The Buddha gave the Dhamma freely to all. He often underwent difficulties and inconveniences and on occasions even risked his life, in order to teach the Dhamma to others (Ud.78). The monk Punna was prepared to teach the Dhamma in a district where the people were known for their violence and where he had a good chance of being manhandled or worse (M.III,269). Today, some Westerners go to traditional Buddhist countries to learn Dhamma or meditation, they return to their homelands, and then charge for teaching what they were taught for free. I really think this is unethical. Likewise, some Asian monks put a price on the Dhamma, certain Tibetan teachers being the worst offenders. I once mentioned to the student of a rimpoche that his teacher charged very high prices for his teachings – really high. Rather defensively the student said that air fares, accommodation, etc all cost money. “Why not just ask students for a donation rather than charge them?’ I said. “What if the costs were not covered?” the disciple shot back. I let the subject drop but it seemed a little odd after all the insistence about infinite compassion for all beings. I also couldn’t help thinking that Goenka (and his assistant teachers) rely entirely on donations.
In charging for Dhamma such teachers are turning the precious Dhamma into a commodity and the Buddha clearly said: “One should not go about making a business out of the Dhamma” (Ud.66). When the Buddha said: “The gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts” (Dhp.354) he clearly meant that the Dhamma should be a gift, not something to be sold. During the Buddha’s time people knew that teachers of other religions charged a fee (acariyadhana) but that those teaching Dhamma expected nothing more from their students audience than respect and attentiveness (A.V,347). I think there is nothing wrong with charging for the food, accommodation etc. used during a meditation course. Nor is it improper for a teacher to accept donations. But to charge a fee, even if it is called “sponsorship” or to announce that a “donation” of a certain amount is expected or required, contradicts the most basic ethics and ideals of Buddhism. Those who teach the Dhamma should see what they do as a rare and wonderful privilege and an act of kindness, not a means of livelihood.