Hosting and Receiving Teachings: An Open Letter

April 1, 2016

In ancient times in India, Tibet and China, people with means who desired spiritual teachings would invite teachers to their homes. These patron-hosts did not just house teachers and donate money; they organized and oversaw every circumstance related to the teachings.

The teacher and any other students who showed up would be fed and housed by the patron-host, sometimes for months at a time. Elaborate rituals and festivals would be staged requiring the erection of structures, the hiring of ritualists and the purchase of a mind-boggling array of offerings. The host would also plan outings and other entertainment. Sometimes, permanent retreat facilities and temples were built to support and honor the teachers of the lineage.

Patron-hosts would lavish gifts on the teacher. And while there was no charge for teachings, students gave cash, gold, grain, flowers and other offerings to express their support for the teacher according to their means.

In the best of circumstances, a portion of the gifts to the teacher was recycled back to students and people in need. Teachers gave students money for food, travel, education, healthcare, funerals and to start or save businesses. They distributed food and clothing to the poor.

Many teachers lived as itinerants, moving from one patron-host to the next. Other teachers stayed mainly in one place, teaching in a Guru Kula style. These householder teachers traveled occasionally when invited to teach. They used the donations they received to support their families and provide housing and food to dedicated students in need.

Students frequently made great sacrifices and experienced significant hardships in order to travel to teachings and make offerings. Sometimes the project of receiving teachings would take students away from their homes for many weeks, months or even years.

Related to hosting teachings, an important field of collaboration between students and teachers has always been the transcription of teachings and the production, translation and dissemination of texts. Teachers train students in the needed skills. In turn, many students devote their entire lives to ensuring that teachings can be received by as many people as possible through translation and publication. The whole process is supported through donations.

One of my teachers, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, is attempting to re-introduce aspects of the patron-host system into his community. He understands that the highest fruit of being wealthy in the literal sense is the opportunity to be generous. And helping people to self-realize is the greatest form of generosity.

The patron-host situation has the potential to benefit everyone: the giver, the recipients, the teacher, the lineage and anyone who comes into contact with the teachings as a result. The patron gets to use their wealth in the best possible way. More people attend teachings as there is no set fee. The teacher is free to concentrate on giving teachings and working with students, rather than on fundraising and organizing workshops and retreats.

The entire circumstance reflects the call and response nature of reality and the beautiful flow of give and take, question and answer between teacher and student.

Jaya Kula is a relatively small community. Over time, we have been introducing forms of hosting that reflect the wisdom of our ancient traditions and make it available to help students to realize through their everyday activity.

Nearly all of the day-to-day functions of Jaya Kula are energized by students working together in small groups we call “andas.” “Anda” is a Sanskrit word from the Tantrik tradition that means egg – a zone of creative collaboration and expression.

Making food for guests

Our entire community is involved in expressing and developing a culture of hosting. We try to be thorough, foresightful and open-hearted as we prepare for and welcome every single person who comes to receive teachings. Hosting is at the center of everything we do.

Many of our teachings and events are offered either free of charge or on a “give what you can” basis. Longer teachings, yatras and retreats always have a low-income option.

Through our Lakshmi’s Cupboard program, Jaya Kula gives deeper discounts and also direct financial support to students in need. We also make a donation every year to another nonprofit spiritual organization.

Now and then we collect money among ourselves for community members in crisis. I personally recirculate money out-of-pocket directly back to students when the need arises. I consider all of these forms of “recirculation” to be an aspect of the teaching and an important expression of any functioning ministry.

Together, we are consciously exploring the call and response nature of Reality by holding regular satsangs and kirtans – two of the most explicit call-and-response practices in our tradition.

Just recently, students organized a new Anda to begin the long process of taking over Jaya Kula Press, the imprint that publishes my books.

Finally, I do my best to impress on students that it is part of the practice to make some effort to receive teachings. It is fine to step out of ordinary mind and let your desire for awakening lead the way. Traveling to teachings, or coming to teachings when you are not feeling well, or just leaving your house instead of watching online are important steps to take if you want to realize.

Jaya Kula is a young community. We have only been officially incorporated since 2011. I am grateful that many of my students have already connected with the quiet joy and innate goodness that becomes more available when we serve together and offer others the possibility to receive teachings and be nourished by the community.

But we are not “there” yet. I look forward to the time when every person in our community has a concrete experience of the value and refuge that hosting, and in fact all serving, offers to us.