Recently I heard that abominable phrase, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”, turned into an equally abominable internet acronym. Yep, TANSTAAFL.
It’s not so simple, really, to answer the question whether there is such thing as a free lunch in an ultimate sense. Even when we give charity, we generally possess expectations of getting something in return. Often there is at the least an expectation of gratitude, or that the recipient will make some specific “proper” use of the gift. Still, I would say that there is indeed such thing as a free lunch; it is central to the concept of charity in Buddhism; that we eventually are able to give as a natural expression of purity, not even expecting peace of mind as a result.
I think this idea goes quite against our general understanding of Buddhist principles, and even much of the Buddha’s teaching itself – when we read the suttas, we hear often about the benefits of giving, and when studying karma in general, we understand that good deeds are only good because of the benefit that they bring. There is, however, a very important exception to all of this, and that is the example of the enlightened being. An enlightened being is completely free from karma, both good and bad. This means that any good deeds they perform spring from this natural expression of purity, without any special thought or intention in regards to the consequences.
This is how I’ve come to view this curious affair of teaching and spreading the Buddha’s teaching. There seems to be no other rational answer; it must be done, there is no way to avoid it, yet the imperative comes not from volition or expectation, but simply from the fact that it is right to do; natural, in a sense. A person without any attachments must act appropriately in every situation; they have no choice, they are unable to do something inappropriate, being devoid of the requisite delusion. So the only answer to the Buddha’s acquiescence to teach “those with little dust in their eyes” is that it was the proper thing to do, given the existence of a request. And while we are not most of us striving to become Buddhas, we are certainly intent upon at least the purity of mind that frees us from expectations. Given that this must extend to all of our activities, including our charity to others, it seems necessary to accept that TITSTAAFL.
Why I’m thinking about such things is because of my previous blog post about the future of our organzation. The whole issue of organization, much of which revolves around the concepts of giving, receiving, exchanging and paying, has brought up some interesting issues, one of which is determining the correct system of resource exchange, or what might have otherwise been termed “economy”. Except I think economy is the wrong word, for reasons I’d like to explain here.
I can think of three different types of resource exchange that might be chosen as a system of maintaining an organization, be it a business or non-profit or some other coordinated system of activity:
1) a reciprocative system – one where every resource has a value, and there is an expectation of remuneration or exchange of resources in every transaction based on their respective values;
2) a prociprocative system – one where every resource has a value, but rather than an expectation of exchange, there is an expectation of “paying it forward”, i.e. the second party giving benefit similar to that received from the first party to a third party;
3) an allocative system – one where every resource has a value, and resources are distributed based solely on need; a person needing much is given much, regardless of what they themselves give in return; a person who needs little may find themselves giving much and getting little or nothing in return.
The first system is irrational; I can’t see how it could be sustainable in any sphere of activity, since it does not address the core issue of need. A person seeking something out, be it material requisites or spiritual guidance, does so either because they have some need or because they have some desire. Where need is the basis for the transaction, it is irrational to insert an unrelated factor of price, since it has nothing to do with the initiation of the transaction. Even in cases where the giving of resources creates need for the donor, there is no logical reason to expect that those needs be met by the donee. Sometimes it is convenient that there be such an exchange, when each party’s resources correspond to the other’s needs, but that is really just the coincidence of two unrelated one-way transactions; the needs are not intrinsically related.
What this means, to be a little less wordy, is that selling dhamma is no good. Charging for courses is no good. It is irrational. One should only sell things if one wants money. If one’s intention in giving things is not to make money, one should not sell things. Even when one needs money to give things, it is illogical to expect that the one who receives should be the one who pays. The result of charging for anything is a disruption of the flow of resources; those who need much often go without; those who need little often gorge themselves senselessly. Charging for meditation teachings, courses, etc. would be counterproductive to the aim of giving to those who need.
The second system seems better but is still irrational. It’s great if people do pay something forward; given that they received some benefit, they would be hypocritical if they didn’t give such benefit to others who asked. Nonetheless, there are two problems with this system; first, that the system does not adequately address needs, and that there still arises the problem of unrelated expectations.
By not adequately addressing needs, I mean that since every obtainment of benefit requires a previous obtainment of benefit, transactions don’t initiate based on needs. In times of great need, if there is no donee looking to become a donor, needs are not met. As to the expectation of prociprocation (yes, I made that word up – it comes from procus procus rather than recus procus) itself, it is again an irrational requirement, having nothing to do with the need at hand.
In the case at hand, we can see this problem at work. By telling people to pay the meditation teachings they’ve gained forward (i.e. teach others as they have been taught) and not care for the meditation centre’s future, the needs of the organization are not met and the system soon collapses. This doesn’t mean that teaching others is a waste of energy, but it is not sufficient for the continuation of the Buddha Sasana; paying it forward does not work to address the needs of the system.
So, in essence, I would argue that the only lunch that makes sense is a free one. If someone needs something, they should get it from someone who has it; that, to me, is logical. People come to us looking for something; they should get it. Sometimes we are looking for something; that too should be provided for. Of course, in an imperfect world, one may very well not get what is needed, but to set up a system that by its very nature cultivates rather than addresses needs is no way to run an organization.
So, the third system seems most reasonable. It is the least like an economy, though maybe you could call it socialist or even communist. Whatever, it is a system that is designed to address need; or more simply, it is designed to solve issues directly. I think, therefore, it is most in line with Buddhist principles of acting appropriately rather than with expectations. It is the system of giving free lunches to the hungry simply because it is considered appropriate to give free food to someone who is in need of food. I would even go so far as to say that it can be considered appropriate to give one’s own lunch simply because another needs it, even though it seems to violate the principle of fulfilling needs; since, however, sacrifice for others doesn’t create greater need, and more importantly because needs vary among people (i.e. a beggar who has been starving for days needs lunch more than a well-fed business man), I think it still fits within this system.
So, this is how I would like to approach the issue of spreading the dhamma, and organizing our activities in the future. This doesn’t mean that we can and will continue as we have regardless of the support for our activities, it means that where there is need, that need must be addressed. When someone is in need of the teachings, someone should do their best to provide teachings free of charge, not with any thought of how that person might benefit oneself. When there is need for other resources to allow the teachings to be given, there should likewise be someone to provide for that need.
So, with this in mind, I want to engage everyone in our community, confirming the needs that exist within our organization – by which I mean the organized system including everyone involved, from simple meditators, to those who have taken a pro-active interest in the workings of Sirimangalo International, to the monastic community here at our forest monastery. I’ve set up a new sub-domain, org.sirimangalo.org, based on the discussion forum thread about this issue, and would like to encourage everyone to get involved. There is a real need for it; not for me or the other monastics here, but for the organization, and more importantly, for all the people who benefit from the resources on this website. We will continue to provide free dhamma where ever we are – I don’t think it is possible to escape that fact even if we wanted to, but that is all we can provide. Others too must provide the needed resources that they possess, be they material or mental.
We can only give what we have, and what we here have is limited very much to the Buddha’s teaching. We have no money, no land, no possessions beyond our robes and bowl. All of the tools and resources we use to teach are the responsibility of our students. Not because they owe it to us, but because they have it, and it is needed. A good example of this sort of idea is the alms round. At first glance, it appears to be a reciprocal relationship; we give the teaching, they give the food. But on closer inspection, one can see this is not the case at all. We never give teachings based on who has given us food, nor do we get food only from those whom we have taught. When and where there is a need for teaching, we teach. When and where there is a need for food, food is given. Maybe we at times give teachings out of the expectation of receiving food, or maybe others give us food with expectation that we will teach them, but ultimately those expectations are not the reason for the existence of the almsround; eventually those expectations fade away and alms and teachings alike are given simply because it’s the proper thing to do; simply as an expression of purity, and because there is a need for food and a need for teaching.
So, we must focus our efforts on addressing needs. As I said already, I think our monastic community has very few needs; we need our free lunch from the village, a place to stay and robes to wear. These are our needs; when there is more, we try our best to be open about it, without expectation, as I have tried to be on my own “wishlist”, as inaptly titled as it is. In this way, I can happily say that we have no needs at this time, and are in general quite free from need as a community. As to the needs of the organization, including both our meditation centre and the maintenance of this website, there are other needs. Monetarily, there is approximately $300 per month that needs to be raised to keep the centre running and provide an Internet connection for our on-line activities; there is the maintenance of this website; there is the participation in organizing on-line sessions and activities; there is the dissemination of this sort of information, and so on. There is a need for all of this.
When I wrote my last blog post, I wasn’t sure if these needs would be met, or whether we would have to turn away those in need of what we offer. Now I think it’s clear that, while there is need, there is also generosity; many people have already expressed their interest in giving what help they can, and many who are appreciative of the work that goes on here. We all should gain from this community, and we all should give to this community as well. We should not think that we are here just to gain or just to give; we should not think that we must give if we have gained or gained if we have given. When there is need of a lunch, we should give it freely. When we need a lunch, we should take it, also freely, without guilt. Let’s prove to the world that TITSTAAFL.