Dhamma and Commerce


Dear community,
how do you consider the fact that Buddhist teachers and translators, like Bhikkhu Bodhi, only release their dhamma materials by means of commercial publishers and simultaneously failing to provide digital copies under public domain? If you don’t mind could you also provide references from the texts maybe, I am particularly interested in such. Thank you!

I came about this passage from the Udaana:

One should not make an effort everywhere,
should not be another’s hireling,
should not live dependent on another,
should not go about
as a trader in the Dhamma.”

A. Bhikkhu

Hey I got some Vipassana, and it's on sale!

I disagree with this practice, which is unknown for 2,500 years of Buddhism.

If it is only to do with one’s own teachings, then it’s up to oneself. I still think making things freely available is better, and it’s what I always do. But this is a choice.

When it is the word of the Buddha, though, I think the integrity of the Buddha’s message should be preserved, as it has been by all Buddhist communities down through the ages.

Note that, apart from anything else, there is no evidence that making things freely available has a negative impact on sales.

As for evidence, I agree, the passage at Ud 6.2 specifically refers to this. While the line is perhaps a little ambiguous, the commentary certainly interprets it this way. Here is a rough translation.

Dhammena na vaṇiṃ careti dhanādiatthāya dhammaṃ na katheyya. Yo hi dhanādihetu paresaṃ dhammaṃ deseti, so dhammena vāṇijjaṃ karoti nāma, evaṃ dhammena taṃ na careyya. Atha vā dhanādīnaṃ atthāya kosalarañño puriso viya ocarakādikammaṃ karonto parehi anāsaṅkanīyatāya pabbajjāliṅgasamādānādīni anutiṭṭhanto dhammena vāṇijjaṃ karoti nāma. Yopi idha parisuddhaṃ brahmacariyaṃ carantopi aññataraṃ devanikāyaṃ paṇidhāya brahmacariyaṃ carati, sopi dhammena vāṇijjaṃ karoti nāma, evaṃ dhammena vāṇijjaṃ na care, na kareyyāti attho.
One should not live trading in Dhamma means: One should not teach Dhamma for the sake of money, etc. For one who teaches others for the sake of money, etc. is said to engage in trade by means of Dhamma, which should not be done. Or else, just as, for the sake of money etc. the king of Kosala’s men [mentioned in the sutta] dress as renunciants so they can do the work of spying on others without being suspected, one acting similarly is said to engage in trade by means of Dhamma. Also, one who lives the pure spiritual life for the sake of being reborn in a heavenly realm is said to engage in trade by means of Dhamma. So the meaning is, one should not live trading in Dhamma, one should not act like this.


Note that when monks sell books, they typically don’t use the proceeds for their own benefit. Usually the profits are dedicated to a charity. Still, the overall sense of this passage is clear: the Dhamma is not something that should be bought and sold in the market place like some common property.

While there are not many passages that explicitly state this, I think this is because it was taken for granted. The idea of selling Dhamma was so outrageous that it usually went unstated.

It is only in the last few decades that the creeping ill of extremist capitalism has wormed its fingers into every organ of the social body. The social dimension of Dhamma, based on generosity and kindness, should resist this and stand apart.


I think this is a matter for Bikkhu Bodhi to decide. Perhaps this is not covered in Vinaya rules. Even if it is covered in Vinaya this will amount to breaking a minor rule such as monks handling money.
The benefit out weigh the cost. I trmendesly indebt to V Bodhi for his sutta translation work which are freely available. I value them more than his books available commercially.
Perhaps commercial books serve a different market segment.


Why shouldn’t it work in Western countries, like is does across East Asia, where volunteer organizations amass donations to finance printing of books to be distributed freely? E.g. The writings of the Pa Auk Sayadaw, of Mahasi Sayadaw, and the Visuddhimagga reprints. Often in those books they list those who donate – a couple of pages of folks from various international communities each giving ca. $10, … $100 etc. each.

Irksome that on Amazon one can “buy” books, e.g. those of Thanissaro Bhikkhu wherein it’s stated they are NOT for sale. I first noticed things like this browsing a used-book shelf at a nearly Tibetan lineage retreat center (often hired as locus of insight-meditation retreats), finding one of Than-Geoff’s books on the shelf, for $10.

Wisdom Pubs may be “non-profit”, but they are not volunteering. And their books get hyped, e.g. on Amazon, as “new” or “only” translations (e.g. of the Visuddhimagga or Mahasi’s Manual of Insight), s/t with wrong dates, and go for handsome prices. Clearly people are making a living off that.

Somehow those Asian groups are able to keep a flow of printings going (couple of hundred or thousand copies each?). Likewise, Than-Geoff is able to find donors to keep the copious flow of his translations and commentarial writings going. There’s something fundamental gone wrong when Theravadan monks author books only obtainable by sale (distinct from for sale but also freely available PDF or eBook versions).


This is an interesting and sticky wicket of an ethical issue. I agree that the Dhamma can be owned or copyrighted by no one, and I’ve suggested that translations should not be entitled to copyright as “original works.” Not to say that a translator shouldn’t have some legal protection for one’s work product, but for someone to translate something in the public domain, such as the Pali Canon, and then copyright it to protect revenues, seems wrongheaded to me, especially in the field of ancient texts.

As to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s practices here, I am on the fence. He runs Buddhist Global Relief, which is a highly ethical and effective food security NGO. I don’t know whether proceeds from his book sales fund BGR, but I expect that they do, as he lives a renunciant Vinaya life, and it makes sense that he might use these revenues to help fund BGR.

So, the sticky wicket for me is how to feel about the use of revenues from sales of Dhamma books to fund charitable causes. Just as hacking someone’s bank account and sending the money to the Red Cross is clearly wrong, it may be a proper or fuzzy question where selling translations of the Dhamma to fund a NGO is concerned. Yet, from my own point of view, I am now communicating with The Border Consortium ( a Thai/Burma NGO) , who has been funding basic food needs for Kuang Jor, a village in northern Chiang Mai of refugees, parents and kids fleeing to Thailand from Burma’s internal ethnic/commercial war; TBC announced that donations of food to Kuang Jor stop in August. TBC says there is nothing they can do. They apparently devised no “Plan B” a year or more ago when they had notice of the loss of revenues. They claim that international NGO and government donors have found “sexier” causes in 2017 for their donations. Perhaps China is colluding with the Myanmar government to choke off international aid to Shan and other ethnic refugees at the Thai/Burma border.

There are about 500 people in Kuang Jor who are about to lose their supply of food. I worry that they will literally begin to starve. They can’t go back to their villages in Burma; they’ll be killed or burned out.

I don’t have the talent to write or translate anything of any value. I suppose if I did, and could do something that would raise money each month to buy food for Kuang Jor, I’d write anything that could sell. I’d see this kammic activity as perhaps a suspect ethical choice offset by a brighter ethical act. Just as hacking the bank accounts of a Wall Street trader would be unethical, I might (as a hypothetical) do it to save Kuang Jor.

The Dhamma deserves to be freely distributed; it should not be sold, even in a translated form. But, I admire deeply what Bhikkhu Bodhi and BGR are doing. There are just so many families and kids starving everyday, around the world. It’s a sticky wicket for me as an ethics issue.


[quote=“DKervick, post:7, topic:6052”]
Because there aren’t a lot of wealthy Buddhists in the US.
[/quote]There’s certainly a lot of hugely wealthy Mahāyāna Buddhists in Canada, where Pure Land Buddhists are currently working on an $80 million dollar temple complex near my hometown.

I think its an issue of the wealth (or general lack of it, in my experience) that Theravāda immigrant communities bring to their transplanted-but-enracinating Buddhisms. The Cham Shan Temple in Toronto, one of the various temples that funded the project, has a lot of very wealthy Chinese businessman among its congregation. Oftentimes people from traditionally Theravāda countries do not have such an easy time getting ahead in Canada, where there is a massive problem with racism against Indians and “Brown people” in general. I can only assume that the situation in the States is mostly the same, given the cultural sprachbund we are in.


WP sells the MN directly for $65 plus $50 for overseas postage.

Amazon sells the same MN for $30 plus $12 for overseas postage.


This is true, and it is why personally I would be flexible enough to say that selling via these marketplaces, while far from ideal, is an acceptable compromise. I do it. I set the minimum possible price, and the tiny amounts of revenue go to Santi. But I also make my books freely available.

The problem is when selling via those marketplaces becomes a reason to prevent free distribution. There is no reason why the two should not go hand in hand. As I keep saying, the evidence shows that making books freely available makes little or no difference to sales; presumably for exactly this reason, they are different markets.

We have to be careful what we mean by this. In the eyes of the US tax office, yes, they are a non-profit. But their products are sold in the marketplace, they suppress free distribution of their products,* and they use the revenues from that to pay money to themselves. The proceeds from the sales become their wages. Now, in the simpler markets of the Buddha’s day, this is obviously what is meant by selling in the marketplace. The only difference is that revenues go to wages rather than shareholders; but this distinction did not even exist in those days.

*Footnote: Think about what this means. When your money is spent on Dhamma books, a certain percentage goes to pay the costs of someone whose job it is to make legal threats against Buddhists who follow their traditional sacred duty of sharing the Dhamma freely with all humanity.

I don’t know how much is actually made from this, but I doubt that it is very much. If your aim is to raise funds for charity, publishing books is an extremely inefficient way to do it. You can easily raise as much in a single fund-raising event as you would from the sales of a popular book.

The real coinage for publishers is prestige. And this is why I think it is important to raise the issue and criticize these policies. Publishers should know that there is a cost to this behavior, that the Buddhist community doesn’t like it. They will create a better reputation for themselves, and a healthier future, by embracing the open Buddhist philosophy and sharing with the community.

Thanks so much for your work! Have you thought of contacting BGR or Tzu Chi for help? It is a sad situation indeed!

Really? Counterpoint: there is probably more disposable income among Buddhists in America than there ever has been in any Buddhist country in the past. America is a rich country, and most Buddhists are middle-class. In the past, most Buddhists were rice farmers. There’s plenty of money around.

This issue is, I think, an ideological one. American Buddhists—with due acknowledgement that there are many exceptions to this—haven’t had the courage of their convictions, and have bent over backwards to accommodate neoliberal market philosophies, rather than apply the practice of dāna. Since that’s what the leaders are doing, how can we expect the followers to do any different?

The crazy thing is that prominent Buddhists and Buddhist organizations are stuck in the 20th century closed-shop way of thinking about this, when even the corporations are now realizing the value of open source. Heck, you can now install Linux through the Windows app store! If Buddhists had stuck by our values from the start, we could have been the moral and intellectual leaders of the open source movement. Instead, we’re eating ourselves in turf wars while the world moves on, ignoring us.


Yeah it’s mindboggling why Ven. Bodhi went that route. He doesn’t seem like a materialistic guy and he certainly didn’t do it for prestige 'cuz he’s already among the top, if not the numero uno in the Theravada world regarding both prestige and scholasticism.


It would be presumptuous of me to imagine the reasons behind his choice. But I think in many cases people are just stuck in doing things the way they’re used to.


Bhangra Sujato
Do you have a plan to print your Sutta translation?


Straw man. See above re: there is no evidence that making things freely available reduces the revenue. Sorry about the bold, but I will keep using it until it gets noticed.

Again, straw man, no-one said that.

I’m not sure what you mean by this, but this has in fact happened, and many free editions are available. The translations, however, are not always of great quality. In addition, please don’t forget that the very foundations of modern Buddhist studies were laid by devoted Asian Buddhists who supplied the manuscripts and raised the funds to set up the PTS and publish their books, without which none of this would be possible.

Of course people get paid for stuff. Just yesterday I spoke with an IT team, and I said, we don’t want to get the cheapest possible quote, we want to make sure you get paid a fair wage.

But I don’t use that as a reason to demand an exclusive monopoly on a product, treating as criminals those who would follow their own traditional spiritual duty of sharing the Dhamma freely.


If that was the case, then perhaps he should’ve thought of another endeavor much more worth supporting, by making those books freely available to millions and millions of readers around the world so they can hear the wonderful Dhamma. Frankly, not many folks can afford $45 - $50 US dollars to buy a book, and that’s right here in America, let alone overseas.


And that’s the crux of the matter right there. This model requires that Dhamma be restricted to the rich. And I just cannot agree with that.


I do not think people will read books as they are available fee. I see free bible available in hotel rooms but I never bother to read them. Sutta translations are available free in the net. I bought Bikkhu Bodhi’s book but it is collecting dust in my side table. There is a time for every thing.


I do! I started re-reading the Bible on my most recent trip, but it was too violent and depressing, so I gave up.


People read only if interesting to read. Many do not think Buddhism is very interesting. Some think it is very depressing.


Sad but true!


The world is messed up 'cuz everything is up side down. It would’ve been a much better place if things were in reverse: charging 45-50 US dollars for the bible and ZERO US dollars for all Buddhist books…:smile:


We’re working on it!