A Brief History of Dharma Seed
In the early 1980s Dharma Seed had its beginnings in the basement of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Massachusetts. “Originally at IMS those of us who were audio junkies were bringing our own tape recorders to record Dharma talks [in the meditation hall],” former Dharma Seed Director Judy Phillips remembers.
Then in 1983, an IMS staffer and regular retreatant named Bill Hamilton got IMS’s approval to begin taping the center’s retreat talks. Bill had managed the project of Ram Dass’ audio tapes for the Hanuman Foundation from 1974-1977, and set up the new system for IMS. “Bill would record the talks and if you wanted it, you sent a little note and you would have it the next day for $2,” Judy said.
In the early days, the project was known as Insight Tapes (or IMS Tapes in other historical documents) and Bill worked out of a corner at the end of the bowling alley in IMS's basement known as “the cave.” Before long, Bill’s tape service spun off from IMS and in 1984, the project became a separate nonprofit and got a new name: the Dharma Seed Tape Library. At that time, eight teachers’ talks were available through Dharma Seed. This number grew to 74 in 2003, and 285 by 2016.
Over the years, many people offered their time and energy to the project and it operated out of different homes for several years. In 1988, Judy Phillips, who was initially a volunteer board member, became Dharma Seed’s director, a role that she would hold for the next 19 years.
What started with cassette tapes moved to include CD production in 1997. Dharma Seed also had a brief foray in VHS video in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in an effort to make retreats available to those who were unable to come to the retreat center locations. Recording technology continued to change as well, from cassette tapes to MiniDiscs, DAT (Digital Audio Tape), recordable CDs, and lastly to direct-to-digital recorders. In 2007, Dharma Seed became a fully online resource with audio teachings available as mp3 files. Video archives were added in 2016.
In its first decades, Dharma Seed distributed its tapes and CDs for a fee, calculated to just cover the costs of production. In 2000 it moved away from this model and changed to operating fully on a dana basis. It has been offering the teachings in this way ever since. When asked about this shift in a 2000 interview with the Insight Journal, Judy said, “The dharma is priceless and to be able to offer it freely has opened so many doors for us…. Receiving the teachings as an act of generosity inspires people to give freely so that others may also share in hearing the teachings.”
In the transition to becoming a fully online resource in 2006, Dharma Seed also went from having a physical location to being homeless. As a 2007 issue of IMS’s Insight Newsletter wrote “it gave away all its material possessions… and is now wandering free and easy through cyberspace.” The nonprofit is now supported largely by the work of volunteers, along with a part-time director and several dedicated tech-specialists.
From its modest beginnings in the IMS basement, Dharma Seed has now grown to be an important digital archive of the Insight Meditation community’s teachings. About 300,000 talks and meditations are now downloaded each month and the number of teachers offering their teachings here continues to grow.