Compassionate commerce

begging monksIn 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.

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5 Comments. Leave new

I found this article very useful, as it deepened my understanding in many ways, thank you. Although I”ve enjoyed many of your articles I’ve never bought anything from the site, and it’s very encouraging to realise that a simple purchase could be so meaningful, so i’m off to buy an mp3


I’m glad to hear we’re promoting understanding! And thank you very much for your order. I hope you enjoy the meditation guidance.


I think I saw the comment that inspired this post, and I really hope he reads this, hopefully it will enlighten him about the other side of things (sorry for the pun lol).

I have a suggestion, I’m not sure if it will work, either online or in the real world, but maybe it will plant the seed of a new thought for you.

What about trying to utilise bartering?

And again, I’m sure this will also have it’s difficulties, but if there are those who don’t have any cash to spare, but they have able bodies (and those of us with disabilities can still offer some skills) could trade classes for, for instance, cooking for the teachers, doing dishes at the retreat, running errands, or if they have crafty skills, they could provide some items they have made to be sold in your store, or they could mend torn clothing, or fix your car, or whatever skill it is they have.

Or they could donate their time or knowlege in some way…

Maybe they are great with kids and someone needs a daycare, or they could offer a class on something they know for other people at the retreat, or you could sell in mp3 form or whatever… Maybe they are musicians and they would donate cd’s to sell, etc etc.

You could set up a section in your shop with items donated to you by students to cover the cost of their classes, or you could even accept donations in that way from people who want to help cover the classes of others less fortunate, and people could buy them either because they are just great items that they like, or as a form of donation that comes with a “gift” so to speak, like public telivision chanels do.

Maybe it’s something that can work in some cases, or maybe you’ll find a way for it to work really well, hopefully anyway.

Good luck, hopefully this will spark a solution one way or another for you.


Hi Brandy,

Yes, that comment did spark off some thoughts, but I also wanted to have something in writing that I could point people towards if they had similar thoughts.

When Sunada and I teach face-to-face classes we do it through Dharma centers who take care of all the money, bookings, etc. Typically I don’t have anything to do with the money apart from collecting in checks from people who didn’t prepay, and I don’t get paid. (Once in a blue moon I get my travel expenses paid). Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that the centers deal with payments and so take care of any negotiating with people who can’t afford to pay.

It’s a nice idea to have an option for barter on the website, for our more “virtual” classes, although I know that the circumstances of many of the people who ask for reduced rates or free courses would prevent them from offering their time or energy. But I’ll give that some thought. That’s a good piece of creative thinking that you did!

All the best,

New in our online store | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation
November 29, 2010 11:07 am

[…] making a purchase. (If you wonder why we sell things at all, you can read our previous post, “Compassionate Commerce,” or read about “Buddha Bob” and his beauteous […]


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