Dana- What’s the Deal?
By Jana Larson
Continuing in the tradition of Buddhist monasteries in Southeast Asia, all programs at
Common Ground are offered free of charge in the spirit of dana, or generosity.
When first hanging around Common Ground, I found the practice of dana confusing. I
regarded it like some complicated math problem that needed to be solved, so I could
come up with amount I was expected to pay. It took a while to figure out that dana is
about something else. So, if there was a title for this little piece it would be something
like—Dana: What’s the Deal? Why don’t we just tell you what we want you to pay, or
have a sliding fee scale or recommended donation? Why dana?
It’s true that Common Ground pays its bills in the normal every day economy, and it is
wholly dependent on all of us to make that happen. Your contributions pay Mark’s
salary, the administrative staff, the mortgage, the heat and utilities, the supplies we
But for some reason, Mark and the board at Common Ground have decided that
something—the practice of dana—is important enough that they’re willing to take a risk,
leave the fate of the organization in our hands, dependent on our generosity. Why?
Here’s one thought—Lewis Hyde, in his book The Gift, says that a different type of
relationship gets set in motion when we are charged a fee for something versus given it
as a gift. When we pay for something, it’s transactional, and thus no relationship is
created, there’s no sense of gratitude and obligation between the giver and the receiver.
We go into a hardware store and buy a hacksaw—that’s it. We don’t need to see the
shop owner again.
But something else happens with the exchange of gifts. Communities are created
through the exchange of gifts. The anthropologist Levi-Strauss gives a very simple
example of how this works in the South of France. When someone goes into a
restaurant to order food, they also get a carafe of wine. And when that person sits down
to eat, they never pour the wine into their own glass, but always into the glass of the
person sitting next to them. Economically, nothing has happened. Everybody gets the
same amount of wine. But spiritually, or emotionally, a bond is created. Reciprocity
Suddenly, this simple object, a carafe of wine, has power. It’s more than ordinary. It has
the power to move the heart.
Viewing Common Ground through this lens is truly extraordinary. Everything here is a
gift. The building wasn’t just paid for by the community, it was built by the community.
Almost all of the work, and many of the programs, are run by volunteers, giving freely of
their time and their talents. Maybe that’s why it’s such a magical place.
Hyde says a gift has power when it moves. If you hoard the gift, it loses its power,
ceases to be a gift. He gives the example of 12-step programs, which is run almost
completely by volunteers. When a person comes in, they are given access to the
program free of charge. Further, they don’t give anything back right away. Rather, once
they’ve progressed through the program, the 12th step is giving back, by becoming a
sponsor or a mentor, giving talks, whatever. It might take years. But the idea is, once
the gift is truly received, assimilated, the person gives back. The gift literally flows
For me, this is similar to the practice of dana, and why it’s important to understand dana
as a practice of both giving and receiving. Dana creates this community, creates our
sangha, through exchange, through the practice of giving and receiving.
In the Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2), there is a conversation between the Buddha and his
disciple Ananda in which Ananda enthusiastically declares—This is half of the holy life,
lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.’
The Buddha replies—Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship,
admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.
When a practitioner has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, she
can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.
So, when someone walks through the doors at Common Ground, they become part of
the community by receiving the gift of the dharma. It’s given freely. Nobody is in the
back looking at the checks, keeping track of how much each person is giving. Rather,
there’s a faith, that when the gift of the dharma is given and received, the heart is
moved, and that person will keep the gift in motion, giving in the spirit of generosity,
giving not because they are paying for a service, but because they are moved to
participate in this beautiful community. That’s how together we keep the practice, the
dharma, and the community of Common Ground, alive—through the practice of
generosity and the very trustworthy community that forms up around it.