Monday, August 19, 2013

Capitalizing on the dharma

A friend wrote,

Recently I was turned away from a teaching at a well known Tibetan Buddhist Center in Seattle. I did not know of the special teaching, and have not been able to afford dues to this large group. I have been a Sangha member of the larger Karma Kagyu lineage for eight years, receiving teachings in person from H.H. the Karmapa, Thrangu Rinpoche, and the Vajra Vidya Center in Crestone, CO. I was told by this Seattle financial director at this Dharma center that "you are not a member of the sangha." -Implying that somehow being a dues-paying member of this center was equivalent to being a member of the Sangha. I do not know where this kind of thinking arose with him, but this is a blatantly flawed view of what Sangha is. Many great teachers such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche have stated plainly that this kind of false view is purely a self-serving belief. The Sangha is not even visible to the common eye-Many non-Buddhists and non-religious, are members of the Sangha. They have the mind of the Buddha. I have practiced deeply for years now. All are welcome. The "ability to pay" view of membership is purely a product of samsara, and is antithetical to the nature of Dharma. Happily, I went to another service with Drikung Kagyu Seattle, and was welcomed with open arms, meeting a truly great teacher. No $ was requested. So, thank you, financial director, for rejecting me and sending me on a clearer path.

Sounds like a clear example of commodifying the dharma in order to capitalize on it.  

Granted, there is a balance to be struck somewhere.  The Buddha and his monks practiced begging.  Later, in China, monks turned to farming rather than mendicancy.  We now live under globalized liberal capitalism.  There are still monks who go on traditional begging rounds in Asia.  Under Chinese state capitalism, the state preserves temples as part of a tourist economy.  Japanese temples have also turned to tourism for sustenance.  In some places, temples receive government support. 

In the U.S., dharma centers pretty much sustain themselves with a combination of fees or member dues, and requests for donations.  One center here in New Mexico has a policy of no fees and they don't even request donations (though they certainly accept them).  Centers in my organization, the Kwan Um School of Zen, have member dues.  There is no fee for practicing at the center and membership is not required, but generally they ask people to become members if they are coming for teaching interviews on a regular basis or asking to take precepts.  Alternative arrangements like work exchange also exist. 

The way this is framed, however, is not as a fee for a service, as in a market relationship.  This is a different kind of relationship.  It is similar to the relationship you have when you support public radio: you may listen for free, but you are asked to take some responsibility for the station's survival, to support it at a level appropriate for your situation.  It is much more akin to being part of a family than a consumer in a marketplace.  In capitalist terms, this system makes no sense at all, and is even unfair.  For the same service, some people pay more, some people pay less, and some don't pay at all -- but they can all receive the service anyway!  

Capitalism has a certain aim, which is accumulation and growth.  To do this in a market economy, the dharma has to commodify the teaching and make it scarce, so as to ration it based on the ability to pay money.  In a market environment, this is how human beings relate to each other.  But for those who do not think of sangha as a marketplace, this is deeply problematic.  Another point of view is that the dharma is for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay; and for some, even work exchange is a bit difficult.

Deming Zen Center, the center I run in Luna County, New Mexico (where a recent unemployment figure hit 22%), is a bit like a family -- without the cohabitation.  We rent a very small space with the lowest rent we could find, we have an unobtrusive donation box, and we say little about it.  I have even been loath to post "suggested donations" lest they be viewed effectively as fees that discourage participation by the poor. After all, most of us grow up learning the lesson that we aren't entitled to things we can't pay for.

But in a family -- a circle including friends -- we just give and receive.   It would look insane for me to mention to my in-laws or our friends that they just ate approximately $X worth of food and wine.  Consistently, I feel the same way about doing it within the sangha family, although sometimes I still do it and I recognize that some people are confused and want some help deciding what is appropriate to give.   And frankly, when there isn't enough in the donation box, I dig into my own pocket, which is sometimes very hard to do.  So occasionally I must mention the box.

Our centers are built in the realm of samsara, and the mud of this world is part of establishing and maintaining a place.  We have to deal with money.   I haven't figured out the best way to do it either. 

An important point, that I think is often left missing in these conversations, is the specific nature of the economic system in which we operate.  Market capitalism defines human relationships.  If you analyzed a typical family in terms of economic relations, it is essentially communist -- and quite normal. Outside of the family structure, however, a very different kind of human relationship becomes normal and expected.  Outside of the family structure, it's a competitive marketplace.  Feeding my son is called "parenting" and makes me a "father."   Feeding a stranger who is broke is considered "enabling" and makes me a "bleeding heart."  That's how the marketplace conditions us. 

We live in a social order determined by our economic system, and it conditions our views about value and about relationships.  Even about ourselves.  As when, for example, middle-aged men feel anxiety and depression, or their marriages suffer, because they lost their job in their forties or fifties and companies are loath to hire men their age for reasons also having to do with capitalism.  Many blame themselves instead of examining the system or their own conditioned beliefs about money and self-worth.

This dharma center that turned my friend away was unusually explicit in defining their relationship with him as a customer relationship -- and took this a step further by telling him he wasn't even a part of Sangha!   (Sangha means something a whole lot wider than a local paying customer base.)

The Buddha never knew this kind of world.  But he did call it a very bad crime to divide monks or priests (sangha-bheda).  In an environment where people are not entirely lay or monastic, where people practice and train diligently and have to sustain themselves economically, if a temple divides them by their ability to contribute personal wealth even when it exceeds what the center needs to survive, does this not at least touch the concept of sangha-bheda?

Funding our dharma centers is akin to a life koan.  What are the hindrances that keep us from responding and penetrating this koan clearly?  I submit that if we are treating Sangha like a market relationship, we're stuck in a delusion that compels us to run dharma centers like businesses. And on paper, that's what they are; but that's not what they are.  And that's not what sangha is.

Sangha isn't family, either, but there's a parallel.

Anyway, it is now the time of the month when I hold my breath and figure out whether Deming Zen Center can pay its rent.  And we've got a retreat with our teacher coming up in November -- plane tickets, supplies, venue, etc.  It's not easy.  All I know is, somehow or other, this little group of people are going to practice together, everyone will get fed, everyone will have the opportunity to practice and receive attention and teaching.

As with my own family, I don't really know how we're going to accomplish that.  But we will.

POSTSCRIPT:  This is a broad topic and I've only scratched the surface, if I've even done that.  Reader responses are most welcome.  This is a creative problem that has engaged many good people already.  Please feel free to discuss here.  Or email  


Anonymous said...

The Buddha's teachings are filled with praise for the quality of generosity. When working with new students, generosity was the first practice the Buddha taught, followed my sila (moral behavior), THEN meditation.

Its the responsibility of the teacher to teach, explicitly,the practice of generosity. Yet many of us don't, due to our own hang-ups about money.Nobody wants anyone to mistake us for Creoflo Dollar. . .

No wonder the sangha is confused about dana !

PS- The Buddha and his monk carried empty bowls on alms rounds. Yeah, they didn't explicitly ask - but the implicit need was clear and visable.

Anonymous said...

FYI: Nathan has scratched more of this surface here: