By Donation is Not Free. ~ Shambhavi Sarasvati

Via elephant journal
on Jul 7, 2012
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We can always give.

I live and teach in Portland, Oregon—the city of do-it-yourself, dumpster diving and, as the folks at the TV series Portlandia have quipped—the city where young people come to retire.

Portland is also a place where “by donation” spiritual teachings are often liberally and unilaterally interpreted as being offered for free.

For the record: By donation doesn’t mean free. It means make a donation of your choosing. Free means free.

On my first visit to the ancient city of Varanasi, India, I stood in line at Satyalok, the teaching center of the Lahiri Mahasaya kriya yoga lineage. A couple hundred of us were waiting to give dakshina (a monetary offering) following an initiation.

Immediately in front of me, two poor-looking young women counted out a few rupees between them and deposited them in the donation box. Their faces were ablaze with pride and joy.

I have always loved giving service, gifts and, yes, money to my teachers.

I feel the wonder of living in a world where other beings are willing to devote their every moment to helping me wake up from the slumber of so-called life normal.

I want to give in return.

I find the taste of the reciprocal flow of giving between teacher and student to be sweet indeed.

The scene in Varanasi made a deep impression. I saw, in one moment, that there are no barriers to participating in that natural reciprocity other than our own limiting karmic tensions.

We can always give, no matter how little money we have.

The real poverty is in refusing to participate because we are holding on tight to our feelings of anger, resentment, fear, lack, self-hatred, skepticism and greed.

To recognize the gifts we have received—small and large—and to give in return is always nourishing and ennobling.

If you choose to support valuable teachers, you are not only helping yourself to a dollop of natural juicy goodness. You are supporting the teacher to have more time and energy for giving teachings to everyone. In some cases, you are helping to preserve wisdom streams of teachings for generations to come.

First you have to recognize the gift.

I always try to share with my students my sense of wonder and gratitude that teachers and pathways to self-realization exist at all.

Then, I try to relax, in every moment and allow natural generosity to reveal itself to my students through my activities. I am not trying to get money out of them. I am trying to open their hearts so that they can taste the sweetness of life as I have.

Inevitably, I sometimes have to talk to students about the meaning of “by donation.”

Just as inevitably, someone will bring up the topic of teachers who bilk their students out of millions.

Now, I do not have a lot of money. I gave up a tenure-track job at an elite university in order to teach in my spiritual tradition. I also had an even more lucrative consulting business. Each year, I turn down consulting jobs worth tens of thousands of dollars so that I can focus on my own practice and teaching.

I recently moved into a house I share with several students. I have only one room in which to sleep, write, see students and astrology clients and run the nonprofit spiritual organization of which I am the director.

Furthermore, the teachings I give in Portland are not expensive.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with spiritual teachers having a lot of money. Some highly accomplished beings have come from well-off families, or live comfortable lives.

Teachers with no accomplishment who rip people off are another thing. But most of us have no contact, or only passing contact, with such people.

So what work is this knee-jerk reference to greedy teachers doing for some of us?

My impression is that people want to protect themselves from being ripped off, more emotionally and spiritually than financially.

The longing for this whole “spirituality thing” to be real can, in some cases show up as fear of none of it being real.

It can even show up as a bitter conviction that all Gurus and teachers are worth sh*t.

Don’t be fooled by yourself. Longing for a real teacher is at the root of all that anxiety and skepticism.

It is exactly that longing—recognized and cultivated by you—that will lead you to a good teacher. Longing is the voice of your own enlightened nature, drawing you inevitably forward.

So, forget about unscrupulous teachers. If you have one, move on. If you never had one, drop the subject.

I can tell you, after more than 25 years of personal experience, that good teachers, while not on every street corner, are definitely out there to be found.

The cosmic fact is that if you give with total sincerity to a lousy teacher, she or he may be in for a long karmic downhill slide, but you will reap rewards (and meet a better teacher next time).

So follow your longing.

Let the teachers you find into your heart. When you receive your teachers there, relax and surrender to the natural desire to give back.


Shambhavi Sarasvati is the spiritual director of Jaya Kula, a nonprofit organization in Portland, Oregon offering teachings in the traditions of direct realization Tantra and Anandamayi Ma. Shambhavi is the author of the award winning-book, Pilgrims to Openness: Direct Realization Tantra in Everyday Life. Her second book, due out in September 2012, is Tantra: the Play of Awakening. For more information about Shambhavi and Jaya Kula please visit:



Editor: Carolyn Gilligan


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10 Responses to “By Donation is Not Free. ~ Shambhavi Sarasvati”

  1. Matridarshana says:

    Yes! Look at us, holding onto our $5, when nothing else in nature is holding back: not the sun, the trees, the rivers, the roses blooming all over town. One of the many many things I have learned from being your student, Shambhavi, is that the more I give away the more relaxed I feel, the more grateful, the more showered in riches. Thanks for this reminder that giving is really participating in life’s fundamental overflowingness and generosity. When we taste a juicy fruit we don’t confine ourselves to tasting just what we think we can afford–our whole mouth comes alive. What a miracle to have fruit that nourishes us and tastes so good, to boot. What an unbelievable gift to have a teacher–to learn from, to love, to care for.

  2. Mamaste says:

    Just intro'd on FB to: I'm Not Spiritual.

  3. HonestOpinion says:

    I have seen yoga classes, talks and other events advertised as "Donation Only" and "Love Offerings Accepted", things like that. I think the real lesson is for the provider if the people who attend do not give anything. In my opinion, people like yourself should only offer an event as "Donation Only" if you are prepared to accept nothing as an acceptable donation. Put a price on it. Be specific with the Universe. Be clear with people. I don't see anything wrong with assigning a specific dollar amount. Why is it so important to advertise it as donation only? I just don't get it. It strikes me as an attempt to seem altruistic, but it's really not. There is an expectation attached. If you want something specific from the Universe, be specific in your asking. She likes it that way, especially if you live in America.

  4. Hi there, Honest Opinion! Thanks for your thoughtful reply. At Jaya Kula, we have teachings that are free, by donation, and also sliding scale teachings.

    The subject of paying, or not paying, for spiritual teachings is a really rich field of practice in our culture. Engaging in the topic, and the practice, is an opportunity to start to feel some of our tensions and also to relax them. So having a mix of ways to contribute works well in that regard.


  5. HonestOpinion says:

    I misunderstood. I wrongly assumed that if you wrote an article called "By Donation Is Not Free", it was because it was not working so well and the policy required elaboration. My misunderstanding. Peace…

  6. rico says:

    Dakshina is a concept quite foreign to us Americans. Dakshina is given as a gesture that we value what we have received. It honors the teacher and enriches the giver by establishing a sense of value in that connection. If we value what is offered so little that we can't even part with small offering then it diminishes what we have received. My Guru once said that Americans don't value something unless it has a price. Perhaps we need a better understanding of the practice of Dakshina.

  7. So true, Rico. So many people have lost contact with the natural devotion and giving and receiving. I have an essay about dakshina in my forthcoming book, Tantra: the Play of Awakening. Out in September. It's a topic near and dear to my heart.

  8. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I go to a donation class and give an average-to-high donation. Or else I don't go. Sometimes there is a suggested donation, and sometimes a non-suggested donation.

    I appreciate the space being held for the student.

    So, if the teacher is inexperienced and that's the major reason she is teaching this candlelight donation class, I am paying it forward. Someday the teacher, if deserving, may charge a bundle.

    But I appreciate the class that is primarily-home-practitioner friendly, where being in community is more important than learning/doing/showing off "perfect" power poses. Not sure if I would feel the same way if I could do those poses, if I were young, uninjured, never traumatized–a blank, shiny slate. But I conflate "accomplishment" in that way, overchallenge and not-a-safe-space with the experienced, pushy, upselling teacher – whether greedy or not … another post on elephant suggested that a non-donation going-rate-charging teacher like that, was being rajasic.

  9. nirvanibliss says:

    Shambhavi….this was the best article I have read about supporting our spiritual teachers and for me learning to surrender in love and trust.. I am reading your second book right now and just love it!! I will be out near Portland soon and so hope to come by and visit and would love to meet you! I am very interested in having my Vedic Astrology chart done:)


  10. Sara says:

    Spirituality in its true form and business will only lead to more illusion false perception pride ego and bickering egocentric so called teachers and students