At some point, I don’t know where or when, I picked up the idea that spiritual teachers should teach for free, that if a spiritual teacher charged money, then it was no longer spiritual. Like I said, I don’t know where this idea came from, but it seems to be a prevalent one in this society. And it’s wrong.
Spiritual teachers teach freedom. They don’t teach for free.
In the old days, students paid for their spiritual education with food, clothing, or lodging for the teacher without the teacher having to ask. In other words, it was common knowledge that they were to take care of the spiritual teacher’s physical needs.
In The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Atthakanagara Sutta: Sutta 52) we read:
“Venerable sir, these sectarians will seek a teacher’s fee for their teachers; why shouldn’t I make an offering to the venerable Ananda?”
Then the householder Dasama of Atthakanagara assembled the Sangha of bhikkhus from from Pataliputta and Vasali, and with his own hands he served and satisfied them with various kinds of good food. He presented a pair of cloths to each bhikkhu, and he presented a triple robe to the venerable Ananda, and he had a dwelling worth five hundred built for the venerable Ananda.
Somehow, this concept has been lost. Perhaps people think spiritual teachers do not eat? And they all run around naked? And sleep in the street? Maybe they forgot these things can be taken care of easily with money. I don’t know.
If we consider advanced spiritual teachers, there is nothing holding them here — other than their students. The teacher’s ego is just a sliver allowing human interaction, and even that is known to be an illusion for the benefit of the student. In meditation, the heart slows and the breath stops. What is there to bring the teacher back from the sublime state beyond thought and words, beyond the body?
Even the cries and pleas of the people who are suffering is known to be an illusion. But when a student calls to the teacher and says, “please stay, please teach me, I will support your body if you will support my practice,” then the teacher pauses. This willingness to give in exchange for spiritual teachings is a vital first step towards Liberation.
Yes, the river of Enlightenment flows freely – anyone can reach down to drink. To drink directly from a river, you must first be aware of the river, and then be able to reach down the side of the bank with your hands. Even then, you’ll only get a few sips at a time. (Of course, you could jump in the river, but those rare individuals have already traveled the Path.)
What a benefit to meet someone on the river of Enlightenment who has a cup, and can reach down, fill the cup and hand it to you! Isn’t that worth payment?
There’s no need for them to stay in one place, handing out their cup to passersby. They see the river, and know anyone can reach down into it. But if someone offers to take care of them, so they can offer the cup to those who are thirsty, then they will stay as long as it benefits the one taking care of them.
Now we can talk about how some teachers have cups that are cleaner, or more pure, than others, but that’s an entirely different topic. There is no doubt some teachers are more adept at sharing spiritual truth and some are more adept at marketing. However, it’s up to each student to use their discrimination to find the best cup for them.
The point remains, when you pay your spiritual teacher well, it inspires them to stay and teach the Path of Freedom. More importantly, it benefits the student. Remember, the teacher has all they need. For the body to fall away is of little consequence to the teacher, but has great ramifications for the students.
Initially, by paying the teacher, the student learns to give in exchange for something of perceived value. It’s a simple transaction, like buying a meal to nourish your body. If the student puts the teachings into practice, they begin to see there is much more going on.
Purchasing a meal provides more benefit than your own nourishment: It allows the waiter, the cook, and the restaurant owner to earn a living. It allows the delivery truck, the farmer and everyone in between to pay their bills. The simple act of buying your food creates a cascade effect that affects hundreds, if not thousands of lives. The same is true when you pay your spiritual teacher.
By supporting your teacher, the teachings and energy they transmit to you ripples through you into this world. They are able to reach thousands, if not millions, of suffering people and give them a glimpse of freedom through the words, actions, and power they share simply by living here.
And if you pay the Teacher well, then they can conserve the energy they would have spent purifying their food, clothing, and shelter by being able to provide for their physical needs with things that are not as abrasive. (If you’re not sure what I mean, spend a few nights in a run-down motel in the rough part of a city, and then visit a 5-star resort. Then compare your energy levels, how you feel mentally, physically, and what you feel capable of doing.) This extra energy can then be used to benefit the students in an even greater capacity.
In short, if you’re ready to make leaps and bounds in your spiritual practice, and not just skate by from day to day, then drop the wrong view that spiritual teachers teach for free.
Remember the truth: Spiritual Teachers teach Freedom, and you should pay them well.
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