It is my understanding that it is traditional for Buddhist teachers not to charge for Dharma teaching.
That may work well in Asia, where Buddhism is often part of the culture and temples, monasteries and the like can rely on being supported by the local populace; but here in the West, where Buddhist groups are relatively small and have to be self-sustaining, I don’t suppose that principle can work very well, if at all. It is a financial reality that here in the West, a charge often has to be made in order for a Buddhist organisation to raise enough money to keep the lights on and the doors open. However, the financial situation of your target audience should always be considered. I live in an area of high unemployment and social deprivation, and while I’m lucky enough to have a job that pays me a decent wage, many other people in this community are not so fortunate.
Now, I don’t mind donating to Buddhist centres. If I go to a meditation class or teaching or course, I’m happy to pay my way. As a Westerner, it’s what I’m used to anyway. I also tend to leave a donation when I’m at an event that doesn’t explicitly ask for payment. However, I can’t help comparing and contrasting with my Christian background sometimes.
Small churches also have to be self-sustaining, and also rely on donations from members and visitors. So far, so similar. However, I don’t ever remember having to pay forty UK pounds (equivalent to about sixty US dollars) or more for one or two hours of teaching at a Christian church, as I have seen advertised in some Buddhist centres. Visiting teachers would offer their services for free or for a small expenses-based donation. True, they often had secular jobs that provided them with a living wage, but is that so impossible for Buddhist teachers in this country too?
I must stress at this point that charging high amounts is not the way all Buddhist centres do things. Some make it clear that there is a suggested donation amount for teaching, which is usually a reasonable sum, but that if you can’t afford it then you can just give what you can afford (or not give anything). One place I’ve been to, in particular, stressed to people at a meditation class that there was no charge for the class, so they didn’t have to pay anything, but that any donations they did make would help pay for the next class. I like that way of putting things. Most people seemed happy to make a donation on that basis.
Now, it may well be that those Buddhist centres who ask for a certain amount for their events would also be happy for the low-paid and unwaged to pay less. I hope so, anyway. In that case, though, my personal opinion is that they should make that explicit in their publicity. Here in the West we are used to paying the price that is asked without question, or if we can’t afford it, going without the event or service. Rarely do we question the price.
So, any Buddhist leaders who may read this in the future: if you intend your events to be accessible to the low-waged and unwaged as well as to those of us who have jobs that pay a decent living wage, please consider making it explicit in your publicity that the cost can be reduced (or even waived) for those who do not have the ability to pay. That will make Buddhism far more accessible to ordinary people.