Can you tell us, Judy, in essence, what Dharma Seed is?
Dharma Seed makes a connection between contemporary teachers of vipassanā practice and those who want to share in the teachings that have been inspired by the Buddha. Dharma Seed helps continue the oral tradition by preserving and distributing the talks given by a wide range of teachers at retreat centers around the country. We organize the recording, archiving, publishing and sharing of oral instruction and commentary by vipassanā teachers, using whatever auditory media is available and appropriate. Our work gives people who want to practice vipassanā an opportunity to do so with some skillful and experienced guidance, even if they are not able to participate in the retreats where such instruction is usually given. The essence of our work is to contribute to the end of suffering.
I understand the whole enterprise had humble origins in the basement of IМS almost twenty years ago.
It began in 1983 when Bill Hamilton, who was on staff at IMS at the time, began taping the dharma talks and meditation instructions offered by the retreat teachers at IMS. It was for the benefit of people who were not in the hall at the time of the talk, and the immense value of this material for posterity soon became evident. In 1984 the project incorporated as a non-profit religious organization, became Dharma Seed Tape Library, and moved out into the world. We’ve been doing this for almost sixteen years now. I was one of the original directors, and have been involved since the beginning.
How many of these tapes go out the door in a given year or month or day?
Well, in a year we might make 15,000 tapes, which we share around the world. A majority of them are distributed in the United States but we also have people that we work with in other countries. We have a Dharma Seed Canada affiliate that works with us there, and we’d like to develop a similar partnership in Australia to facilitate people having access to these talks more directly. The volume has been growing steadily over the years, as more people are asking for more and more of the talks, and interest in the dharma has been increasing dramatically lately.
This is good, right?
This is wonderful. Our purpose is simply to be a service to the dharma—to both the students and the teachers—so the more people that gain access to the teachings the better we feel about it. We are more active overseas than ever before, and we are much more involved in sending tapes to prisons and facilitating our older talks getting out to people. It’s really remarkable.
So what is all this about no longer charging a fee for the tapes you distribute?
Just last year, we completely revolutionized the way we go about doing business at Dharma Seed. We just were not comfortable being identified as a catalogue company that was somehow “marketing” the dharma. We were often being compared to companies such as “Sounds True,” a quite sophisticated and professional audio retail business, and this did not feel at all appropriate. We were never trying to “sell tapes,” and the whole structure of the American business model was never a comfortable fit.
When the inspiration struck to turn to a different model, one so much more in tune with the teachings, everything changed overnight. I don’t know how to explain it. If “magical” is not quite the exact word to use, it is certainly close. The dharma is priceless, and to be able to offer it freely has opened so many doors for us in terms of the way we feel about the work we are doing. We just embrace the teachings, and it gives back a direct experience that this is the way it works.
You seem quite inspired by this.
Yes, I am inspired. It has profoundly changed the way I do what I do. I have no doubts at all that emerging from the appreciation of these teachings will come a natural and spontaneous outflow of generosity. What has changed so dramatically in the past year is that there isn’t a direct causal link between those two. People are not thinking, “Because I’m getting this tape in the mail, I’m going to send in this $10 to pay for it.” Receiving the teachings as an act of generosity inspires people to give freely so that others may also share in hearing the teachings. The $10 you may send us will not be for the tape that has been sent to you, for someone else has already given that to you. Your contribution will be for the next person to receive a dharma talk as a gift from you. You have completed the circle of giving.
But can this really work? Are you making ends meet after a year of giving tapes as dāna?
Every journey begins with a modest step. It is working surprisingly well. It is true that in this first year we will probably fall short several thousand dollars between what it costs us to record and distribute these tapes and what has been donated. But I feel we are all only beginning to learn about this, and that the benefits will grow steadily over time. The important thing is that people are getting an opportunity to practice generosity, and that the dharma is being preserved and shared in the world. The more we offer—and we’ve just decided to continue the program another year—the more we trust it will grow and be supported. I have complete confidence that, however modestly it develops, ultimately dāna is an irresistible force capable of tremendous transformation.
So what you called the “Year of Dāna” has been extended?
Yes—isn’t it exciting? Our board of directors decided that even though there was some shortfall in revenue, and even though we do not really have any reserves, we would nevertheless stay committed to the course we have embarked upon. Anything recorded after January 1 2000 will continue to be offered freely, and this list of material is gradually growing. Ultimately, of course, we want to release all of our material as dāna. And we are really not so far from being able to do this.
It is mostly a matter of our better explaining our identity as an archival service. As people’s understanding of Dharma Seed grows, their enthusiasm to support our project blossoms. We now have close to six thousand talks in our archive. Six thousand talks. This is a very precious body of work, which will only become more precious as the current generation of dharma teachers gradually retires and moves on in the cosmos.
Nobody really knew the extent of what we have been doing here at Dharma Seed. It is not something that one can easily put into the price of a tape. By moving to a dāna system we have been able to better explain who we are, and this has helped us move out into the community in a better way.
How does all this effect the teachers?
Most of what we do supports the teachers in one way or another. For one thing, we are preserving their work, so that its benefit can extend to people unable to attend their retreats—and to future generations. We currently have about fifty teachers whose recordings come in to us in an ongoing manner, and this number is growing. Of those fifty, thirty-five have their own individual teacher catalogue that we have put together for them. This includes a teacher statement about the essence of their involvement in the practice and how they view their work, along with the work that we publish and how to get a hold of it. We are working on more of these special catalogues as new teachers move into positions of assisting the existing teachers.
The talks are mostly recorded at the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center, but more and more they are also coming from the newer centers that are starting to pop up all over the country. It is quite a handful for us. And Dharma Seed continues to give a 10% royalty to the teachers as their work is distributed. It is a rather modest remuneration, to be sure, but it helps them nonetheless. We are dedicated to continuing this tradition regardless of whether their talks are sold or given away.
What other projects is Dharma Seed involved with?
Well, we have started the ambitious project of converting all of our tapes to a digitized format so that they can be re-recorded onto compact disks and stored more reliably than on audio tape. We have tapes going back many years that are beginning to deteriorate quite badly. In addition to preserving the early work of people like Joseph, Sharon and Jack (which I think they regard as a mixed blessing at times), we also have rare material from people no longer teaching at IMS, like Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah and Vimalo Kulbarz. We have almost sixty talks from U Pandita’s 1984 retreat at IMS alone—it’s a remarkable body of work.
By digitizing all this, we are preparing for the next great step: making the dharma freely accessible on the Internet. We are in the process of upgrading our web page: DharmaSeed.org. There are so many new possibilities that emerge as a result of our offering the teachings as dāna. We are already experimenting with “streaming” the dharma, whereby a series of dharma talks is being played at all moments of the day and night to anyone who chooses to “click” into it. We will also be able to make our tapes available on the web in MP3 format so that people can download dharma talks at will.
Now let me get this straight: You want to put recorded material on the internet and then encourage people to download it for free?
Absolutely. We want people to have access. Of course, what goes up onto the web is being thought through very carefully. We want to be sure that we’re skillful in the way that we present the material and that the teachings are held respectfully and impeccably. Input from the teachers is an important part of this process. So it won’t be happening immediately, but it is certainly our intention that this material be broadly available to people in a way that encourages their generosity but does not charge them a fee.
More and more, we are moving into digital formats for recording and archiving, though we continue to do cassette backups and we will continue to offer tapes. Our view is that not everyone has a computer and has access to those web files at this time, and we want to ensure that everyone has access to the dharma. But once this material is digitized, it has really been preserved for all posterity, and could easily last another 2,500 years.
It is like taking a snapshot of something that happened in one moment among a small group of people, preserving it, at making it available to all future generations. And when you think about it, this is really not much different from what was done in ancient India by the followers of the Buddha when they created the Tipitaka, the Buddhist Canon. And look at how their efforts have contributed to the welfare of the world!
With what resources do you do all this work?
We have actually accomplished a lot with very little, We currently have one full time employee, one part-time employee, and a high school kid from down the street who supports our computers. We hope to end up with an additional person eventually. The remuneration is minimal, and we benefit immensely from a number of people who volunteer their time and services most generously. You might call it a grass-roots organization, very much imbedded in the culture of service.
What would you say if someone were to ask “What can we do to help?”
Keep practicing. That is really what it is all about. The dharma talk—and indeed Dharma Seed—is first and foremost a support for people’s practice and for the development of their understanding. The dharma is concerned with understanding the nature of your experience—of your world and of your individual process—and vipassanā meditation is a tool for exploring experience. The dharma teachers whose talks we record and share are guiding people through this investigation, and as long as there are people with the courage and interest to “come and see” the truths pointed out by the Buddha, Dharma Seed will have a role to play in the world.
And how might we help support this bold step of offering the teachings as dāna?
Since we’ve introduced the dāna system, we’re finding a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the concept, a lot of grassroots support. We may not be seeing large donations, but we’re certainly getting a lot of small contributions with heart-felt feedback and appreciation of how valuable they think what we’re doing really is. We’re getting volunteers emerging from unexpected places, with offers to help out with what we’re doing in any way they can. I think all this is largely a response to our commitment to the integrity of the dharma and its commitment to the principle of dāna.
My feeling is that because of the scope of the work that we’re doing—and the commitment to doing it well—we will need more substantial support to really see the vision through. It has been suggested that we look into seeking some kind of foundation or institutional support, but we don’t really have the resources to do this right now. Hopefully the higher level of support needed will come from within the sangha. I personally have great faith that the dharma will provide what is needed. It is so liberating to work this way—in step with the teachings—that I believe what really just needs to happen is simply for us to be able to ask.
In the sixteen years of Dharma Seed’s existence we have never actually asked anyone for any support—until last year. We have often had a section in the catalogue that said something like “If you’d care to offer a donation, it would be appreciated,” but we’ve never actually gone to the community and asked directly for support. The letter we sent out last year drew a lot of enthusiasm, as I mentioned, and we are pinning our hopes on an even stronger response this yeaг.
The kinds of comments we got back were just so heart-warming! We heard how appreciative people are to have these talks in the first place. We heard about how people have depended on Dharma Seed to be their link with the teachings in often difficult circumstances. We heard about what a difference it has made in people’s lives over the years. We heard from prisons and sitting groups that structure programs around group listening of the tapes. And we heard a tremendous deal of support and appreciation for offering the tapes as dāna.
Might dāna be the wave of the future? Might it be a model for a radical transformation of the entire global economy?
I don’t know, I will leave it to the visionaries to foresee the long-range effects that such a idea might generate in the world. For me, and for the rest of the staff and volunteers involved with Dharma Seed, it is enough—much, much more than enough—to feel that we are able to hear the dharma, preserve the dharma, and share the dharma with the world, while holding our work in the spirit of service and generosity that awakens the heart.