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Post-Pandemic Economics: The Brokenness of Dana and Gift Economies

I have been steeping myself over the last few months in conversations and conjecture about post-pandemic economics. What you may not know is that my scholarship in the intersectionality of racism, socio-economic disparity, and patriarchy, as they manifest in both capitalistic and dana-based economies in the West, has been evolving over the past nine years. As I prepare to now write my theories of evolving into “natural economics” or “sacred economics,” I have gathered my thoughts on the financial infrastructures in multiple spaces that have largely been unquestioned in their ethics and logistical rationale. I recently wrote a piece, “Sacred Art: Priceless and Worthless,” on the valuation of art, and these same economic myths and patriarchal double standards are at play in our spiritual communities as well.

In regards to our dharma and Buddhist communities, I’m particularly intrigued by the slippery way that the system of dana functions in the West to prop up spiritual work as simultaneously priceless and worthless. As Stephen Bachelor has recently articulated in his article, “Generosity: On the Economics of Bodhi College,” our current system of dana is broken and does not appropriately serve our dearly loved institutions or teachers. We, especially laywomen and people of color, live in a catch-22 of receiving praise for working for little to no remuneration while also paying a sizable amount, either in tuition or in lost income while taking time away, to learn about the dharma.

Not only practitioners but entire not-for-profit institutions often find themselves trapped, as we expect the organizations to magically pay electric bills and staff by pinching pennies together despite the dearth of larger community support that is traditionally offered in other buddhist regions in the world. Not-for-profits who do have the necessary earned and contributed income to pay staff and keep up facilities unfortunately draw a very real line at money in exchange for goods and services when it comes to the essential work of non-monastic teachers, facilitators, assistants, and interns.

Our institutions and leaders also make assumptions about accessibility for poor people that only meets their needs halfway, not considering the reimbursement for lost wages and childcare often needed by these students and lay practitioners. As bhiksunī Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo so astutely articulates, teachings are really only accessible for upper middle class and affluent practitioners because the actual cost of attending for low to middle income practitioners is not actually met. Just imagine what it would take for a woman to leave her home to study the dharma for a month, or even a week, if she were an hourly worker at a gig-based job that had no sick or vacation time but only the option of not being scheduled for work, had children to support, and had no car. The real world cost is so much more than we pretend.

While monks (and to a much lesser degree, nuns) are somewhat supported through the infrastructures of dana, we have no community, culture, or economy accustomed to supporting laypeople invested in contributing to the world as dharmartists and spiritual teachers in an equitable way, save for those who already have the money to pay their own way. This means that dharmartists who are of color and/or do not have wealth or family support are not able to participate in a deep and meaningful way as facilitators and teachers. While I relish and live in the spirit of dana, I live in Greater Boston, am a single woman, and am building a fairly meager livelihood on my artistic and spiritual work. Many women, usually white, have spouses who support their households financially or have family wealth or support that allows them to offer spiritual and creative work for free or for very little money. I do not have that privilege. Dharmartists and spiritual teachers who are able to step into opportunities that are unpaid or poorly paid are most often white, wealthy, and/or do not live in urban environments where rents and mortgages can be sky high.

An additional hindrance on our ability to offer remuneration to laywomen and BIPOC in an economically and racially just way is our continued, unconscious bias favoring those who have studied at length through costly retreats and courses (or at a discount but with the necessary financial burden of taking time away during which no income can be earned). If we were to look at the merits of a teacher based on their insight into the dharma, their wisdom and compassion in their work (no matter what industry), and their continued dedication to meditative practice, then we would move into a true meritocracy; one based on true experience rather than sanctified schooling or accreditation. While I am deeply grateful for the trainings I have received at Buddhist institutions, largely underwritten by generous donors, the bulk of my own education in Buddhist and Jungian psychology, specifically feminist theory in Buddhism, Western Buddhists’ relationship with the erotic, and the role of creativity in exploring the dharma, has come from my library card and meaningful conversations in spiritual communities outside our sanctified halls.

So, what to do? I’m still chewing on this question, but I’m reminded that when the Dalai Llama was asked where the money would come from to build a new monastery, he said, “I suppose it will come from where it is now.” So the path forward will likely be a reallocation of the earned and contributed income that we bring in to support the dharma. It will also require more transparency about the wealth, debt, and income of all participants and adjusted expectations, higher for those with wealth and little debt, and much lower for those with little wealth and much debt. We also have to look at the hundreds of years of our country’s history that has disenfranchised BIPOC so that we can truly understand the disadvantages and rebalance accordingly. This will be swimming against the tide in many ways, in our patriarchal buddhist culture and in a larger, national culture that invests in militarization instead of wellbeing. This is where we start, though, by asking the question of what it really takes to fully invest in an individual’s participation in the dharma in an equitable way given their real world circumstances.

One of the ways our thinking may evolve in a way true to the dharma is by having honest conversations about inherited wealth, dealing with the guilt and entitlement that accompanies it without demonizing it, and examining our inherent worthiness and equity. This inherent goodness reveals itself underneath attachments to accumulated wealth as being inherently “ours”. This is a key piece of the book I’m currently writing, Post-Pandemic Economics and the Laws of Ease. While I appreciate the sliding scale that is often offered in course retreats and very much understand the meaning conveyed when we offer retreatants to select the level of their tuition themselves, the scale simply does not go high enough. With the wealth disparity growing exponentially in our country, it no longer makes sense for the high end of tuition for a course to be only 25% greater than the “actual” cost. There is also an opportunity for retreatants to reflect on their wealth, debt, and income in such a way that they make a choice about their level of investment that has much more clarity.

There has never been a better time for a reality check on the financial reality built into systems that are racially and socio-economically unjust. We all inherited our current economic systems and are working together to evolve, so I am pointing the finger at myself no less than anyone else, asking that we question how much we offer and ask financially for our work. Even if I were to accept the opportunities that come my way that are underfunded or unfunded, I would be reinforcing the underfunding of other dharmartists and lay practitioners, especially those who are BIPOC and/or poor or middle class. Even if I survive on rice and beans, undercharging for my own work contributes to systems of inequity.

Because our conversation about post-pandemic economic systems has been underway in my own scholarship, meditative reflection, and dharmartist communities for some time, I’m excited to champion and facilitate conversations about “sacred economics,” “natural economics,” or “samana economics,” turning away from cultural norms to find a way more in tune with nature. This was why I named my company Samana, because I believe all people, not just monks and nuns, deserve to be supported in renouncing their participation in unjust systems with a “natural economy” flourishing and supporting them (as they also support others). We’re nowhere near the utopia in which we all realize our intricate, interconnected webs, all lined up to be able to simultaneously sit down on each lap behind us. However, we are all waking up to the lattice of our interconnectivity, one moment, and one generation, at a time. We can peel back one more veil by looking at our relationship with money and how our stories about money play into inequitable systems that proliferate so much dukkha in the world. I invite us all to stomach the uncomfortability of these conversations, and to relish the peeling.

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