When I was young, I had the same psychosocial outlook as many Westerners. Much of my life had been based on living frugally, with my family watching each penny, each nickel, each dime, each quarter. When I was 14 years old, the times turned for our family and my father started making very good money at a career that would eventually take him around the world. At 14, my mind weakened and fell victim to the social expectations of how one should look, dress, think, speak. Up until then, I had lived with few material objects or possessions….my playground was nature (free), my Summer Camp was a library (free) and my entertainment was following my brother around. There were no social expectations for a family that had very little in monetary value. Years later, I realize that what we did have was so much more than what most people ever have….we had love, family, dedication, friendship, honesty, loyalty….and so much more.
27 years ago, when I was 15 and first came to monastery, I walked through the doors with incredible ideas of what a “good” life looked like. Loads of money, all the latest gadgets, tons of friends, and every beautiful “thing” I could possibly desire. It’s sort of odd, because I was never raised that way……but that one year where my father’s career launched into what would become a lifelong profitable career, unravelled so much of who I was, how I was raised and where I came from. As a novice, I would suggest to my Teacher ideas such as “I need the best meditation mat so that I can sit for long hours because a cloth is no good” or “I want the prettiest robes because they will help me be at peace”….all my thoughts were based on monetary ideals of a Western society…on possessions and image……none were based on Dharma.
I soon learned that money means little if you don’t have true happiness….if you are not a good person…..after all, some of the happiest people I’ve met don’t have much in monetary value, but are wealthy beyond comparison in other ways.
In 1986, when my ordination process was complete, my Teacher hand wrote a letter to me. The cause for the letter was that many Dharma students at the time had fallen into the idea that if they paid for the latest and greatest meditation teacher, or Dharma teacher, they would surely become enlightened….and if for nothing else, it was great to been seen with, or say that you studied with so-and-so. I was 16 and was learning to release my attachment to that way of thinking.
Fast forward 26 years, and I am finding that much of the same social expectations remain. I don’t know that they are cyclic, because cycles produce change resulting in the same result….repeating patterns….but these ideals are not repeated, they just seem to stay the norm. Recently, I was asked why I do not accept money for my teachings…it’s a question that has come up many, many times, and for many years. My basic answer has been that the Dharma is free…and it is. But lately, I feel as though people do not understand that. We live in a world where everything has a price….love, hate, loyalty, yoga, meditation, social norms, justice, politics, life……everything comes with a price. I still don’t know how to answer people when they ask but the way I figure it, some lessons take lifetimes to learn.
I’d like to share my Teacher’s letter with you, as this has been the cornerstone of my practice for 27 years. I hope that you find as much value in it as I did so many years ago, and today.
March 18, 1986
Dear Ajahn,
True dharma is free.
Here are the ways to find the Dharma.
Rise before dawn and bow three times to the Buddha within you. Bow three times to whatever Buddha image you may already have. If you have no Buddha image, trace the outline of a footprint or a circle on the wall and bow to that. Bow three times to anyone else who may be doing this practice at this very moment, to those who have done it in the past, and to those who may yet come to this practice in the future. When you have thus performed your prostrations, fold your blanket into a square and be seated on the floor.
Next, begin the practice of Buddhism on no need for dollars in a day. Maintaining awareness of your breathing in as you are breathing in, breathe in. Maintaining awareness of your breathing out as you are breathing out, breathe out. As thoughts arise, make note of them. As physical sensations arise, do the same. From moment to moment, follow only the breath. Do not follow anything other than the breath.
Note carefully when thoughts or impulses arise in regard to purchasing the dharma: the impulse to buy incense or a cushion, to pay membership dues, to purchase dharma teachings in the form of books or tapes or initiations. At the very moment that these thoughts or impulses arise, unbind yourself from them and return to the practice of Buddhism on not one dollar a day.
At the end of your meditation session, replace the blanket and proceed about your ordinary business, at all times maintaining a firm conviction that the dharma will manifest itself without dollars. Be especially mindful of advertisements for dharma products and of catalogs or stores where such products may be displayed. To enter such an establishment or touch such products, or to gaze longingly upon images of such products, is an impure act requiring confession before another practitioner of Buddhism on within a period of one month.
When you have returned from work, and have taken your evening meal, meditate once more on your folded blanket in the prescribed manner. Always remembering that your place is on the floor and not above a Buddha. Afterward, reflect on the quality of your behavior throughout the day. Did your acts in any way contribute to the idea that the dharma was for sale? Did you engage in rootless discussions on the merits of teachers who live in faraway places? Did you do or say anything to imply that the dharma was unavailable to yourself or another at the present place and time? Stated more positively, what did you do to encourage yourself and others in the belief that the dharma can manifest itself right here and now without consumption of any kind?
As you retire, in the moments before you fall asleep, reflect on the precepts and the fact that no dollars need be spent to keep them. Reflect on the Four Noble Truths of Buddha and the fact that no dollars need be spent to understand them or to take them to heart.
Once a week, go to your public library and read books on Buddhism (all kinds). Come here to monastery and read our Dharma collection for free. Be mindful that all these books may or may not have been written by someone who understands and follows the practice of Buddhism on no dollars for Dharma. Take that which comes without a price tag and cherish it as a holy text.
With my love always,
Your Teacher