In the days of the Buddha, people generously supported monks and nuns. They gave them food, clothing, medicine, land, and buildings. And the monks and nuns taught — freely. Many people nowadays, thinking back to that arrangement, say “meditation should be free” or “it’s wrong to charge for Dharma (Buddhism) classes.”
Of course the Dharma was never free! It was free at the point of delivery, in that monks didn’t charge for classes. But enough people supported the monastics for them to be able to do that. It’s that half of the equation that gets forgotten when people are saying, in effect, “give me meditation — and don’t charge me!”
Unfortunately, this rarely works as a business model these days. There are exceptions. For example, I used to run a retreat center where we had no charges for retreats, but only “suggested donations.” A few people couldn’t pay much, and sometimes they couldn’t pay anything. Some people were able to give more than the suggested donations. It all balanced out, although we had at least one scary year that I can recall. But because those of us who lived there were paid next to nothing (at one point I got room and board and $25 a week in my pocket), things worked out.
We tried a similar experiment here on Wildmind a few years ago. We ran meditation classes. We told people roughly how much they should pay if they wanted to cover the cost of the class. And we told them they could pay whatever they wanted. A disappointingly large number of people opted to pay nothing. They wanted someone to work with them every day, coaching them in meditation, and were quite happy not to give that person anything in return.
I’m sure those people, in their everyday lives, tip their waitresses and busboys the going 15% or 20%. But those are people they can see, and there are the subtle emotional exchanges that go on in face-to-face encounters. Those people know that they’d be (literally) looked at with disapproval if they didn’t tip. And so they go along with giving the tip. But on a shopping cart on the internet, there are no dirty glances. The shopping cart accepts $100 or $1 with the same bland, preprogrammed response. So we sadly had to give up our experiment in offering courses for donations. It just didn’t work, or at least we couldn’t get it to work.
So we charge for classes. We’re always willing to be flexible, of course, and we accommodate people who have little or no money. We’ve had meditation students from developing nations who have access to a computer but for whom any sum in dollars is a fortune. We’ve had meditation students from rich nations who’ve been disabled or unemployed. We don’t turn people away. It seems to work. I’d rather we could find a way to do classes by donation, but that’s hard over the internet.
The other thing we do is to run an online store. We sell some CDs and MP3s of our own meditation teaching, and we sell a few other goods. Recently we started selling malas (meditation rosaries) made by a Buddhist inmate who is earning some money to help him get set up after he’s released from prison in 15 months or so. He’s a good guy. Do feel free to support him.
We sell a few ritual and decorative items. Your buying those things helps us to make meditation materials available free of charge. We have hundreds of pages of meditation instruction available free on this site. It also helps us to do things like go into prisons and teach inmates how to turn their lives around.
Buying something from our store is the modern equivalent of giving food, clothing, and shelter to the monks. It’s a compassionate activity; a gesture of support and encouragement. Plus you get nice guided meditations or rosaries! And we in turn try to be compassionate with our commerce, accommodating those of limited means, and giving up our time to teach bricks-and-mortar classes and retreats, with no payment in return.