The practice of dhamma dana, or the gift of dharma, lies at the heart of the Buddha way. The Buddha gave his wisdom free, and taught that engaging in dana—giving energy, material or wisdom to others—is a means to overcoming greed and egoism and is one of the six perfections (paramitas), the virtues perfected by a bodhisattva. Continuing this custom, most Buddhist centers offer some form of free dharma.

At the same time, today as in the time of the Buddha, nearly all practice centers accept—indeed, rely on—dana to help support the physical plant and the teachers. Just as offering the teachings free perpetuates the tradition of dana, so does making offers to the teachers and practice centers. This is not like paying a fixed price for a movie ticket; it is a private affair, based on each practitioner’s sense of appreciation and gratitude and financial circumstances. Organizations and traditions vary in how they make the need known. For example, at theInternational Meditation Center (438 Bankard Road, Westminster, MD 21158; 410.346.7889), a Theravadin center based on the teachings of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, a Burmese master, all teachings and use of facilities are free. On a bulletin board is posted an explanation of how the center is financed: entirely by contribution. “We never ask for money,” explains Orin Hargraves, a director of IMC. “We make our needs known to people, but the volition to contribute has to come from them. Otherwise, it’s not dana.”

At the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (149 Lockwood Road, Barre, MA, 01005; 508.355.2347; http://www.dharma.org), weekend teachings are followed by an explanation of the practice and purpose of dana. Retreatants can leave donations to the teachers, who are unpaid, in a small wooden box placed outside the meditation hall. Nobody’s counting: the gesture is up to the individual practitioner. Following morning or evening sitting periods at many practice centers, a bowl or basket is usually available outside the hall, but rarely is its use explained.

This resource guide aims to navigate practitioners looking for meditation instruction, retreats, Buddhist books, and teachings at no cost.

Meditation Instruction and Retreats: Meditation groups make up the most prevalent form of free dharma. Many centers set aside specific days of the week for public group sitting, and most provide free instruction. The best way to find out about sitting and basic instruction in your area is to call the centers themselves. Dharma centers around the country are listed in the back of Tricycle. The Cambridge Zen Center (199 Auburn St., Cambridge, MA 02139; 617.576.3229), for example, hosts morning and evening sitting groups every weekday.

The American Buddhist Center (c/o Unity Temple on the Plaza, 47th & Jefferson, Kansas City, MO 64111; 816.561.4466, ext. 143) offers six on—going weekly sitting and discussion groups, ranging from a “mindful living” group, based on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, to a vipassana sitting group. The Center also offers a day-long meditation retreat every month. All activities are free. The New York Shambhala Center (118 West 22nd St., 6th floor, New York, NY 10011; 212.675.6544) offers free meditation instruction every Tuesday evening and Sunday morning, and sitting groups meet every weekday evening. ThePhiladelphia Buddhist Association (97 E. Bells Mills Rd., Philadelphia, PA 19118; 610.660.9269; http://www.libertynet/buddhist), a nondenominational center, holds weekly group meditation, day—and weekend—long retreats, and monthly meditation instruction, all free of charge.

The Center for Dzogchen Studies (847 Whalley Ave., New Haven, CT 06515; 203.387.9992) offers free introductions to meditation on Wednesdays and Sundays, and holds an open house on the first Saturday of every month. Individuals wishing to stay for extended retreats pay $300 a month for room rental. If they cannot afford the rent, retreatants can exchange service— usually cooking—for board. Cooking and carpentry are the most common currency of exchange for dharma at Western centers. Most dharma centers, in fact, are open to exchanging services for classes, residence, programs, and so on. Despite the pervasive criticism of Western Buddhism as elitist, expensive, or exclusive, anybody with a sincere heart for practicing can find a way to do so.

The Metta Forest Monastery (P.O. Box 1409, Valley Center, CA 92082; 619.988.3474) also offers two kinds of retreats for free; one is a monastic retreat, where a practitioner can live, work and study in the monastery for a period of time. There is no time schedule for this retreat and accommodation is subject to availability. In addition, the monastery hosts three long weekend retreats during the summer. Call for more information. The Bhavana Society(Rt. 1, Box 218-3, High View, WV 26808; 304.856.3241) sponsors free three—or ten—day retreats every other month for practitioners of any experience level. Activities include walking and sitting meditation, work duty, and dharma talks. The Society also provides accommodations for individual retreats. The Insight Meditation Society (1230 Pleasant St., Barre, MA 01005; 508.355.4378) offers an annual weekend dana retreat, free to the public, held at the end of January.

Many larger centers offer work/study programs for practitioners who can’t afford retreats or residencies. At some centers, if a practitioner cannot afford the rate but makes a commitment to contribute in the future, the cost may be waived. At Zen Mountain Monastery (P.O. Box 197, Mt. Tremper, NY; 914.688.2228), students interested in living at the monastery can apply for a work scholarship after they’ve lived, worked and practiced there for a period of time paying room and board. The Ch’an Meditation Center (Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture, 90-56 Corona Ave., Elmhurst, NY 11373; 718.592.6593) offers work exchanges and scholarships for their meditation retreats, which range in duration from one to seven days, and for ongoing classes on topics ranging from “Introduction to Buddhism” to “The Awakening of the Mahayana Faith.” Within the San Francisco Zen Center structure (300 Page St., San Francisco, CA 94102; 415.863.3136), which includes theBeginner’s Mind Temple (same as previous address), Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (39171 Tassajara Rd., Carmel Valley, CA 93924; 415.863.3136) and Green Gulch Farm (1601 Shoreline Hwy., Sausalito, CA 94965; 415.383.3134), students who work the six-month training period at Tassajara, when the Mountain Center is run as a resort facility, can exchange labor for free two-month training periods at any of the SFZC facilities.

Books and Audio Tapes: Most dharma centers make available pamphlets or brief literature on Buddhism. Others offer books and texts in translation. All the centers in the Theravada tradition listed above print and distribute free books and other literature. The Abhayagiri Monastery (16201 Tonki Road, Redwood Valley, CA 95470; 707.485.1630) provides the teachings of the Theravada tradition and meditation instruction, written by Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Chah. The Buddhist Library and Meditation Center (90 Church St., Camperdown, N.S.W. 2050, AUSTRALIA; +612. 9519.6054) offers free books on Buddhism if sent $3.00 for shipping and handling. Titles vary from week to week and are subject to availability.

Some centers house lending libraries that are free to members, such as the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (149 Lockwood Road, Barre, MA, 01005; 508.355.2347). Membership at the center is free for those who cannot afford it. Clouds in Water Zen Center (308 Prince St., St. Paul, MN 55101; 612.222.6968) houses a lending library, as does the Squirrel Mountain Zendo (283 Quartz Hill Rd., Pittsboro, NC 27312; 919.542.4234).

Courses and Teachings: The Asian Classics Institute (P.O. Box 20373, New York, NY, 10009; 212.475.7752) offers a range of classes, from Tibetan meditation and Tibetan language to home study courses and teacher training. All are by donation; if someone cannot pay, the Institute covers the cost. In addition, ACI also holds basic Buddhist studies classes for kids ages five to fifteen. Many smaller centers have informal classes on how to meditate, usually held on weekends. Again, it pays to call.

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review sponsors Change Your Mind Day, a free annual event in New York City’s Central Park. Over the course of a day, teachers from various Buddhist traditions give instructional talks and lead the public in silent meditation and chanting. The next Change Your Mind Day will take place on June 6, 1998.

Web sites: Public libraries can also provide you with links to the dharma: many have computers with Internet access, and there are thousands of Buddhist sites on the World Wide Web. One good place to start is the Buddhist Studies Master Page, athttp://www.ciolek.com/WWWVL-Buddhism.html, which has links to other resources, dharma centers, institutes, art pages, travel information, bibliographies, organizations and mailing lists. A good site for translations of texts and sutras that are free to download and print is http://world.std.com/~metta. Another site with a large electronic text archive is DharmaNet, at http://www.dharmanet.org. One of the more interesting and interactive Buddhist sites is The White Path Temple, a “virtual Shin Buddhist temple in cyberspace,” at http://mew.com/shin/. This site was rated in the top 5 percent of all sites on the Internet by Point Survey, and contains a good introductory page, a Buddhist dictionary of terms, translations of texts and sutras, art, and yes, even a virtual temple.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.