Yesterday, a man I had never met came to sit in the backyard zendo/meditation place with me. He had been to another center he didn't name and didn't like, so he was sniffing the wind here. The fact that he had decided to try a second place said to me that he found something attractive in practice. After our formal morning drew to a close, he asked me about giving money and I told him what I tell anyone who asks: "After you come three times, we can think about it."
Money/dana. What a wonderfully touchy subject. One of the earlier teachers in the lineage in which I 'grew up,' Yasutani Roshi, was once quoted as saying, "Yes! Charge them a lot of money. That way they will think the Dharma is worth something." And you can see his point: When you give people something for free, often they think it is not worth much ... or perhaps they strike a virtuous pose and pretend they think it is worth a lot, but they don't feel the matter as personally as if a cat bit them on the butt. Money is personal -- the sweat off your brow -- so people do pay some attention.
And there are all sorts of approaches: Yes, the center needs to turn on the lights and fix the roof. And yes, for the most part centers that charge money will make room for those who don't have a lot... although those without a lot may be pretty resentful that they might have to ask for assistance and will complain, "But the Dharma should be for free!"
I don't know of a single rule that fits all circumstances, but I do know that money is a touchy subject and as such is pretty useful. I do think that there is something to be said for the fact that a donor might feel a bit of gratitude that s/he might be allowed to give ... but maybe that position is further down the line in practice.
The whole matter -- to prattle on too long -- reminds me of a time when my youngest son -- then eight or nine -- asked to be taken to a nearby peace pagoda. Why he wanted to go, I had no clue -- certainly I never shoved Buddhism in his face. But I wanted to go too, since I had never seen the place. So off we went.
When we reached the mountain where the pagoda was located, it wasn't clear where we should go. Near the parking lot, there appeared to be a temple and so, although it didn't look much like a pagoda I had expected to see, we went there. The place was much more ornate than the Zen settings I was used to -- lots of paintings on the wall depicting Gautama's adventures, very colorful zafus and zabutons, and an enormous altar covered with more stuff than could be taken in at a glance -- plastic flowers, fruit, small statues ... all of it stacked on a stepped pyramid on top of which was a goldy-glitzy Buddha statue. It was a little much in my eye, but obviously someone liked it, so I lit the incense and offed that. I took the place to be Therevada in leaning, but I didn't much care one way or the other.
Afterwards, as my son and I were ambling around, alone, a very elderly monk appeared. I later heard that he was the oldest Buddhist monk in Cambodia. He greeted us and began telling us in accented English about the pictures on the wall -- the travels of the Buddha. And when he was finished, he reached in the sleeve of his robe and brought out an apple, which he offered to my son. My son took it, said thank you, handed the apple to me, and, without any explanation, ran outside into the parking lot. I thought perhaps the monk had scared him somehow, but this wasn't the case. In a minute or so, he returned, pressed up against my side and handed over a rock he had taken from the parking lot. He thought it was beautiful and he wanted me to give it to the monk. I told him to give it himself, but he was too shy. So I took the rock and gave it to the monk ... who immediately took the rock and placed it with great care in some small cranny on the altar. Then he bowed.
The pagoda we had hoped to see turned out to be on the top of a nearby mountain, so my son an I walked up there and saw it. It was wonderful to see something so carefully crafted out in the middle of the woods. Then we walked back down the hill and got into the car to drive home. In a nearby town, we stopped at the bookstore where a woman had given us directions to the pagoda. We said thank you again for her help and, together with the story, we gave her the apple the monk had given to my son.
I suppose this small recollection could be told from a dana-day point of view, but I think maybe it's simpler than that... less virtuous or disciplined or whatever and much more along the lines of what just happens in life: "Giving," "receiving" ... nonsense!