to a homeless person panhandling in the streets is dana.  Giving to charity is dana.  Paying for the car behind you crossing a toll bridge is dana.  Nor is dana only about money and goods.  Caring for stray animals is dana.  Volunteering in a children’s hospital is dana.  Teaching yoga to prisoners in your spare time is dana.  Cleaning a sick friend’s house is dana.  And at the end of the day, dedicating any merit you have acquired, through goodness you have knowingly or unknowingly done, to other sentient beings who may need it, is dana.

There are many ways to give joyfully.

To learn more about Dana, here are some resources for you.

Dana: Giving and Getting in Pali Buddhism by Ellison Banks Findly
This book closely examines the relationship between the layperson and the sangha with a specific focus on dana.  It does not address dana in other facets of life.

Dana: The Practice of Giving edited by Bhikku Bodhi
This little book contains several essays focused on the subject of dana.

Some good websites: