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Article: The Dana of Dana Retreats

by: Gil Fronsdal

At the Insight Meditation Center, and soon, at the new Insight Retreat Center, we offer our residential retreats freely at no cost to anyone who participates. We do so because we believe Buddhist practice unfolds best in a field of generosity, gratitude, and goodwill. We also believe the freely given aspect of retreats exemplifies the remarkable inner freedom that Buddhism champions. By demonstrating an alternative to the dominant materialism and acquisitiveness of our culture, we hope these retreats inspire open- heartedness and open-handedness in the volunteers who put on the retreats, the donors who fund them, and the retreatants themselves.

When we offer a retreat we think of it as offering a gift to those who attend. This is one reason we use dana, the Buddhist word meaning “gift”, when we describe our retreats as dana retreats. The other reason we use dana to refer to our retreats is because all the support that allows us to put on a retreat has come as gifts. Dana Retreats are both gifts and gifted.

The staff and teachers who do the work of running the retreat do so as volunteers, providing the gift of their labor and time, so that others may experience the benefits retreats can provide. Because of this, retreatants often find themselves inspired knowing they are being cared for by the non-obligatory generosity of others. It is a kind of inspiration through which the benefits of retreat can sink in deeper.

Generosity, gratitude and goodwill thrive more easily when there is no pressure. We strive, therefore, to operate our retreat center well within our means. We are blessed by the many people who have been supporting our efforts.

In offering retreats freely we are happy that it removes a financial obstacle for some people. It frees us at IRC from having to administer scholarships and eliminates, for many people, the awkwardness of asking for a scholarship. Instead of having special scholarship fundraising efforts that benefit only some people, all our fundraising efforts go toward benefitting everyone who comes to retreats.

The majority of the financial support for our retreats and retreat teachers comes from the donations retreatants offer at the end of retreats. Retreatants are neither required to donate nor are there any dollar amounts suggested. But when they do make a donation their generosity is what allows others to participate in upcoming retreats. When people give knowing others will benefit, their giving can be a source of joy. Giving benefits the giver.

We could, of course, charge for our retreats. Not only is there is nothing inherently wrong with this, there is some wisdom in doing so. However, try this thought experiment: what difference would it make to you if you paid a required cost for a retreat prior to the retreat versus freely offering the same amount of money as a donation at the end?

While the clarity of knowing a set cost can have advantages, it doesn’t allow people to experience the joy of being generous. When people pay for something there is often a belief that they deserve something in return, an attitude that can get in the way of the personal work meditation requires. Because people don’t pay for our retreats, people are less likely to assign responsibility to others. Instead, people are more likely to feel gratitude that someone at a previous retreat offered the funds so they could attend the retreat.

Gratitude, in turn, can help people relax and trust, qualities that support meditation practice, and inspire people to do the inner work that meditation is about. Gratitude benefits the grateful.

It is a joy and privilege to support others to do the deep inner work that happens so well on retreats. Not only are we, at IMC, inspired to offer retreats, we are also inspired by the goodwill and generosity of the many people who support our retreat efforts. It takes a community to support awakening in each one of us.