“The gift of Dhamma surpasses all gifts.” —Dhammapada 354
Since the Buddha’s time, the Dhamma has been freely offered. One way this sharing manifests is through free-distribution Dhamma books, which are made available around the world without charge. Even in the West, where by far the most common way to acquire a Dhamma book is to buy a copy that’s been created by a commercial publisher, the tradition of free-distribution books has taken hold and is flourishing now more than ever.
But how can such a tradition fit in the heart of the capitalist world, where value is often measured in dollars and cents (or pounds and pence)? We put this question, and others, to Ajaan Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) and Ajahn Sucitto, two senior Western monks in the Thai forest tradition. Ajaan Geoff is abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in Southern California, which for over two decades has been distributing his now sixty titles. Ajahn Sucitto is abbot of Cittaviveka Monastery in England, a branch monastery in the lineage of Ajahn Chah, which recently launched the Forest Sangha Publications website to distribute its more than forty English-language titles.
The practice of offering free Dhamma books goes back to around the second century bc, when the Dhamma was first written down. Ajaan Geoff tells us, “At that point the hand-written books were treated with a great deal of respect,” like memorials to the Buddha, so valuable they couldn’t be sold, only given away. Or as Ajahn Sucitto puts it, “Selling was something you did with cows or mundane worldly things,” not the Dhamma. More recently, in the mid-1800s in Thailand, not long after the first printing press appeared there, a monk from the royal family (who eventually became King Rama IV) established a press in a Bangkok monastery that began printing Dhamma books to be given away for free. In Thailand, the free distribution of Dhamma books has always been associated with monasteries; that’s where people went to receive their books, and still do.
Even some of the first free English-language Dhamma books in the Theravada tradition came from monasteries. Ajaan Geoff recalls that beginning in 1979 in Thailand, his teacher asked him to translate talks by Ajaan Lee. After raising the money for printing, “we got a list of Dhamma centers from the World Fellowship of Buddhists, and we just started sending the books out around the world.” Other Western monks in Thailand were doing the same with talks by their renowned teachers Ajahns Chah and Maha Boowa. Ajahn Sucitto recalls that, around the same time, Thai supporters of Cittaviveka Monastery in England wanted to produce an English-language book about the monastery. “So we said, okay, we’ll see about getting some articles together and making a book out of it.” Which they did. About 2,500 copies were printed and distributed, mostly at the monastery.
In 1990, after the founding of Metta Monastery, Ajaan Geoff also began producing Dhamma books in the West. The first such book was The Buddhist Monastic Code. He recalls, “We raised the money here and found a printing press in Florida. The money needed to produce and distribute that book, and all those since, has come from donations.” Metta Monastery has a book fund for this purpose. Many contributions arrive by mail from people who received his books or hear about what the monastery is doing. “Some people say Americans aren’t as generous as other people, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” says Ajaan Geoff. He also makes a point never to solicit donations, even indirectly: “When you’re living off the generosity of other people, you have to be very careful not to pressure them in any way.”
With the recent startup of Forest Sangha Publications (FSP) in England, a huge offer of support came from a large group of patrons from Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. “Can you imagine?” Ajahn Sucitto marvels. “Two hundred thousand books for free distribution.” He finds that in Buddhist cultures, people feel “united in their love of the Dhamma. They will get happy—extremely happy—at the sense of, ‘Oh, let’s get together and sponsor a book.’ It’s a great feeling, it lifts us up as a group.’ To give is essential. It’s heartfelt as a real need to support the Dhamma.” The point is not just to sponsor a book; it is also about feeling part of something. “It’s the effect it has on your own heart—helping to bring the Buddha’s word into light.”
But then what about getting the books into people’s hands? Distribution can be a challenge without relying on commercial channels like bookstores or Amazon.com. Instead, FSP shipped its recent release of books to about twenty destinations throughout the world, mostly monasteries. People can either pick up a copy in person or contact a monastery to request one by mail. Ajahn Sucitto notes that “an uninitiated person is not likely to pick up one of our books. You’ve got to be somebody who visits a monastery or finds a retreat center that has copies. That’s still the snag with printed copies.”
Ajaan Geoff finds that “the Web has changed the publishing game,” making distribution much easier. When he first returned from Thailand and settled at Metta Monastery, “there was a lot of pressure from people saying, ‘If you want people to read your books, you’ve got to get them into the bookstores, you’ve got to go through the publishing system.’” With the modern prevalence of Internet use, however, people all over the world gain online access to these books on a daily basis. “The problem with accessibility is really no problem anymore.”
That is, in recent years, free-distribution books have become instantly available for online viewing or in downloadable e-book or PDF formats. For example, Ajaan Geoff’s books are available at the Access to Insight website’s large library of books and articles, and for free download at Dhammatalks.org, a website dedicated to his teachings. He estimates about 400 downloads a month on average for his titles, far outstripping requests for hardcopies. Similarly, FSP provides a centralized website for downloading talks and e-books by Ajahn Chah and his Western disciples. (See the sidebar or visit www.inquiringmind.com for a listing of websites offering free-distribution books.) This trend is a boon to the spread of freely offered Dhamma books. There are no printing or shipping costs. “When you get to e-books, you don’t really need so much financial sponsorship,” says Ajahn Sucitto. “You just need volunteers with a bit of technical know-how to create the electronic versions, which is great.”
In any event, both ajahns agree that printing books will likely continue. For one thing, Ajaan Geoff notes, printed books are needed to satisfy the many requests that come from prisoners. Plus, many people prefer to read hard copy. What’s more, at Metta Monastery, “we enjoy printing the books, and the monks still enjoy sending them out. It’s part of our practice of generosity. It gives us a feeling we’re connected. Traditionally, the Dhamma was always given in a personal context. Sending and receiving a book from Metta is a very human operation. When you sell something, you place a barrier between yourself and the person who’s buying it that can be overcome only with a certain amount of money.” But when it’s freely given, he says, you create a bond among everyone involved.
Perhaps the most important aspect to free-distribution publishing is this culture of giving. When a Dhamma book is offered freely, it’s received “with a sense of gratitude, which is very rarely the case when you plunk down your money to buy a book,” says Ajaan Geoff. As a result, “the reader is more receptive. There’s that sense of appreciation, that sense of respect for the person who’s being generous, which creates a different atmosphere around the Dhamma when you start reading it.” It helps open the heart. And how can readers express their support and gratitude? “Well, by practicing. That’s what the gift of Dhamma is all about. When you receive something, your way of showing gratitude is to practice.”
Likewise for Ajahn Sucitto, “there’s great heart in giving somebody a book they don’t have to pay for. It introduces them to a culture of generosity and sharing.” He finds this culture to be a helpful antidote to the materialism that can permeate capitalist cultures. “You can be totally broke, and you still get a book. It cuts through the money hierarchy.” And from the perspective of one who decides what books to write or to publish, Ajaan Geoff finds that “you’re not thinking about whether it’s going to sell. You’re thinking instead about whether it’s something that’s needed. If you reach one person out there who benefits from hearing that teaching, then you feel you’ve accomplished your purpose.”
For Ajaan Geoff, preserving the ancient tradition of freely offering Dhamma books is a stand against what he feels is a growing “commercialization of the Dhamma, which I don’t think is a good atmosphere for the Dhamma to thrive.” Offering the Dhamma as a gift “adds a human quality. Not just words in books.” Ajahn Sucitto adds, “It’s about feeling good yourself. And feeling you’re part of something.”
With thanks to Dennis Crean for assistance in the writing of this article.
For a list of websites offering printed and online free-distribution books, click here.