"Dana" is an ancient word in Pali, the language in which the teachings of the Buddha were recorded, and its meaning is generosity, open-heartedness, giving or gift. It is directly connected to the Latin word "donum" and its English derivatives such as "donor" and "donation." From the days of the Buddha approximately 2,500 years ago, his teachings, the Dharma, have always been given freely to all. There never was and never will be a way to assign a price to the teachings of truth, which are worth infinitely more than anything of material value, and therefore the dana became an integral part of the Buddhist tradition.
In ancient times, teachers did not receive any payment for their teachings. In Buddhist countries the secular community traditionally took responsibility for providing for the material needs, including food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, of the "sangha" (community) of monks and nuns, who offered in return spiritual guidance and help in the form of the teaching and practice of the Dharma. The generosity of the secular community in providing for these worldly needs of the monks and nuns made possible the spread of the Dharma throughout the world, so that the practice of the dana is and was a keystone in keeping the teachings of the Buddha alive.
In the early 1970's, Westerners who had been in the Far East and discovered the Dharma and its practice began returning home with the intention of sharing the teachings of the Buddha with all those who were interested. Many decided to continue to do this freely and unconditionally, as it was always done in Asia, and for the same reason-- that it is impossible to set a monetary value for the teachings. However, when they returned and began to teach the Dharma, the Westerners did not come back to the same supportive environment that exists in Asia. In the Western world we essentially never came to understand what it means to be truly dependent on deep, genuine generosity. Because this tradition never developed in the Western world, both the giving and accepting of the Dharma is a new experience for us.
In addition to the practical purpose of dana, it also has a central and meaningful role in the spiritual life of the Dharma practitioner. The dana is the first of the Ten Paramis, or perfections: ten character traits that are vital to cultivate. The act of giving opens our hearts, temporarily minimizes our constant involvement with ourselves, and highlights the importance of benefitting others, and therefore is of unfathomable value for us, the givers. The gesture of holding out a flower to another, offering a service, thought, or positive word, a simple meal or financial assistance, all embody the truest and purest form of the Buddha's teachings.
All of Tovana's seminars and courses are given with no set price, out of faith that the generosity of our students and supporters will cover costs and provide the necessary support to allow us to continue to offer the teachings of the Buddha in the future.
Life in the Western world through reliance on the dana is a very powerful practice that encourages humility. There is a constant unavoidable need for material things in order to survive, and yet existing completely dependent on the generosity of others leads to a liberation from the habit of developing expectations-- there is simply no way to know what will be given. It is a way to come in contact with the essential element of unpredictability that defines life, and I am constantly surprised and grateful to discover how generous people can be. As a teacher of the Dharma who is completely reliant on the open-heartedness of my students to provide my daily needs, as well as cover the expenses related to teaching, I've found the commitment to live through dana to be powerful, wonderful, sometimes difficult, but always a valuable and fulfilling aspect of my life and my spiritual practice.