Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Zen Finances and Practice

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?


Algernon said...

Thanks for opening this up.

Thank you especially for bringing in the discussion of cliquishness and "zennier than thou" fallacies. I've seen that divide between people who do lots of retreats and those who don't; people who live at the Zen Center versus those who commute; laypeople versus vinaya monastics. I even saw people get divided around those who asked lots of questions and dharma talks and those who listened in silence.

Sometimes people really gathered into cliques around these differences, sometimes the perception of cliques may have been exaggerated.

Zen Master Seung Sahn used to call people on this, as "opposites thinking." Teachers subsequently did it less often, for reasons I won't speculate about.

This is part of a broader phenomenon that definitely relates to the matter of financial barriers in our sanghas.

As for the fourth point: your own blog has features some excellent writing on this topic, and this is actually what first drew me to your blog.

Jeanne Desy said...

"Real practice" brings vividly to my mind a bit of conversation I heard between two guys of a group that pulled up and left our sangha without warning on the heels of an effort to democratize its decision-making.

One had been to Zen Mountain for a week - a very formal stratified group. He loved it. It couldn't be formal enough for these guys.

The other (a married man with kids) sighed and said, "Wouldn't it be nice if you could go somewhere like that for months and really practice?"

For them, practice was sitting perfectly still and chastising a newcomer who moved during the sit. No kidding. Real practice.

themajessty said...

Interesting post. (: I never did think much about this subject because my parents are strongly against such practices, but I believe they are very effective - from what I've read and heard about it, anyway.

Unfortunately, such self-edification doesn't appeal to me very much and I doubt I will ever try it. I do, however, admire people who have the determination to.

Nathan said...


Thanks for stopping by here.

There are many ways to do meditation, and a lot of it is bigger than a self-edification project. And Zen is much more than meditation - it's really a way of being and acting in the world.

DG - I've had a few "run ins" with guys (and a few women) like those you speak of in your comment. I think some people really thrive on rigid structure and hierarchies, but then the same folks sometimes think that such a way is the "only way."

Whenever I hear someone say anything is the only way, my BS detector goes wildly off.

Atomic Geography said...

This is one of the discussions where, based on the teachings, I expect someone to say something about karma. I know this can be difficult because unskillful remarks are easily misunderstood as blaming the person experiencing the difficulty.

Although I am fortunate financially, I have health issues that make getting to the "my" monastery a rare event.

I practice in the Tibetan tradition and there are a number of metaphors used to describe how rare it is, how fortunate one is, after innumerable lifetimes, of having the opportunity to encounter the dharma.

I find reflecting on this helpful, although it took some effort fr this to be true.

Also reflecting on how one can overcome whatever obstacles appear, and developing a plan and following through is also helpful, although no guarantee of success.

K Grey said...

This is ancient BS, beginning when Buddha's teachings were turned into a religion.

It is perfectly reasonable to charge for teaching, time, classes, facility use, etc.

It is impossible to charge for or transmit Dharma. Dharma is not teaching(s). If teachers understand this and acknowledge what fees cover, the issues remain simple logistical matters. Attitudes about ability/attendance are seen for the BS personal opinions they are.

When there is confusion over dharma being charged for arises when it is actively being taught as some body of knowledge, being packaged as "the dharma", from which people form all manner of erroneous beliefs about "the dharma" - only then do we see all these issues.

Nathan said...

K Grey - point taken. You are right that too often, people get hung up on something packaged or being taught as "the dharma."

Although I'm not sure it's always "simple logistical matters" for people to access the particular classes, teachers, facilities, retreats etc. this post is talking about.

Bob - the challenge with taking about karma is that there are so many causes and conditions coming together to create a given moment in a person's life.

And when it comes to finances, for example, it's easy to speak of karma as a way to justify one's wealth or another's material poverty - but it's much harder to actually say something that points to a more complex set of relationships occurring.

I like the reflections on the very long view - the lifetimes after lifetimes. It opens up some of the tightness around all of this.

Joshua Eaton said...

"Finally, I also support breaking middle class norms in order to place your spiritual practice in the forefront."

Isn't the whole issue here how to make dharma centers more accessible to people whore are *not* middle class?

Nathan said...


One thing I have noticed is how some of those middle class norms around money and finances have slipped into working class lives. The pressure to maintain decent credit scores, or to place employment far in front of a deeper spiritual practice, are also easily found amongst working class folks. So, in that sense, breaking those norms applies.

However, in another sense, you're totally right that there are other issues at play here. Including sometimes clashing world views, especially when you start talking about people who are really materially poor.

It reminds me of a conversation on another site about stealing. There were people saying "Hey, if you're broke, you have to do what you can to survive." And there were others who were taking a moral stance that stealing is wrong, and that they should find a church or charity organization to get free food, clothing, and whatnot from.

The whole way in which the 2nd precept is viewed and practiced can depend on your class background. So, somehow, these discussions about finances and Buddhism need to consider the broader class issues at stake.

Atomic Geography said...

Nathan, Karma makes no sense unless coupled with innumerable lifetimes. That we all have been through the cycle of existence, from being gods to being hell beings, should be a source of compassion for ourselves and others. If we think of these things as only in reference to this present life, or to other people we very easily get caught up in gain/loss, praise/blame etc thinking.

Nathan said...

"Nathan, Karma makes no sense unless coupled with innumerable lifetimes."

I agree with you, but a fair number of practicing Buddhists don't seem to see it that way. It's often truncated to apply only to this life.

Brikoleur said...

@bob: That may be true for you. It is, however, rash to assume that it is true for everyone.

Atomic Geography said...


Which that? And why?

Brikoleur said...

@bob: That karma makes no sense unless coupled with innumerable lifetimes, rebirth as hell-beings, god-beings, pretas, etc.

Atomic Geography said...

Petterri, could you expand on the karma redefined in the context of one lifetime? I guess I'm finding your objection kinda vague so it's hard to respond to.

Nathan said...

Bob, Petteri wrote a blog post partly in response to your original comment. You can find it here:

Brikoleur said...

@bob: What I'm pointing out is that "makes sense" is inherently subjective. Makes sense to whom? Something that makes sense to you does not necessarily make sense to me. This is true even for things that are pretty well grounded in observation and experience. It's all the more true for things that involve difficult-to-define terms and concepts, and inevitable when metaphysical suppositions enter the game.

Therefore, it is IMO rash and, yes, unskilful to make sweeping statements that something "makes sense" or "does not make sense" without these qualifiers. It's also arrogant—you're declaring your view the 'correct' one before even hearing any opposing views.

From where you're at, karma makes no sense without rebirth, god-beings, and hell-beings.

From where I'm at, ideas like god-beings or hell-beings exist in the same sense that you or I exist, or hells or heavens are places in the same sense that Detroit or Paris are places, or that Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama in some metaphysically different sense than Joseph Ratzinger is the 265th Pope, make no sense.

But karma does make sense to me, and rebirth does make sense too -- although I suspect it makes a rather a different kind of sense for me than for you.

If you wish to contine this conversation, I think it would be polite to Nathan to do so on my blog in the post he referenced, since this is very much a sidetrack.