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Monday, February 24, 2014

The Cha-Ching of Buddhism in America

Okay, I need to vent here. I know as well as anyone that it costs money to run a spiritual center. There are ways to do it that are more cost effective than others, but no matter how you slice it you need to bring in money. That being said, there is a tradition in Buddhism that classes and groups are held without specific charge and "dana," a word meaning generosity, is how a center supports itself. In the East, generosity is part of the culture and Temples and other Buddhist centers survive very well on the "dana" system. In the West, the claim is that generosity is not part of our culture and so specific charges must be set. I'm not buying that argument (pun intended), at least for the segment of the population that has had any exposure to Christian churches which run entirely on "dana," though it's called "pledging." I might have less of a problem with the fees associated with Buddhist centers if the ones I encountered here in Milwaukee weren't so ridiculous. Tonight I saw an advertisement for a six week, weekday morning introduction to mindfulness course that was priced at $125. In the neighborhood where this guy is located he won't have any problem raising the money from bored housewives, but that isn't the point. The point is that the pricing - and his location - locks out a lot of middle class working people.

In the building where I do my spiritual classes there is a guy who regularly charges $175 for daylong meditation sessions. He's just a local guy who I am sure is well qualified but not a nationally known teacher - though he charges more than nationally known teachers do. Once again, middle class working people are priced out of the dharma without mention of any sliding scale or scholarship availability. How is that loyal to the tradition? How is that compassionate? How does it reflect any knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha?

Large retreat centers have adopted the practice of charging for facility use only and paying the teachers through dana from attendees. That's a step in the right direction that covers the legitimate costs of the center, and they usually offer scholarships and other financial assistance for those with need. If the large centers can do it, why can't the local centers? Large centers have substantially more overhead than local centers, so the answer isn't financial need. I'm afraid to say that the answer is  greed, and it's not pretty.

Buddhism in America has developed the reputation of being an elitist religion for the wealthy only, and that's a far cry from its origins as a religion in which monastics depended on daily contributions of food from laypeople for the one meal they ate each day and were not allowed to handle money. As it spreads from the east and west coast into middle America, there will need to be strict guidelines for the operators of small, local dharma centers if Buddhism is to remain relevant and viable into the future. Spiritual centers should be run as responsible not for profits, and if teachers are to draw an income from their work it should be from dana, not from fees for classes and retreats. Teachers should know that (for most of them) a day job will be necessary to meet their living expenses. Most day to day operating costs of the center should be covered by regular attendees at weekly meditation groups and classes. Open and honest discussion about the financial needs of a center are not only appropriate, they are necessary. If a particular offering isn't self supporting, it should be discontinued.

These are just a few of the guidelines for responsible operation of a spiritual center of any kind. Fiscal responsibility allows centers to offer classes that are affordable to the majority of people, whether through setting a lower base price,  offering scholarships, or both. Centers should also offer classes in locations accessible by people without their own vehicle, on or near a bus line. These few steps would go a long way toward changing a rapidly developing image problem for Buddhism in America and would also make it possible for more people interested in the dharma to check it out. That's a win-win situation for all involved!


  1. "Teachers should know that (for most of them) a day job will be necessary to meet their living expenses." -Bishop Craig

    EXACTLY! I remember being a child and how shocked I was to find out that the pastor of our church worked within senior management of UPS.
    However, that makes sense, when you think about it. A church, temple, spiritual center should not be a profit center and should rely upon the generosity of its members to give what they can. I totally agree, Buddhism is becoming a religion of the wealthy. It is the "hot" thing to do. Which is sad because there are many individuals who won't be able to participate due to lack of material wealth. Buddha warned against "lobha", I bet that is glossed over in these sessions. The hope would be that members would feel compelled to practice "dana" and the costs of the sessions would be reduced. Unfortunately, the neighborhood guy will probably pocket the money and go about his business.
    Continue to write!
    I always gain such peace from your blog, it helps me to come back to the center.

    1. Hi Byron!

      Thank you for your feedback, it means a lot! It's good to know that people resonate with my writing and that it helps them - it's honestly the biggest reason I write.