Thursday, December 31, 2009

More on Funding Dharma Organizations in the 21st Century

Like many other Buddhist bloggers, I have a lot of issues with the way Genpo Roshi from Salt Lake City, Utah is promoting his Big Mind work. John's current post at Sweep the Dust,Push the Dirt addresses Genpo's recent interview on Buddhist Geeks, as well as makes some comments about the board of directors for the Big Mind Center. I felt compelled to respond to the issue of funding dharma organizations, given my current position and experience.

Here's my response, for the record:

Well, I have to out myself as the Board President of my sangha. It’s been an interesting experience, focusing on finances and future goals for a Zen community. Our community membership is probably about 130 households right now – the largest in Minnesota, but not terribly big. We have nothing like the Big Mind Center in terms of “products” for sale, and our marketing is very small scale (sometimes even too small). Spending three years on the board has shown me the great complications that come with financing dharma institutions in capitalist countries that have no history of dana or giving to such organizations.

One of my main issues with Genpo and others like him is that they are giving into the view that it’s in our best interest to go along with the global capitalist approach, and somehow, the dharma will just manifest for people if we just use the tools of capitalism to sell it. This is an absolute failure to address both the huge amounts of suffering being produced by this system, as well as the fact that many Buddhist teachings run completely against the grain of a for profit system.

We have to do our best to work within this system, while also challenging the sickness of it all. That’s my view. And because of this, there’s going to be some quandaries when it comes to funding. Do you take money from a questionable source if it means keeping the doors open? What strings attached are ok, and which aren’t? How do you fund an organization through a Buddhist lens in a country that is mostly non-Buddhist?

A few years ago, I actually looked at a grant from the Lenz Foundation for our sangha, not knowing a lot about his history at that time. There was something off about it to me, so I didn’t suggest that our board pursue it. There has been a lot of talk about Tricycle magazine accepting money from the Lenz Foundation, and I agree this is somewhat troubling. However, they have also helped fund the following organizations during the past 8 years: Upaya Zen Center, Zen Hospice Project, Naropa University, Prison Dharma Network, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and Great Mountain Zen Center. They’re also considering a grant for the Insight Meditation Center, among others.

The problem is that there aren’t very many places to go for Buddhist organizations to go to for outside funds. I think we need a national Buddhist funding body, with regional affiliates – this is one idea I’ve had anyway. Because as it is now, the Big Mind approach is kind of attractive if you ignore the impact of giving into the drives of “the shadows.” And if you’ve reject that approach, then you end up taking a look at things like the Lenz Foundation. Or you hobble along like my center does, breaking even or losing some money each year, and hoping to get enough membership money and class payments to make it to the next year. Our center is probably more fortunate than many others in that we have a lot of talented people donating time and effort into making things continue, and we also have a small, but excellent staff group. However, even that isn't enough, and we've headed into strategic planning land, hoping to discover some alternative funding ideas.


Algernon said...

Hear, hear, especially regarding the sickness inherent in the paradigm itself.

Anonymous said...

"... capitalist countries that have no history of dana or giving to such organizations."

This is quite a perplexing statement to me. Christian institutions were built in this country by people giving from the little they had to help each other.

Nathan said...

anonymous - I can understand your perplexity here. The statement was pointing to Buddhist organizations. It's very true that Christian institutions have been built through the generosity of many. As for Buddhist institutions, it's a different story. We're a tiny minority in the U.S. and simply don't have the financial backing and systems in place for the most part, nor can we expect a flood of money to arrive from average Americans, or businesses, or other organizations who might have some money to donate. This is requiring us to make creative, but sometimes questionable choices when it comes to finances.