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.
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.