The background story behind the Transparent Generosity model.
Life as a dharma teacher involves a constant negotiation between the forces of monasticism and capitalism. In my current position as a dharma teacher I’ve found that neither of these are viable options by themselves. This has led me to experiment with new economic models, including one I’ve recently devised and implemented, called Transparent Generosity.
I’d like to share with you the story of how this model came to be, as well as how it’s going so far (short version: it is exceeding my expectations). My hope is that by sharing this openly it might provoke further collective inquiry into what is possible for mindfulness, meditation, and dharma communities today.
Let me begin by owning up to a long-time prejudice that I’ve harbored, namely that I have not been a big fan of traditional monasticism. Now, there are plenty of monks who I personally like, so please don’t take this as an attack on any particular monk you know. Rather, I had a hard time seeing the point of preserving institutional forms that go largely unchanged for centuries, and even millennia, while everything else changes around them. It’s particularly weird when those forms are preserving teachings about how everything changes, as you see in the Buddhist monastic tradition! Traditional monasticism has largely seemed irrelevant to my life, and the life of most people alive today, so I’ve long said, “I’m done with monks.”
With that long-standing prejudice acknowledged, I also want to share that in the last several years I’ve come to believe that traditional monasticism serves a very important function for culture, and for innovators, and thus ends up being quite important… Traditional monastics preserve the kind of thinking and heart that led to their particular design, just as they preserve the actual techniques, texts, & codes of conduct that make their traditions up. This is important because the conservers end up creating & maintaining the vast repositories that contemplative innovators pull from, as it’s often returning to what is old and has become obsolete, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, that sparks inspiration for “new” innovations. Turns out we need both conservers and adapters together!
Coming up as a young meditator in the early aughts was interesting. First, almost no one had heard of mindfulness yet, so no one really meditated that wasn’t either a new age hippie or fairly serious about it. Second, there were almost no other 20-somethings doing hardcore practice at that time. Fortunately, as Jack Kornfield once quipped to me, “interest in this stuff seems to have skipped a generation.” I’ve since seen many of my millennial peers come into their own. Third, all of the good teachers I could find, with just a couple exceptions, were Boomers who had gone to Asia to study & practice as young adults, and then came back and made a career out of teaching. To say there was a generation gap between me and my Boomer teachers would be a vast understatement. That said, my teachers were not monks. Some had been monks, but all of them decided to teach as lay people. And they all undertook the challenge of making a living doing that, using generosity-based models, in a country that has very little tradition to hold it. They took a huge leap by trying to translate, not just the contemplative practices, but also the economic models of that are rooted in the monastic tradition of Southeast Asian Buddhism.
The result was that my Boomer Buddhist teachers devised a retreat center model where tons of people streamed in & out, practicing intensively for a time, and then going about their lives in-between retreats. Fortunately, the retreats were extremely affordable compared to almost anything like them. As a young practitioner I was able to do a lot of retreats, without having a lot of money. Scholarships were, and still are, plentiful for young people, as these centers try to maximize access for those that don’t typically have it.
One of the reasons the costs are so low for these retreats is because the teachers aren’t paid for their time, rather they are offered what is called dana (literally: generosity) at the end of the retreat. When participants are invited to give the teachers dana (aka money) no specific amount is required, or even suggested, as it’s meant to be an act of pure generosity. And somehow, a bunch of boomer dharma teachers have been able to make a living that way for decades! I’m not always sure how comfortable a living it is, especially for those that aren’t superstars going on book tours, but from where I’m sitting it has been a huge success, as an alternative economic model.
I never quite understood the dana model, and often criticized it for being unclear (“just tell us how much to pay already!”) but I was also clearly benefiting from the incredible institutional generosity of these centers. I rarely left much in the way of dana, but presumably there were others on the retreat who did, and their capacity to give counter-balanced mine. This is really a beautiful system, if you think about it, of giving generously in a world where everything seems to have a price tag, and of a noble profession of teachers who seem to do something because it’s their calling, not because of the guarantee of a stable paycheck. Now, it’s obviously more complicated than that, but I’d like to just appreciate the simple beauty of this unique hybrid model of generosity for a moment.
When my partner Emily & I began leading retreats, we first tried to build in our costs and offer a more capitalist-friendly retreat model. We added $250 to the cost of the retreat, to cover our time. 12-15 people came on that first retreat, so it worked out ok, but we still wanted to try out the original dana model as wel.
The next retreat we offered, and each since, has been using the same pure generosity model that our teachers devised. And that model has worked better in virtually every way we can imagine. It worked out better for us financially, as we ended up bringing home ~2x more money than we did when we set the price ourselves. It also dropped the cost of the retreats, making them more accessible for everyone.
Finally, it left us feeling more connected to, appreciative for, and generous toward our students. It literally opened our hearts and deepened the relationship we had with students. Being on the receiving end of generosity in this way, I finally began to understand the power of a giving heart.