Algernon over at Notes from a Burning House has a thought provoking post about, among other things, the costs of running a Zen center, retreats, and the power of having to ask for help. I agreed with a lot of what he had to say, but did find myself thinking a bit differently about a few points. Algernon writes:
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.
Now, here are my thoughts.
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.
I'd like to expand on the point about "asking for help," especially financial help, but maybe that would be a good post on it's own.
So, what are you're thoughts on all of this?