Dakshina: The Right to Give

Swami Satyadharma Saraswati

When the famous Tibetan lama, Marpa, went to his guru Naropa for instruction, he handed over a bagful of gold coins, as a matter of course. On first hearing this it sounds strange, out of place. What does a saint want with money? Yet a little reflection makes it clear that even a saint has to keep body and soul together if he is to be effective in this world, and that Marpa's gold was a very practical way for him to ensure that Naropa didn't die of hunger before Marpa learned all he wanted to know. Yet the initial reaction is a common one. Whenever the question of money comes up in a spiritual context, people become uneasy, embarrassed, offended.

This reaction seems to be an expression of our ambivalent attitudes to money. We can't avoid using it, but we have somehow come to think of it as unclean, 'filthy lucre', and unholy, 'the root of all evil'. As a result, we tend unconsciously to feel greedy and we especially dislike being reminded of our weakness when we are aiming for higher things. This colours our view of the priest, guru or holy man who asks for money, and we mistakenly conclude that he is not genuinely holy after all.

Saints and sages have never said that we should completely abandon the use of money, but that we should abandon our attachment to it - our preoccupation, our excessive desire. It is not our financial investments that are a problem in spiritual life, but our emotional investment in our finances.

It is a kind of prudery that insists a spiritual relationship cannot also be a financial one. This notion seems to be of fairly recent origin, for offerings have always been made whenever there is contact between those who are dedicated to spiritual service and those who are longing to follow them but are still engaged in worldly service for material gain.

Christians traditionally give a tithe, one tenth of their income to support their priests, maintain church property and spread the faith. The fifth of the six Commandments of the Holy Catholic Church is 'to contribute to the support of our pastors'. It used to be that a collection plate was pasted during the Mass, but that new squeamishness over linking God and mammon has brought an end to this. These days, one pledges a certain sum which is then placed in a special envelope after the service and dropped into a collection box or posted to the priest.

Jews also have a tradition of tithing to support their rabbis and maintain the synagogue. Today the tithe is given in the form of a reservation fee for seats in the synagogue, with the more prestigious seats closer to the- front being also more expensive. Many families also have a 'blue box' info which they drop odd coins and spare change. The money collected in this way is then sent to Israel, their spiritual home.

Buddhist laymen give bhiksha (food offerings) to wandering monks, and consider it an honour to offer food, cloth and coins towards the support of the monastery. To Buddhists, generosity is one of the six paramitas, ‘transcendent actions’, and leads leads to awakening through the development of compassion.

Parsis consider it almost a sacrament to give money to the priests and the poor, and ritual donations form an essential part of many of their ceremonies.

In Islam the sharing of wealth is such an important part of spiritual life that it is regarded as one of the ‘five pillars’ of the faith. Every year Moslems give zakat amounting to at least one fortieth of their income and holdings.This is divided amongst the poor according to urgency of need, going first to those in direct need, then to slaves in the process of buying freedom, to debtors, to strangers and wayfarers, and to those who distribute alms on an organized basis.

Aren't we all slaves of passion and ignorance, trying to buy our way through spiritual practices into freedom of super-consciousness? And from whom do we beg the spiritual coinage of sadhana but the guru? It used to be that those who gave charity gave gold. These days people have plenty of money and it is not gold they need. Modern man lives in material wealth but spiritual poverty, and what he cries out for is peace of mind. He who gives us peace is truly a charitable man, and as donor of spiritual alms, the guru is worthy of our financial support.

Marpa recognized this, and when he made his second journey to Naropa he took with him hard-earned bags of gold dust. Naropa's greeting was “How much gold have you brought me?" Rather taken aback, Marpa gave his guru what he considered a fair amount and put the rest aside for his travels. Naropa, apparently unsatisfied, asked for more. Marpa wasn't too pleased, but gave a little more. Still Naropa complained, "Come on Marpa, you can't fool me. I know how much gold you have". Finally Marpa gave in V and turned over to Naropa everything he had. Then Naropa took a the precious gold powder as if it were so much dust, and threw it into the air, "Fool", he shouted "What need have I for gold? For me the whole world is gold!" Marpa was stunned, frozen, it was just too much. Then suddenly he melted and in a flash of insight he opened, became receptive to what Naropa could teach him.

Marpa suffered terribly to see his gold thrown away, but at least we have the satisfaction of seeing our gifts put to good use. Still we tend; to sympathize with Marpa, getting all indignant and asking 'What sort of game is Naropa playing here?' Naropa threw away the gold precisely to show that he didn't need it, but that Marpa needed to give it. Although generous in his giving, Marpa was still holding back, physically (stashing the rest of the gold) and emotionally. Naropa's demands forced Marpa to face his own insecurity ('What happens if I run out of money?') and his possessiveness ('It's my money and I'll I spend it how I want). Naropa was testing Marpa's surrender, and also giving Marpa a chance to evaluate for himself the true depth of his spiritual longing.

When pastor or guru asks us to give - time, work, cash - he is giving us an opportunity to get our priorities straight. We are convinced that our soul is our most valuable possession, and that money means little or nothing, but we have never put this to the test. If we are asked to give and do so freely, without hesitation, then we really do value the spirit above the world. If we are asked to give and we give less than we could afford, or not at all then this is a clear indication that money means more to us than we thought. There's nothing 'wrong' in this - but we should know exactly where we stand.

In order to develop a good spiritual relationship, both guru and disciple must be open enough not only to receive what the other has to offer, but also to give in full measure whatever they have that is most useful to the other. The preceptor's gift will spiritual guidance and inspiration, while the seeker's gift will be some sort of service or material support. Just as it s impossible to run water through a pipe which is blocked at either end, so an internal exchange or spiritual transmission cannot take place without this external exchange being made freely, with an open heart.

The relationship must be a two-way communication, and our gift makes it clear that we are seekers and not beggars the disciple has no need to feel dependent or humiliated just because he is asking for guidance - he too has something valuable to contribute.

While our giving may begin on a very simple level - the traditional fruit, flowers, leaves, water or silver - the significance of our gift should never be underestimated. Our gift is the solvent which unblocks the pipe, opening the channel of spiritual communication.

In yoga, this gift to the guru is called dakshina, which means 'right'. This is usually interpreted as the guru's right to receive, but that's not the point at all. If a sadhu cannot find a patron to provide him with the necessities of life, then he must beg, borrow or buy what he needs. His sadhana is interrupted and his path is made that much longer. In the scriptures, it is said that if a devotee fulfils a sadhu's material needs so that his sadhana is uninterrupted then the devotee is entitled to a share in the fruits of that sadhana Dakshina then is not the guru's right to receive, but the devotee's right to give so that he may share in the spiritual harvest.

We need to emphasize our right to give, because the guru will not accept offerings from everyone. If, for instance, we are very wealthy then it is easy enough to give a large donation and not feel it at all. Yet if we are going to give, then we must truly give something of ourselves. We can't just buy spiritual insight. We can't bribe our way to peace of mind. If our motives are impure, if we are holding back emotionally, then it is possible that the guru will not accept our donation. If our giving will not benefit us, then even if it would benefit him, the guru will find some way, subtle or blunt, of refusing.

On the other hand, when we make generosity a habit, it transforms all our labours into sadhana. We must work for money in order to support ourselves and our families, but we can transform our workaday activities in selfless service, karma yoga, when we work for others as well. Especially when we donate some of our earnings to priest, rabbi, pastor or guru, then we are working for the spiritual nourishment of all humanity.

Dakshina is not only giving to receive, it is also thanksgiving. We have been fortunate enough to receive spiritual wealth because somebody else provided the necessities that enabled our guru to complete his sadhana and establish his mission. Without the generous support of numerous early devotees, we might never have had the supreme good fortune of hearing our spiritual master. In giving dakshina to continue the guru's mission, we are offering a very practical and tangible thanks to all those who have gone before, and providing the means for the enlightenment of many more of our fellow seekers.

Dakshina is not for guru, it is for us. Generosity to the guru is like an eternal flame burning in the seeker's heart, and whatever he offers is returned in the form of more fuel for that flame. This goes on until the devotee is able to make the ultimate offering, himself, and is totally consumed in the raging flame, rising like the phoenix to the spiritual heights of his master.

"For truly my coming is but the outcome of your thirst for knowledge, and your generosity is the sesame which permits me to let you pass the first doorway towards the secret path to truth since the truth I have in mind for you can only be attained by the large hearted and generous minded - verily by none else."