Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pricing Buddhism and its Personal Cost

Monty McKeever has a piece on the Tricycle blog entitled Why Is Buddhism So Damned Expensive?

The morning will not permit a long and considered response to this, but a couple of thoughts come to mind.

Financial barriers should not present an absolute barrier to practicing Zen or interfacing with other Buddhist centers. Most of these places, as McKeever points out, want people there and will arrange something like a scholarship or work-study. The Kwan Um School had a center in Colorado once that had a special fund for this, and a lot of us would round up our retreat fee a few dollars to endow it. If you were having trouble affording the full retreat fee, you could take from this fund.

What I would emphasize even more than McKeever does is the importance of asking. Requesting assistance can be a very interesting experience. The Buddha and his first sangha were beggars. I have always suspected there was more to their practice of begging than simply sustenance. When Bernie Glassman first began doing street retreats, one of the first phenomena they had to address was the middle-class social conditioning around asking for help. (This is recounted in Glassman's book, Bearing Witness.) In the middle class and above, people are used to simply buying what they need or else doing without. Asking for something without the ability to pay for it was not an interaction people were used to. Coincidentally, or not, many of Buddha's followers had also been people of means, suddenly wearing rags and asking for handouts of food.

The ability to pay can be a barrier. It has to do with asking, and interacting, rather than simply signing up and saying, "Here's my check." I have noticed this in everyday life when it comes to things like repairs. Instead of fixing something myself, I could just make a phone call and pay someone to do it -- without having to touch or examine my own home, without going on the journey of figuring out how to do it and risking dissatisfaction.

We are not talking about begging in its extreme -- I'm talking about asking, making oneself a tiny bit vulnerable. To pick up the phone and order "off the menu" of options presented, to ask for an opportunity that has not been explicitly laid out in a brochure -- asking for a favor, even -- is for some a very unfamiliar way of encountering other people.

Buddhist centers are in a bind because the dharma should be free for all. This value does not apply to rent, repairs to a roof, heating and cooling a space, utilities and insurance, or flying a teacher to the location for a retreat. Deming Zen Center is almost 100% donation-only, and sometimes that bites us in the back. Operating a Zen Center on the basis of dana is very difficult even when everyone chips in. Sometimes people don't.

So there is a need for fees, even though it establishes financial gates and is a factor in the oft-reported trend that Buddhist practitioners are middle-class and up. Privileged, in other words.

One of the commenters on this article also points out the difficulty of retreats, not just because of fees but also time. Very few people are able to take time away from work to participate in 7-day retreats or longer. Many centers (including ours) do shorter retreats on weekends to allow for more participation, but this is a compromise: a short retreat is very different than an extended retreat.

Unfortunately, the commenter is led to question the importance of retreats: "It's possible that the problem lies not with the cost of retreats but with over-emphasis on the retreat model altogether." Note we are now embracing the language of capitalist enterprise: the retreat is spoken of as a product, part of a business model.

I will not deny that the amount of time I have spent on retreat has cost me financially. At a certain point, I made a decision to make myself available for retreats as much as possible, and it was possible for me to do this because I had few obligations at the time. I sacrificed money and career opportunities in order to live at Zen Centers and to spend periods of as much as ninety days on silence and unreachable from outside the monastery. Within the logic of capitalism, I was committing suicide.

When I made a commitment to sit an entire Kyol Che, I went to my employer and offered my resignation. When I explained the situation, the boss said goodbye and shook my hand. Later that day, he called me into his office. He had called national headquarters and gotten permission to grant me a very rare unpaid leave of absence: my job would be there when I returned.

This may sound a bit woo -- it certainly isn't something I can demonstrate with scientific rigor -- but generosity often does appear when people make a commitment openly to something like a long retreat. I've heard many stories about this from Zen students. I've heard Appalachian Trail hikers describe a similar phenomenon: they announce that they are going to spend months hiking this trail, and people find ways to help them, as if they were going on a pilgrimage. (And who's to say they aren't?)

The benefits of sitting a 7-day retreat even once is worth the imposition, and it may turn out to be less of a burden than you thought.

That said, it does cost. Buddhism, at least the kind that is part of my life with daily meditation practice and intensive training, is an imposition. It requires time and some energy. It is time you will not be able to spend cultivating other things. Some possibilities, we gotta let go. We're talking about sacrifice. Besides giving up time and opportunities, I have had to spend money, and sometimes I have had to ask for special accommodations (like work exchange). Sometimes -- oh, how the bourgeois conscience reels -- I even let certain bills pile up and become "delinquent" so as to put the retreat first. Putting the credit score in jeopardy, I know -- unthinkable.

Yet for me it never felt like a choice. Acting was like this, as well. I had to do it, so I found ways to do it wherever I was. It may not be equivalent to the begging that Shakyamuni Buddha and his followers did, but I sense a parallel: they had to do it, so they took responsibility, made the imposition, and made ways to do it.

This is going to have to be a one-draft post, folks; I apologize for the bad quality and hope something worthwhile came through.


~ kjb said...

What bad quality? It's a great post.

Thank you for this insight about the ability to ask. Too many of us have forgotten how to be humble.

Ji Hyang said...

Thank you. Having also put myself on the line by asking for scholarships, work study etc more than once, I have found that miracles can and do happen. My current work at Omega, for instance, is a door that opened through attending a program on full scholarship.

And it is true that we need fee- for -service now and then, since dana is not yet fully taken root in this culture. I've done some research on this...

Nathan said...

I have a few reactions to this.

1. I think there is something valuable behind the guy's point about "retreat models," even if it's a bit off in terms of view.

As a long time Zen practitioner who has done retreats, but isn't doing much in that vain right now, I notice an in-group, out-group flavor amongst convert Zennies. If you're doing retreats fairly regularly, you're seen as "deeply practicing." If you're not, or never have, then your practice is viewed as suspect. I think this kind of division is a false one built up around the models of practice we have here in North America and in Europe. Sesshin practice, though quite powerful and excellent, is simply one form available to us.

2. To me, there is sacrifice and commitment on the one hand, and there are issues of privilege and life circumstances on the other. Katagiri Roshi used to tell parents with really young children that their main practice was "shikan-baby." Which makes sense to me. And I think there are plenty of people who have practices that don't "look deep," but whom are powerful, compassionate people in the world. My own experience has been one of working with the ebbs and flows without pressing, or doing things mostly for approval. Which has been challeging at times, given my position in our sangha, and the years of practice I have behind my belt.

3. I'm right there with you about the benefits of practicing "the ask." I have had to ask for fee reductions and wavers at zen center several times in recent years, and it's been a learning process about trust and letting go of "image." In fact, I kind of wish there were a way to create that opportunity for everyone in our sanghas. The closest thing seems to be - at least in our sangha - asking the teacher to do jukai or become a priest. But a lot of folks never go that far, so maybe there are other ways to do it for the average lay practitioner.

4. Finally, I also support breaking middle class norms in order to place your spiritual practice in the forefront. This is something I have done constantly, choosing to have much, much less in disposable income and material possessions, so I could have more time and opportunity to practice in different ways.

Algernon said...

Thanks Kelly and JiHyang.

Responses to Nathan:

On 1. You are quite right about this comparative/judgmental thinking. I've also seen it in Zen Centers where some people were in residence, and others commuted to the Zen Center. There was also a thinking-divide between lay practitioners and robed monastics. Much judging of other people whose circumstances were different; some people gathered into cliques, and some people saw cliques where maybe there were not. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to call people out on that. Teachers after him seemed to do it less often.

2. "Shikan-baby." Absolutely.

and on 4: Your own blog has featured many good posts on this topic, and I applaud you for your work on that.

Hal Johnson said...

Sheesh. If only my first drafts could have this sort of "bad quality."

Barry said...

Seems to me that the Dharma is free in the same way that water is free. Free.

But those darn pipes and purifiers do cost money.

Anonymous said...

This chimed with me, have to be careful about the pitfalls of inverse snobbery though Nathan?