I recently read this article about illegal file sharing of non-free multimedia dhamma files
It reminded me of a debate I see from time to time about how the teaching of the dhamma is paid for in the western world.
One side of the debate is that the teaching of the dhamma, whether through retreats, books, videos, etc... should not be charged for. It should be free.
Another side of the debate is that it is not a realistic option in the capitalistic western world to teach the dhamma free of charge. There are no large religious lay Buddhist communities as there are in Asia to make donations to make retreats, books, etc freely available. They will add that the teaching of the dhamma in the western world is done by secular people and secular people have bills to pay.
There may be other reasons that are valid for charging for dhamma teachings, but I don;t think this reason is valid.
As a quick aside -- I think "suggested donations" and aggressively asking for donations comes pretty close to "charging". At the very least it makes a number of western people with a limited ability to pay feel self conscious and has the potential of driving them away. I feel this is un-buddhist. It is my understanding ( correct me if I am wrong ) that one of the reasons why Theravada monks aren't vegetarian is that the Buddha wanted to avoid the situation of poor people who have only meat to give, feeling humiliated by not being able to give alms to his monks.
Back on topic, I do not agree with the idea that the nature of western society makes charging for teaching the dhamma necessary.
The Vipassana Meditation Centers as operated by S.N. Goenka have a number of thriving centers in America and Europe. I haven't been to one of their retreats since the 1990s, but they are quite subtle with how they ask for donations. My experience is that they wait until the last evening of the retreat to talk about what their expenses are and they ask people to donate once the retreat is over if they think it is something worthy of supporting. Both of the S.N. Goenka retreats I have been to have been dominated by secular, ordinary Americans.
If S.N. Goenka can run many thriving retreat centers with volunteers and donations ( and without being obnoxious in how they ask for donations ) in the United States, then the question becomes is it really true that other dhamma centers "can't" do the same?
I was a struggling student when I first became interested in meditation. I wouldn't have been able to go on a retreat if the IMS was my only option. At the time, places like Venerable Gunaratana's Bhavnna Society were not around. Places like that are still few and far between.
While I am not a fan of S.N. Goenka's retreats ( no disrespect, it is just not my cup of tea ), if it wasn't for his centers I would not have been able to have the valuable experiences of a meditation retreat...at all
That would, almost, be true for me today as well. If I had time for a retreat I would likely be between jobs and not able to afford the costs of other retreat centers. When I went to my two retreats at S.N. Goenka's center that was the case for many people there. Instead of having that dead, useless time between jobs they were able to do some good dhamma work.
BTW, when I was a student, I was so grateful for the opportunity to go on a retreat and not be asked for donations in a humiliating way, that I scrimped for the rest of the semester in order to gladly make a donation.
What do people think?
Am I overlooking some valid points for either argument?