The Business of Buddhism

One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the Buddhist tradition is that from the time of the Buddha the teachings were always offered freely.

India must have been quite something around 2400 B.C.E. when the Buddha lived. To this day India is a country where spiritual seekers are revered and admired. Even given the tensions between Hindus and Muslims there are still more Muslims living in India than there are in Pakistan. When I was in India I experienced admiration for the fact that I had traveled from the U.S. on a spiritual pilgrimage, despite the fact that there are very few Buddhists in India today. I got the impression that anyone who has a religious path is respected there, even if you are from a different tradition.

At the time of the Buddha there was a kind of religious infrastructure for spiritual seekers. The mainstream religion at the time was Brahmanism, the precursor to Hinduism. The counter to the mainstream religion was a motley group of seekers called samana. They represented a wide variety of views. The Buddha was a samana. The Jains, who still exist, were another. A number of samana groups and teachers are mentioned in the Buddhist canonical literature.

The samana were part of a religious pact with larger Indian society. Outside of each city was a park in which the samana could stay. Each morning after the morning meal the samana went on alms rounds. The samana asked only for this one meal a day – leftovers from the morning meal – a place to sleep, and basic requisites like robes and medicine. In return they dedicated their lives to spiritual seeking. It was a sort of low budget version of the philosophers in Greece. (See note 1.)

Parts of that tradition remain in some Buddhist schools today. In particular the Forest traditions of Thailand still eat only one meal a day, take vows of poverty, and only live on the four requisites: clothing (an allowance of three sets of robes), shelter, food and medicine.

In return for their one free lunch they dedicate their lives to the spiritual life, and when asked, they teach. It is also part of the Buddhist tradition that when asked, no monk or nun may refuse a request to teach. It is a beautiful and simple arrangement that brings honor to both the monastics who live this life and the lay people who support them. (See note 2.)

On one of the very first meditation retreats that I attended I was given a talk on this tradition, on how the teachings have always been freely offered. I’m not sure when it began to dawn on me – it may have been at this retreat – that since I was paying about $800 for the retreat, and then being told that the cost of the retreat only paid for a portion of the actual cost, and further that the teachers were not being paid out of that amount, that somehow this didn’t feel like the teachings were being freely offered. At the end of these retreats you are always given this talk and asked for donations for the teacher and the retreat center.

I have attended most of my retreats at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS), sister organizations in Barre, Massachusetts. As I write this I believe that the median cost of a retreat is about $95 a day. This does not, as I said, cover the full cost of the retreat and it does not pay for the teachers. In addition, in order to keep costs down you are assigned a work job. I think what IMS and BCBS charge is probably average in the Buddhist industry. All in all I could stay at a Motel 6 and get a veggie sub for less than half the cost per day of going to IMS, and I would get maid service and cable to boot.

The local Zen center here in Vermont charges what amounts to a tithing fee. When you join you are given a form on which you pledge how much you are going to give the center every month. And I can tell you from direct experience that when you miss a payment or two, you will hear about it.

To be sure there are a few places that still operate in the traditional way. The Bhavana Society and Monastery in West Virginia does not charge for retreats and they do not ask for donations when you go there. This is true as well for the Metta Forest Monastery in California and Arrow River Hermitage (See note 3) in Ontario. They exist solely on donations that are freely offered, and they do not do fund raising.

In addition, Western Buddhism in particular has a tradition of dubious merit, and that is of the lay teacher. Lay teachers teach meditation as a way to earn a living. This puts lay teachers in a precarious position. In order to earn a living, they have to attract students. To attract students you need to have a certain entertainment value. Students have to feel as if they are getting their money’s worth.

I have even noticed that meditation students have a peculiar way in which they refer to a “good retreat.” A “good retreat” is often a code word for an entertaining and charismatic teacher, one who is funny, tells good stories, and who has “presence”. It often has little to do with whether the student made good progress on the path, something that – while it can be – is not always fun, entertaining or pleasant.

One of my favorite teachers – who shall remain nameless – is not very charismatic or entertaining. But I have great respect for his practice, his knowledge, and his ability as a teacher. His retreats routinely draw 6 or 8 students where 30 or more is the norm. He apparently does not give very “good retreats”.

The Buddha himself warned people about the problems of being charmed by a religious teacher who is – to use Robert Thurman’s words – “too cute.” Just because someone can give a good speech doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about.

I read an interview years ago with a monastic – I think it was Pema Chodron – who said that when she goes to a conference of lay teachers, their main topic of discussion is how to make money, and when she goes to a conference of monastic teachers the main topic of discussion is how to teach the Dhamma.

Even Joseph Goldstein, who co-founded IMS and BCBS (as well as the equally expensive Forest Refuge) calls this the Upper Middle Way.

This is all very unfortunate. I don’t see anything wrong with people teaching meditation who are not monastics. But it is in my mind disrespectful to the Buddha himself as well as the tradition to be charging for it. If you want to teach the Dhamma, the first thing you should do is figure out how to support yourself. That would be something to respect.

You don’t need private rooms and three meals a day – or even one fancy one – to practice meditation. There are ways to live simply, very, very simply. And perhaps in situations like this, people worry a little less about their food and accommodations and the entertainment value of the retreat, and a little more about their practice.

Note 1. Curiously, as Rupert Gethin points out in his outstanding book “The Foundations of Buddhism”, over time what happened in Buddhism was that the more sincere and austere the monk, the more gifts were offered to them. The monasteries that often became the biggest were the ones where the teachers and the monastics initially lived in the greatest poverty and the poorest conditions. It was the law of reverse effort in affect, where the poorer the monk the more money came their way. Some monasteries acquired a great deal of land and this became a serious problem. Some great monks ended up fleeing the big, affluent monasteries to seek out greater simplicity, only to attract a new legion of admiring lay people who wanted to support them. Perhaps there is a lesson in this for Western meditation teachers.

Note 2. It is also worth noting that when Buddhism got to China, which did not have same religious support system as in India, Buddhist monks adopted the credo “A day without work is a day without food.” Monks and nuns there were expected to earn their keep. The monasteries supported themselves.

Note 3. When Arrow River first opened they supported the center by building furniture. Unfortunately their wood shop burned down. Nonetheless this is a good example of how to support a center, more on the Chinese model.

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