There are several consulting firms out there that teach mindfulness to corporations as a livelihood. Is it bad karma since they are essentially taking this from the Buddhist teachings, adding their own neuroscience research on top of it and selling it as a product for better productivity and emotional health. On the other hand, many mindfulness centres in the west offer retreats in exchange for "suggested" donations. Does this kind of transaction corrupt the dharma or is it propagating the dharma to a wider audience?
Is it unethical to teach mindfulness for money?
I guess that what's taught as "mindfulness" probably isn't Buddhist Dharma -- for example:
Sharf further notes that this [i.e. Buddhist mindfulness] has little to do with "bare attention," the popular contemporary interpretation of sati [i.e. the mindfulness which is taught by and to corporations], "since it entails, among other things, the proper discrimination of the moral valence of phenomena as they arise."
I think there are reasons why it's traditionally wrong to teach dharma for money -- for example:
Lay people might be typically less able to teach Buddhism than monks or nuns are, and should respect (not try to replace) one of the functions of the Sangha which is teaching
Buddhism isn't very specific about what "right livelihood" is for lay people; but IMO it includes giving good value for money, not making fraudulent claims about the product or service.
IMO because they're not teaching Dharma (#1 above) so the normal reasoning (#2) isn't applicable.
It might be (but isn't necessarily) unethical for #3, e.g. if they make fraudulent (untrue) claims about the benefits of what they're teaching, or if they don't deliver (competently teach) what they promised.
On the other hand, many mindfulness centres in the west offer retreats in exchange for "suggested" donations.
The little experience I have of that is of a group of people renting a room in which to meet -- where a small amount of money per person was volunteered, a collection to pay to rent the meeting room.
Good question. Leaving Mindfulness aside for a second, let's consider the question of taking money for Dharma.
In the original Buddhism this was explicitly disallowed but implicitly allowed. Monks could not take money but they could accept 'dana' (donations) in form of food, medicine, and clothes. Rich sponsors such as Anathapindika donated land and sponsored construction of facilities.
In Late Indian Buddhism, as we can see from the story of Naropa and Marpa, it was customary for the student to "offer" (give) the teacher something extremely valuable, such as gold, to indicate respect and seriousness of intent. Indeed, if you don't think Dharma is more valuable than gold, can you be considered a serious student? This custom was carried on in Tibetan Buddhism, where money "offerings" to the teacher at the end of the lecture are practiced to this day.
A modern teacher I highly respect once said that people do not value something they get for free. He insists on charging money for retreats and training sessions. According to him, people take it more seriously when they feel it has a cost. My Zen Master had "membership fee" that permanent students had to pay. He never enforced it of course, but it has been declared. My local Nyingma temple always sells tickets for teaching events, but never checks them at the door, so everyone can come and listen whether they have money or not. Thousands of Buddhist authors and translators sell books on Amazon and other bookstores for much higher amount than the cost of paper and printing.
I think this sets up enough precedence to not demonize taking money for teaching Dharma. I personally would like to see Buddhism getting as popular and accepted by mainstream society as therapy, personal coaching, and holistic practices like Tai-Chi & Qigong. Treating it as any other wellbeing training, including the taking of money, would help with adoption. There are always the normal concerns of fair price, fair advertisement, fair customer retention methods, fair customer service - but I think this could be controlled by the civil society's free market mechanisms, as well as existing legislation in place in most countries.
Now, to get to your Mindfulness question, Mindfulness is not strictly speaking a form of Buddhism. Even though it was inspired by Buddhism it does not provide a holistic ethical and philosophical system for someone to follow. In some sense Buddhism is like science: the laws of physics are not anyone's intellectual property and can't be patented. If someone takes one of these laws of principles, and builds a commercial product around it -- a product that people find helpful and good -- the physicists do not file a lawsuit for patent infringement, do they? So I don't think we should be this defensive about someone taking an idea from Buddhism and using it for the benefit of people, even if they charge money for it.
In my opinion, Dharma gets more "corrupted" by not fully understanding its principles, by not applying them in real life, and by not passing them on to the next generation -- than by the charging of money. What hurts Dharma, in my opinion, is parroting the texts with only a superficial understanding, and encouraging superstitious attachment to traditional skillful means - without making an effort to understand and transmit the meaning and purpose behind the ideas.
What I think needs to happen to help "propagating the dharma to a wider audience" is a serious effort to translate the principles behind dharma to a modern secular language, and to show how dharma benefits all aspects of regular life. Offering commercial Mindfulness courses to a wide secular population is a tiny step in the right direction.
Yes, it is unethical.
Vinaya Pātimokkha sekhiya Pādukāvagga Navama:
“Formerly, monks, in Benares, the wife of a certain low class man came to be pregnant. Then, monks, this low class woman spoke thus to this low class man: ‘Sir, I am pregnant; I want to eat a mango.’
‘There are no mangoes, it is not the mango season,’ he said.
Now at that time the king had a mango tree with a perpetual crop of fruit. Then, monks, that low class man approached that mango tree; having approached, having climbed up that mango tree, he remained hidden. Then, monks, the king together with the brahmin priest, approached that mango tree; having approached, having sat down on a high seat, he learnt a mantra. Then, monks, it occurred to that low class man:
‘How unrighteous is this king, inasmuch as he learns a mantra, having sat down on a high seat. This brahmin also is unrighteous, inasmuch as he, having sat down on a low seat, teaches a mantra to (someone) sitting on a high seat. I too am unrighteous, I who for the sake of a woman, steal the king’s mangoes. But all this is quite gone,’ (and) he fell down just there.
Neither knows the goal,
neither sees dhamma,
Neither he who teaches the mantra,
nor he who learns according to what is not the rule.
My food is pure conjey
of rice flavoured with meat,
I do not therefore fare on dhamma,
dhamma praised by the noble.
Brahmin, shame on that gain of wealth,
(that) gain of fame;
That conduct (leads) to falling away
or to walking by what is not the rule.
Go forth, great brahmin,
for other creatures boil,
Do not you, following what is not the rule,
from that break like a pot.
"I saw rancid buttermilk being bartered for precious sandalwood worth a fortune in gold. This was my eleventh dream. What shall come of it?"
"This will happen only in the distant future, when my teaching is waning. In those days, there will be many greedy, shameless bhikkhus, who for the sake of their bellies dare to preach the very words in which I have warned against greed! Because they desert the Truth to gratify their stomachs, and because they sided with sectarians, their preaching will not lead to Nibbana. Their only thought as they preach will be to use fine words and sweet voices to induce lay believers to give them costly robes, delicate food, and every comfort. Others will seat themselves beside the highways, at busy street corners, or at the doors of kings' palaces where they will stoop to preach for money, even for a pittance! Thus these monks will barter away for food, for robes, or for coins, my teaching which leads to liberation from suffering! They will be like those who exchanged precious sandalwood worth a fortune in pure gold for rancid buttermilk. However, you have nothing to fear from this. Tell me your twelfth dream."
What is being taught is not the teachings of the Buddha but another doctrine manufactured by others. Therefore, its not unethical in the sense of "stealing" something from Buddhism. However, it is bad karma because the "mindfulness" being taught is the suspension of moral judgment.
The word "mindfulness" merely means to "remember" or "keep in mind". An assassin that must stalk a victim to shoot them must have "mindfulness". However, the mindfulness of an assassin is not Buddhist "Right Mindfulness" ("Samma Sati").
Similarly, the corporate mindfulness that teaches to suspend moral judgment in favour of having equanimity towards all corporate objectives & directives is not Buddhist mindfulness. Since Corporate Mindfulness is not Buddhist Mindfulness, it can be sold for money.
Teaching ''samatha'' bhavana for money is not a much big problem,But when it's to ''Vipassana'' bhavana that's not ethical and suitable..Because Lord buddha's the founder of vipassana meditation ,and before the era of buddha there were samatha bavana and it's also taught in other religions..So vipassana meditation is only found in Buddhism,It's not ethical to get money for teaching vipassana..
In buddhism mostly buddhist monks are the teachers,Buddha had said them not to accept money in any occasion,So that also suggest getting money for something uniquely in buddha's learning isn't suitable