Generosity: On the Economics of Bodhi College

By Stephen Batchelor

Bodhi College is a small-scale European educational initiative that offers study and training programmes in Early Buddhism for those with an established dharma or mindfulness practice. The college came into being in 2014 through the imagination of its founding teachers, who recognized the need for this kind of in-depth, non-dogmatic education and set about creating a framework to make it available. The college has striven throughout to keep costs to a minimum. With no physical properties it has few overheads; the director and administrator both work from home. As a registered charity, it depends on the support of its trustees and other

Bodhi College is an act of generosity. Its teachers have dedicated themselves over decades to the practice and sharing of a way of life that responds empathetically and imaginatively to the suffering of our world. They have chosen to lead lives of simplicity and service. Their livelihood has been largely provided by donations from students offered at the conclusion of meditation retreats and workshops.

The word for “generosity” in Pali and Sanskrit is dāna. For many Buddhist centres and communities in the West today the term “dāna” has come to serve as shorthand for an experimental economic system. Central to this system is a commitment to not placing a price on the dharma but making it freely available so that no one be excluded from receiving the teachings for financial reasons. At the same time, it allows the student to cultivate the virtue of generosity and become more conscious of their relation to money and resources.

This model is traced back to the Buddha and the generations of monastics who have upheld it over the centuries. Although Bodhi College is not a monastic organization, from the outset it has sought to adhere to the principle of dāna in pricing its courses (though, as we will see, inconsistently). When students pay for a course, they are made aware that they are only paying for the running costs and expenses of the college, but not for the teachings. They are then invited to contribute donations to the teachers at the end of the course (or at the conclusion of a module).

Despite the commitment of the Bodhi College faculty and trust to this economic model, a number of anomalies and problems with the dāna system have become apparent, which have brought into question the long-term viability of sustaining the college in this way.

Before going into specifics, I would first like to reflect on certain underlying and often unquestioned assumptions about the dāna economy itself.

The dāna talk at the end of course will often start with a statement like this:

“The dharma is priceless. Since the time of the Buddha it has been offered freely without charge…”

For a person living in a modern capitalist society with little sense of ancient Indian history this is likely to give the impression that the Buddha and his followers made a conscious decision not to have a laywoman sitting at a table at the entrance to the Jeta’s Grove selling tickets for cash, but to let people come and listen to the teachings for free.

The Buddha lived at a time when money had only just been introduced in the Indian subcontinent. It was still a novelty and restricted to commercial transactions. For all the ascetic communities of the day, money would have symbolized the world of trade, business, and commerce, which they had renounced. The Buddhist monastic vow not to handle “gold and silver” refers primarily to the renunciation of commercial activity.

But just because the monks refused to handle money, does this mean that the dharma was offered freely without charge? No, it doesn’t. The monks were only able to offer the dharma “freely” because lay supporters provided them with food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Without the provision of these requisites, the dharma would not be available at all. Even if a monk wanted to offer it freely he would find it hard to do so if he had nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and nowhere to live. So rather than buying an admission ticket, the faithful would pay indirectly through giving alms to individual monastics or goods and funds to their monasteries. The two parties thereby entered into an economic relationship that enabled the exchange of services (teachings, pastoral advice, ceremonies, blessings etc.) for goods (land, food, clothing, lodging, medicine). Provided that the wealthy members of the community kept the monastery and its community afloat, this meant that the poor and disadvantaged could receive teachings and advice from the monastics without charge. This is the historical basis for the dāna economy that Buddhist centres seek to emulate today.

A more troubling question is whether it even makes sense to talk of putting a price on the dharma. Let alone the dharma, can you put a price on English literature? Or algebra? Or history? Or Latin? When we take a course in one of these subjects, we do not pay for them as though they were commodities in a market; we pay for the time, energy, and expertise of those who teach them to us. No one would accuse a teacher of “selling” Latin, for the simple reason that Latin is a common heritage of humankind that belongs to no one. One could only legitimately accuse the teacher of charging too much for teaching it.

The argument that one should not charge a price for something because it is priceless is logically flawed. The dharma and Latin might be priceless, but the time, energy, and expertise of those who teach them are not. You cannot sell the dharma any more than you can sell Latin. But when you study those subjects with another person you unavoidably enter into an economic relationship with them on which their livelihood depends.

While the traditional dāna system appears to work well enough in the West for the institutions in which it has been developed, i.e. Buddhist monasteries often heavily subsidized by wealthy Asian benefactors, can it realistically be transferred to a modern, secular setting?

The primary difference to consider is this: when you attend a retreat with a Buddhist monastic, your dāna is given to the monastery, not to the monk or nun. But when you attend a retreat with a lay Buddhist teacher, your dāna is given to the teacher herself, not to Bodhi College or the institution she works for. This fundamentally changes the nature of the dāna economy. For while the monastic will be taken care of by the monastery irrespective of how much dāna was put in the bowl, the lay teacher is dependent on the dāna received to buy food, pay bills, fix the car, put the kids through university, and so on.

A monastic can be beatifically indifferent to the dāna – he or she will not even be interested to know how much was in the bowl. Yet for many non-monastic teachers, particularly those who have not established a reputation or following, there can be an agonizing concern about whether the dāna will be sufficient to meet their day-to-day needs – let alone whether it will contribute to a pension fund to provide for them later in life. It is not at all uncommon in discussions with my fellow dharma teachers to hear about how “good” or “bad” the dāna is in a particular centre or country. But once we find ourselves talking in this way, have we not already abandoned the core principle of dāna that the teachings are “freely given” irrespective of how much is received in return?

There are other less obvious consequences of the dāna system. Since non-monastic teachers neither receive a fixed payment for each course nor are significantly subsidized by an institution, they are likely to have an interest in maximizing the number of participants in order to maximize the dāna. Large courses, where a teacher may not even get to talk to some of the students, thus become more attractive than small intimate workshops. As a well-known teacher and writer, I can be confident of running full courses and, as a result, earning significant sums of money, in many cases probably more than if I had been given a fixed fee for my work. As a beneficiary of the system, it may not be in my personal interest, therefore, to question or change it.

When we apply these considerations to Bodhi College, it soon becomes clear that our educational model does not fit well with this kind of dāna economy.

The flagship programmes that make Bodhi College what it is are its three long-term modular courses: the Committed Practitioner, Secular Dharma and Teacher Training programmes. The number of students on these courses is limited and each module is taught by at least two teachers and sometimes as many as six. In addition to preparing new material and teaching the modules, the teachers also tutor the students, who are expected to offer additional dāna for this service. Students understandably value these courses because of the high ratio of teacher-student contact and the opportunity to form a stronger sense of sangha by working within a small group that continues over a sustained period of time. From the teacher’s perspective, though, this model might almost seem perversely designed to reduce the amount of dāna.

To commit oneself to a long-term modular programme requires a greater outlay of money for the course fee and travel costs. The time spent on the course likewise reduces the amount of time to work in order to earn these funds as well as cover the rest of one’s living costs. A smaller student body combined with a larger teacher body results in less dāna overall, which then has to be further divided between the teachers. I have also found that the dāna for tutorials is very variable and sometimes non-existent.

Yet none of this has any financial impact on the institution of Bodhi College itself, which calculates the price of the courses in order that it is sufficient for the college to pay its staff and keep the organization fiscally healthy. The teachers of the college are not paid staff, and therefore have no contracts and receive no benefits. If the college is obliged to raise the cost of a course, none of that price increase will go to the teachers. Yet in paying more for the course the students will have less available to offer as dāna to the teachers. Although the college is entirely dependent on its teachers, it is the teachers alone who carry the entrepreneurial risk of the way the dāna system operates. At the same time, we must not forget that it was the teachers themselves who insisted on having the dāna system in the first place.

Although Bodhi College declares itself to be committed to the principle of dāna, the course which brings in by far the most revenue is not run on dāna at all. This is the very successful distance-learning programme we have run in conjunction with “Tricycle” magazine for the past three years. Here students pay a flat fee of $150. After expenses are deducted, the rest of the income is split between “Tricycle” and Bodhi College. With around a thousand students on each course, this has resulted in very significant sums of money. The teachers are paid an agreed fee and the rest goes to the college. It is hard to see how you could possibly run such distance learning courses on dāna.

In terms of the Secular Dharma programme I have been offering with Martine and other teachers over the past four years, the problem of dāna is even more pronounced. Not only do we have a maximum of only twenty-five students, which we have found works well in terms of group dynamics and peer-learning, this secular approach has cut all ties to the Indian renunciant tradition in which the Buddhist monastic community is embedded. Having moved beyond the view of monasticism as the ideal form of dharma practice, I am led to question the dāna system that is part of it. I cannot find a single reason any more to justify running the Secular Dharma programme on a dāna basis.

After much careful discussion and reflection, the faculty, trustees and staff at Bodhi College agree that we seriously need to re-examine our commitment to dāna and think of moving to a fee-based system. Given our history, this move will probably have to be phased in over time. Some of the shorter courses might continue operating on the dāna principle if that is the wish of the teacher or students. For the longer, modular courses to be sustainable in the long term, however, we doubt that the dāna model will be adequate to provide the teachers’ needs.

In moving to a fee-based system, we all recognize the need to consider how to mitigate the rise in cost to those who might then feel excluded from joining our courses. We need, therefore:

  • To be completely transparent in communicating the reasons why we are making this change, and invite all stakeholders to join the conversation.
  • To give more attention to building up and raising awareness of the bursary fund to which students can apply.
  • To consider offering a number of full and partial scholarships to students for the longer courses.
  • To articulate a more comprehensive understanding of work and livelihood as integral parts of dharma practice.