Thoughts on Dana

by Rachel Flynn

I’ve heard dana described as generosity, an offering, an energy exchange, or as code for money. During a practice period, we studied dana as a way of engaging and participating in a larger realm. So how do I learn to open up dana -- explore, participate and practice with this?

I became a regular contributing member of San Francisco Zen Center shortly after I started seeing Michael Wenger weekly in practice discussion. It was clear that Zen Center supported the teacher, Michael, to be supportive and helpful to me, so I needed to support Zen Center. Clear and clean, like my public radio pledge. 

When I was struggling with some health problems, Michael suggested I see Darlene Cohen, a Zen teacher working with people with chronic pain and illness. Darlene was great; she really helped me deal with my physical situation. She worked at Zen Center, and I was already a member, so I felt fine meeting with her. It never crossed my mind to give her a donation directly. 

Darlene and I had been meeting for some months when she told me she was no longer working for Zen Center. She asked for dana directly to her, and she was very clear and direct. Now Darlene was self-supporting, and practice discussion was part of that. We talked about dana –how to practice generosity that included both myself and her. 
I said this was fine, but in truth I was deeply offended. Darlene asked for money – how crass. I was already paying Zen Center. I couldn’t afford anything more. Michael was my real teacher. I mean, I was really offended.

After simmering for a while in these comforting judgments, something started to shift. Darlene had asked something of me, and I needed to answer. My feelings of offense and outrage gave way to a sense that I did not really value Darlene’s teaching and time. I went because I could, but I didn’t really show up. I was guarded and glib. Darlene felt the distance and couldn’t quite figure out what it was. What about the money? If I gave money to Darlene, was it worth it? Did I value Darlene’s time? Did I value her practice and teaching? What did I think about money anyway?

As these questions came to me, I realized I was actually hiding from Darlene. What would effort look like in my practice with her? So I decided to try – to offer dana and see what happened. As unlikely as it seemed to me, when I started to give Darlene money, I started to sit upright with her and make effort.

Years later I was Darlene’s assistant. When someone contacted me to meet with Darlene, I talked with them about dana. I explained it was a customary offering and gave Darlene’s suggested range of $25 - $60 for 30 minutes, and I asked if they wanted to talk about questions or concerns.

Darlene once asked to see someone in practice discussion. Since she requested to meet, I explained no dana was expected. This student, a long time resident of Zen Center, was startled – she’d never paid for practice discussion before. Just the idea one would give money for practice discussion was a complete surprise! And I was completely surprised this was a new idea to her!

Tumbling around as I open up dana practice are many thoughts and questions. In the form of money, dana is my recognition of the teacher’s dana – years of meditation, study, effort and vow to show up for me in that moment. In our society – how do I find the generosity to give away such a highly valued and necessary thing – money? In relationship to my own life– how do I know what is enough or too much? Sometimes dana is a way to come together, reaching out to each other to unfold a thing within.