Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Institutional Buddhist Priorities?

Thanks to Nella Lou over at Smiling Buddha Cabaret for bringing to my attention a wonderful article about a Zen priest working with homeless people in San Francisco. This kind of getting off the cushion and back into the world practice is exactly what we need more of here in the usually pretty affluent North American Buddhist world. What struck me, though, were the following lines in the article:

For an ordained Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Jana Drakka is stressed out.

“How do I live as a monk out here? I can’t beg as a monk would traditionally,” Drakka said recently outside the Royan, a single room occupancy hotel on Valencia Street where she does grief counseling.

“Japanese monks are supported by the community. The Catholic Church takes care of their nuns.” She paused to consider that luxury. “I have to make a meditative effort to not worry about rent.”

The article states that Reverend Drakka received $10,000 from San Francisco Zen Center, but that they also required her to sign a contract saying she'd never ask them for more money to support her work with the homeless. She commented on the article that she still has a good working relationship with Zen Center, has been setting up a non-profit organization, and is doing well. However, all of this makes me wonder about the larger focus and future of Buddhist institutions here in North America.

Maybe it's absolutely appropriate that Reverend Drakka started her own organization; I don't know the details of the story enough to say otherwise. In their defense, San Francisco Zen Center has done a lot of work in the community over the years. Barry over at Ox Herding just reminded me of this, some of which I already knew about. You can check out more here).

Yet, even with this, I still wonder about Reverend Drakka's work. Was it too edgy for the Zen Center? Is it only about doing "safe" projects like teaching meditation in prisons or handing out food for the homeless that will count when it comes to North American convert institutions? Both of those examples are valuable work, and I support them whole-heartedly. However, neither are really all that dangerous to the institution's public persona. In other words, while progressive church communities in the U.S. and Canada take up dicey issues like social justice for undocumented immigrants, or fighting to help people keep their homes and change predatory housing practices - such as subprime mortgages - you rarely hear of "convert" Buddhist communities taking up issues like this. The Zen Hospice Project, which started at San Francisco Zen Center during the worst years in terms of the U.S. public perception of AIDS patients, is an exception. And yet, that program was only part of Zen Center for 5 years before it, like Reverend Drakka's efforts, became an independent non-profit.

There is a perception among some that American Buddhists, especially those of us "convert" Buddhists, are mostly in the practice for ourselves. The view is that we like to meditate, study texts, be nice to each other, but that we aren't very generous, nor all the interested, collectively, in working to make the lives of others better. It's a stereotype, and one based on ill informed opinions for the most part. But there might be some truth lurking around in it.

I know people personally who are working in Christian communities on difficult issues, and their churches have decided that it's more important to try and address the suffering around them, than to be a part of a church that just has a "good" public image and does non-confrontational service projects. This, I think, was the more specific point I wanted to make about San Francisco Zen Center, which I had unfairly criticized as not being involved in the community enough. Barry's right that they could be used as an example of a sangha that puts money and time behind their talk about liberating all beings. But are they, and many of the rest of us, ignoring or opting out of addressing head-on some of the myriad of socially created sufferings out there?

This is really part of a larger issue for all Buddhist communities in the "West" - namely, how to finance our practice and what to do with the money we do have. When priests and lay teachers have to have second jobs, and projects like doing meditation and counseling in homeless communities are left to a few brave people who are willing to risk going broke themselves, we're kind of in trouble. And, on the flip side, you have teachers like Genpo Roshi running around saying things like the following:

"what I heard from a lot of very wealthy people was they’ve always felt that the shadow around money in Zen and Buddhist communities meant they would give a lot of money, if they had a lot of money, and I’ve known people with that, and never be properly thanked or, more importantly, anything given to them that was meaningful."

This is from a long, rather irritating interview with Vince Horn from the Buddhist Geeks, during which Genpo defends the extravagant fund raising projects his community in Salt Lake City has undertaken. One thing you can say about Genpo - he's raising a lot of money and his community has the resources to do something. However, I highly question the emphasis he seems to place on "properly" thanking wealthy people for their gifts, while not really talking at all about the gifts - material or otherwise - given by people who have less financial means. Everyone should receive gratitude, from the wealthiest member to the poorest of the poor.

At the same time, if you are wealthy, the act of giving money or buildings or whatever should be enough - in fact, that act is supporting one's practice of letting go, of giving freely, without attachment. And if you're like me, with not a whole lot of money available, it's still the same. You give time, and a little money when you can, as both an act of generosity to others, but also as a means of letting go of self-centeredness. Wanting to be thanked in a certain way, and catering to that need, only supports the very self-centeredness our practice is trying to root out.

I don't know what the future will bring - maybe the whole institutional Buddhist project will just collapse and we'll all be free floating with others who have left institutional religion. That might be just fine. All of institutional religion might just collapse - I've considered this as a definite possibility over the years. And that might be fine as well.

In the meantime, we really need to consider what we're doing with our institutions, why we're forming and funding them, and how they embody the teachings of our practice. One thing I have considered is that maybe some of the work we want to do will have to be done independent of our spiritual organizations, as was the case for the Zen Hospice Project. But all of it? And what about using the institutional power of our spiritual organizations to help society make more difficult changes that might actually reduce the need for some of those food shelves or some of those prison sanghas?

I keep going back to the fact that if the not so large Catholic Church a friend of mine goes to, a community that isn't exactly gaining in new membership, is willing to publicly challenge the city government, and the federal government over it's use of low-income housing moneys, then why can't some of us Buddhist communities do the same? Why is it that this kind of "outreach" is left to underfunded organizations like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, which I've long liked, but know can't possibly do it alone?

Maybe a lot of this has to do with the struggle to develop and maintain something long term and sustainable. That when it comes to money, most North American Buddhist
organizations are looking to buying buildings, propping up their meditation and Buddhist studies programming, and doing what they can to support their staff. This is understandable, and needed, but I think it's kind of a fallacy to assume that community outreach and/or activism can and will come later.


Jamie G. said...

I listened to his podcast too. Was it me only who noticed this, but Genpo said he didn't give a damn, but he sure started getting louder and more "pissed off" sounding when Vince brought it up.

Barry said...

I don't know anything about the specific situation described in your post, Nathan. But I do know that San Francisco Zen Center has invested millions of dollars in community outreach.

This outreach has taken many forms over the last three decades, from the famous Greens Restaurant and the now-independent Zen Hospice Project, to lesser-known programs for children, homeless, and institutionalized communities.

Few religious organizations anywhere in the United States, and of any faith tradition, have done as much for their community as SFZC.

You can read more about some of their current social service and outreach activities at:

In my view, SFZC could serve as a model for any spiritual organization that seeks to embody its teachings in the context of community.

Nathan said...

Hi Barry,

I figured it was dangerous to use SF Zen Center as an example, and guessed I'd probably get nailed for doing so. I should have done a better job balancing the specifics for SF Zen Center. I will correct that error. Thank you for calling me on it.


spldbch said...

I think it's very important to look at what our institutions are doing (or at what we are doing with our institutions).

neurobi said...

Being a buddhist layman, and living in Italy, I performa my "getting off the cushion" practice voluntary working in Catholic Associations, without any problem.
I guess it's very important realizing in concrete Metta in the real world!



Bruce said...

In response to some of the more rhetorical issues you raise in this post, you might be interested to look at the work that Tzu Chi, the Buddhist Compassion Relief Foundation, is doing around the world.

They are a great model for putting Buddhist values into action through famine and disaster relief, free clinics that serve ignored populations, and even environmental clean-up. Interestingly, social action is the organization's top priority, over all the other more traditional programs you mentioned.

They accomplish all of this by being being strictly apolitical rather than activist. They are regarded so highly by most political entities (including some of the world's rogue regimes) that they've been able to gain entrance and perform deeds no other organization has been allowed.

Perhaps their approach could serve as a model for local organizations.

Nathan said...

Ah, Tzu Chi - I've heard a little about this organization. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention.