Friday, March 16, 2012

No Money in the West: Buddist Blogging, Purity, and Capitalism's Warped Narrative

As money, capitalism, and spiritual practice often seem to be on my mind, I found this post by Zen teacher James Ford to be comment-worthy. It was written in response to a spirited discussion held on the blog No Zen in the West about blogging about Zen and making money, which I participated in.

James writes:

Over at one of the blogs I like to read there’s some reflecting going on about whether to move to a host that will provide some support but who also have advertising. Sort of like what you see to the right of this posting…

The writers of that blog solicited comments from readers.

Of those who chose to respond it appears the majority are disdainful of going with advertising.

The premise seems to be that there should be no connection between the Dharma and money.

Reminds me of something I read a few years back where this perennial theme was once again being hashed out. The thing I recall was how one commentator said his teacher never took money for teaching. And then added how he had no idea how his teacher supported himself. The writer seemed to be suggesting this not knowing was a good thing. Pure.

Personally I found it creepy.

I think it important to make sure everyone has access to the Dharma.

I think there is nothing inherently unclean or unhealthy or impure about money.

In fact if one has any obligations in this world, family, paying attention to making a living is an obligation.

Here is my response.

James, I don't disagree with any of the major points you make. In fact, the example you brought up about the dharma student and his teachers makes me cringe as well.

However, what I saw and participated over at the No Zen blog was not a purity battle. It was a sincere questioning of how to operate as a committed spiritual practitioner in a capitalist environment. I have long been troubled by the myriad of ways in which capitalism has impacted the Western dharma world. It's something I have spent the past decade wrestling with, and this blog is littered with commentaries attempting, from various angles, to unearth and challenge the assumptions that have bled into our practice from our capitalist-dominated society. Like the idea that dana is solely or mostly about giving money. Or the ways in which many Zen communities have made it next to impossible for working class and poor people to be full participants.

The fact that the blog authors of No Zen offered a forum to discuss their decision to join or not join Patheos, rather than simply made a statement of disdain for advertising, should be applauded. Furthermore, as a fellow Buddhist blogger, I appreciated that they raised the challenges of blogging and sustaining one's self financially in public. More of us need to do so. It's helpful for readers to see, and also supportive for fellow writers.

James, something in your post feels dismissive to me. Perhaps I am overly sensitive to money issues these days. At the same time, it's easy for middle and upper class practitioners, who aren't struggling financially, to dismiss debates like the one on No Zen as purity arguments. It reminds me of the manner in which many Democrats love to dismiss Greens, Socialists, and others as stuck on purity. Sometimes they are right, but often it is they who are the stuck ones. Stuck on their own relative power and privilege.

Capitalism may be empty of inherent nature, but in the relative world, it's making a major mess of everything. Money is not inherently evil, but the structures and stories we have built around it are producing a hell of a lot of suffering.

You wrote that "Paying attention to making a living is an obligation." I'd argue that it's more apt to say "Pay close attention to HOW you make a living." In that how is not a call to dismiss money and claim that one is pure because of doing so. It's about overturning the stones, and discerning if that how is sufficiently beneficial to the world or not. Or at least has a good potential to be.

Perhaps you considered all of this before moving to Patheos and decided that was worth it. My decision was different.

Neither of us chose to be very public about what we were pondering though, whereas the guys at No Zen did. Again, I thank them. If I had thought to do so, I would have done something similar on my blog.

Conversations about money and class in Zen are often fraught with bullshit posturing and hand wringing. It strikes me that you got a whiff of that in some of the comments over at No Zen, and it brought up numerous memories of similar discussions you've witnessed. While I am defending No Zen and the discussion as a whole, I also got a whiff of purity from a few of those comments.

However, they do not reflect the whole, not even close. And what you wrote reminded me of so many discussions and debates I have had about money and dharma - in my own sangha and online - where working class and poor folks were marginalized or left out in the cold entirely.

It's time for all of this to become more open, transparent, and frankly risky. Too often, we Zennies speak of liberation, but fail to risk the whole nine yards of ourselves. To place the cultures and social norms we have built ourselves out of on the fire, and let it all be burned straight through if necessarily through deep inquiry.

What's most creepy to me is how willingly many Zen practitioners unquestioningly uphold - and even enforce - middle class, capitalist norms, both as individuals and as communities of individuals. Something has got to give.

In closing, I'll offer one idea I just had. A Buddhist bloggers co-operative. It's been floated before, but here it is again. You get bloggers together under a collective platform, and build a shared fundraising mechanism or set of mechanisms that raise money and other support for writers in a manner that perhaps subverts capitalist norms. Or at least undercuts some of the bite.

The point of offering the co-op idea is to suggest that things can be different. That human minds and hearts can creatively address the challenges we face. Purity/evil. Democrats/Republicans. Capitalism/socialism. All those binaries are tired and wasteful. Dead ends. Lacking creativity. And in the end, clinging to either end of them really does little to solve the myriad of challenges more people are facing as the worlds' major economies are crumbling.

I have said enough. It's your turn. Go at it.


Petteri Sulonen said...

I'd suggest you take a gander at Freethought Blogs. It's a by-invitation blog collective of so-called New Atheists. The folks over there are doing an exceptional job of community-building, including making a concerted effort to make it something other than old, white, and male.

It would be majorly cool to see something like that happen for Buddhist blogging. However, to be honest, I'm not sure Buddhist bloggers as a group are as cooperative and open to the idea as New Atheists.

James said...

Dear Nathan,

I chose not to directly cite No Zen in the West because I wanted to climb on my hobby horse, addressing my concerns with what seem to me to be purity obsessions within the Dharma, which as you correctly point out while there were some whiffs of purity in the comments, were not primarily the concerns of the No Zen guys.

Class is another issue. And a worthy one. And one I visit upon occasion.

But I was hot on purity, so that's what I wrote about.

Yr fan,


jennifer said...

Maybe this is a naive presumption but I thought bloggers wrote blogs because they enjoyed writing and not to make money from it.

I don't have an issue with people making money from Dharma writings, but I don't think a blog is the appropriate place for that.

Algernon said...

This is excellent, Nathan.

Ji Hyang said...

James, I second your concerns with the emphasis on purity-- and have been re-reading the Light Inside the Dark to this end.

Algernon and Nathan, have you seen Sacred Economies-- it is truly a book in the spirit of that new economy you both have advocated, with perseverance and insight-- and it is available online here.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Thanks Nathan and James for your discussion of this. I love the idea of a co-op. I attempted to start one with a fellow philosophy student in my college days. It was a wonderful failure.

But all success is built on failure, so I wouldn't be shy about trying again at some point. Let me know if/how I can help. But being quite lazy and extraordinarily busy, I can't promise much.

Nathan said...


The majority of bloggers probably do write just for the enjoyment of it. I have had this blog for 3 years, and up until recently, did solely out of enjoyment. It served my practice, and I like engaging with readers.

The thing is, though, that any dharma teacher that publishes a book is making money. Almost every article you read in magazines like Tricycle and Buddhadarma are making some money for the authors. Plus the magazines as well. And there are plenty of spiritual blogs out there set up to make money, at least through ads.

And why? Because many of us are writers. We make a living in part, or in whole, through our writing. It's the exactly conundrum I was writing about, and James was writing about as well.

How do you make a financial living, and have a dedicated spiritual practice as well? I'm not convinced the answer is always to do work in some other field. At the same time, it's vital to keep a close eye on intentions, as well as one's impact on the world.

One last point - I believe the form itself - blogs - seems to interpreted by many as some of a hobby. And it was mostly that until perhaps 4-5 years ago, when more quality free platforms appeared to allow folks to make professional looking blogsites with professional level content.


Ben said...

I hope this isn't perceived as dismissive, but wouldn't it be fine for bloggers to just choose how they want to do it (according to their own preference, motivations and financial needs), and readers can read the blogs for whatever they get out of them and leave it at that?

It seems pretty entitled for an audience to expect a conveniently available free service to be ad-free. I personally prefer them ad-free too, but I wouldn't be comfortable complaining about ads as I'm reading some really deep and meaningful stuff that I know took way more time and thought to write than to read. And without giving anything back, not money, often not even a thank you. (BTW, thanks Nathan for your blog! Really, I love reading it, and your wisdom's worth sharing!).

I guess all I mean is, is this worth the scrutiny it's getting? Does having ads next to what you read, in a world (or at least here in Canada) where there are ads next to us at all times anyways, change what we're reading beyond redemption? There are wonderful addons for some of the major web browsers that block all ads anyways.


Ben said...

I think I left out something crucial. My last comment was founded on the assumption that capitalism is a problem, it's worth scrutinizing the hell out of, but that any given choice in a capitalist society is about capitalism, but is ALSO its own independent thing. I mean that this issue can "stand-in" in a discussion for a bigger series of problems, but should it in this case?

Nathan said...


You bring up a few interesting points. Bloggers are basically free to choose how they are going to use their blogs, and fund them or not. I wouldn't want there to be some set of standardized rules built up that trap any of us into a particular approach because everything really needs to be considered in context.

"Does having ads next to what you read, in a world (or at least here in Canada) where there are ads next to us at all times anyways, change what we're reading beyond redemption?"

For me, the constant bombardment of ads in general is an important thing to question. Why do we allow so much saturation? Why is it that corporations have become so powerful that they can literally change our landscape without any input from us?

To answer your question: I don't know. I don't know if having a plethora of ads next to a given article negatively impacts my reading experience. It seems more a cumulative effect. Ingesting thousands and millions of ads over a lifetime, and the repeated patterns of messages coming forth in my thinking and feeling.

I could write entire posts on this stuff.

Ben said...

Oh, totally. I guess what I mean is that, given a preexisting concern with the bombardment of advertising, whether or not an author chooses to participate/collude can safely be left up to their discretion.

Like, how could I, or anyone, pass any judgment on you (for example) should you choose to use an ad supported site, or not. I don't know how your income compares to your bills in a given month, nor do I know how you'd like to restructure the ways you get the money you need to live in such a way that allows you to write at all. I worry that we too often tend to adopt these preset dialogues about "selling-out," even when we're not talking about it in terms of "selling-out."

I guess I feel that to move into a world where we are not bombarded by ads we all need to let go of such hang-ups and expectations. Whether there are an extra couple thousand sites on the web without ads will not change the world, nor will an attachment to the various forms of what I'm inclined to call anti-capitalism (don't get me wrong, I don't believe for a second capitalism can possibly work--competition is comparison, disagreement, dehumanization, judgment, othering, etc.).

I guess I just feel that it's important to trust the author, to trust that they've made their choices for good reasons, and I worry that we too often let our insecurities about whether-that-trust-is-there-or-not (and it's true, it often isn't, but that's out of anyone's control) make decisions like this harder than they need to be.

I'm finally working a job that I can feel alright about, but If I had had(made?) the opportunity to drop even one shift a month from any of my previous jobs by having some ads that no one even clicks on anyways next to an article, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Haha, not that I'm saying people should or shouldn't do it, but it seems to me the choice is better made by the person who it will actually affect in a meaningful way, and according to their knowledge of their life.

Anyways (whoooa this is long), hope I don't sound too vindictive or anything, I'm still working on a gentler, more open writing voice. If I sound too masculine and assertive, trust that I don't want to.

Ben said...

Hey Nathan, you don't have to publish that last one of mine. Haha, I just read the post again and realized I had a totally different conception of the "issue" in my head by the time I saw your reply to my first comment! Oh man!
Anyways, great post!

Anonymous said...

I know I'm being picky, but:

"...including making a concerted effort to make it something other than old, white, and male."

As an old (55), white male myself, who is also a Zen Buddhist, Gay, poor, and decidedly left of centre, I get a bit miffed at constantly being cast as one of the 'villains' of the post-modern era. Can you please apply some post-structuralist thinking to these stereotypical assumptions and understand that there are quite a few of us who do not fit them. I'm also reasonably sure there are plenty of young, non-white, female individuals who are well and truly embedded in right-wing power structures.

Nathan said...

Perhaps you should consider why comments like that get under your skin. I am also a white male who is far left of center and financially poor. The way I see it, I stand with a foot on the margin and a foot in the center. I could easily take critiques of white, male supremacy personally, but that's not the point. Its about systemic dynamics and how those dynamics lead to certain groups being represented and uplifted more than others. The fact that there are women of color embedded in right wing beliefs and views does not negate the fact that white men - in North America, Europe, and Australia anyway, still hold much of the political and economic power. And these dynamics have influenced our Zen communities. White women are rising the ranks now, but there aren't a hell of a lot of female leaders in convert sanghas that are women of color. And really, not all that many people of color of any political background can be found in many convert sanghas. Point being, that its not about you or me being a villain. Its about a strong lack of diversity. In fact, being left of center politically is another hallmark of many convert Zen communities. There aren't a lot of political conservatives period.