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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Classism in Western Spirituality

There is something about white Americans that really disturbs me, I have to confess. Give us something good and we immediately start trying to figure out a way to keep anyone who doesn't look like us out. Unfortunately, Buddhism and other Eastern spiritualities in their American expression is no exception.

As someone who has knocked around ministry circles for more than two decades now I am certainly aware of the need for financial support to sustain a ministry regardless of denomination or tradition. It costs money to pay rent and utilities, and teachers need to eat - I don't dispute that for a moment. Many of us need to get better at asking for money from those we serve. We also need to recognize that there is a vast, untapped pool of people who could benefit from our teachings and simply cannot afford to pay for them. Many religious and spiritual centers have made it quite clear that people are welcome regardless of their ability to pay. These centers should be commended for their generosity and inclusive spirit.


Buddhism in America, to cite but one example, generally teaches that if people want to advance in their practice they really need to sit extended retreats at retreat centers. I'm not convinced that's the case, but for a moment let's leave that aside and address those retreats. Retreat centers in the United States are located in just a few areas: New England (including upstate New York), Colorado, and northern California. That means that for most of the country sitting a retreat involves not only the cost of the retreat and the teacher donation, but also the cost of travel. Other centers offer retreats but cannot include lodging, which adds to the cost even further. To be fair, some centers do offer partial scholarships on the cost of the retreat, but that doesn't help with the travel costs. The truth is that retreats in  America are the domain of the well to do, and that isn't representative of traditional Buddhism. Of course, Christian retreat centers in America are no different, though perhaps even less generous in terms of scholarships, but they are more local and so the travel problem doesn't exist

In Asia sitting a retreat meant going to the local monastery or cave and sitting it. To be sure, people's needs were simpler that most westerners, and they would often go on alms rounds to get their daily food. Celebrity teachers were not brought in to teach these retreats, and there weren't optional massage and spa treatments. My point is that these retreats were affordable to all, if not exactly in accord with western assumptions around creature comforts. We also need to remember that in the Eastern traditions there are many examples of teachers who were "householders" and still reached advanced stages of practice while attending to their duties at home. For us in the RHIMES lineage, then, the challenge becomes creating a spiritual environment that is accessible to as many people as possible while meeting minimal western standards of comfort.

It seems to me that local centers are key because they eliminate travel and allow the person the option of spending the night at home. I recognize that isn't the idea in terms of immersion, but it is better than not being able to attend at all. These would be smaller centers that also offered weekly spiritual classes and so were not dependent on the retreat income to survive. I feel this also keeps a center more grounded, unlike retreat only centers like Omega in New York that would offer a retreat on spiritual farting if it would fill the cushions (pardon the pun). Then we staff the centers with bi-vocational teachers and staff who don't need to make a living from the center, though they certainly deserve to be compensated for their efforts. If we want celebrity teachers, we invite them by purchasing their DVDs (and, of course, obtaining licenses to show them) and have local teachers offer commentary and discussion. Perhaps most importantly, we locate the centers in urban areas that allow access by all people and strive to create a multicultural environment in which all people are welcome. We do not allow people of privilege to dominate our boards and committees - and we are freed to do that by keeping costs low so that we do not become dependent upon their money. For many if not most spiritual and religious leaders this type of model will require some degree of paradigm shift, and some will not be able to make the transition and that's okay because the comfortable and decaying need to be served, too...

We also need to end our fascination with things foreign that devolve into discriminatory practices. Asians sit in lotus on cushions because that is how seating developed in Asian culture. Westerners sit in chairs. Not being able to sit on a cushion means being relegated to the back rows of seating in most meditation centers. Of course, I realize that putting chairs in the front row would block the view of people on cushions, but the implied message that somehow those in chairs are practicing a kind of second class meditation because their bodies don't allow them to assume a culturally unnatural position comes through loud and clear. Westerners generally speaking do not remove their shoes for spiritual practice, and as one who lives in the Midwest I can attest to the fact that the shoeless practice may work well in a tropical climate but doesn't transfer well to winter in Milwaukee!

In the final analysis we need to shift the religious and spiritual culture in America from the racially segregated and classist beast it has become to a truly inclusive representation of the American population. I believe that to do that we will need to strip the cultural accretions from the various spiritual traditions and focus on practice - and then in our centers display multicultural images that speak to the people who attend them. To do that well we will need to have multicultural staff and advisers, because there isn't much worse than a white person trying to be multicultural without help. Can we do it? I believe we can!

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