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Monday, September 1, 2014

White Trash Buddhist

To those who have commented about "growing wearing" of hearing about poverty, may I respectfully suggest that your compassion practice could use a little boost?

There is an excellent piece on called "White Trash Buddhist" that you can find here. I was aghast at how many people commenting on the article were unsympathetic to the financial struggles of the writer as he tried to access retreat opportunities. My response, submitted to the website, is reproduced here: 

This is not the first article to point out that America Buddhism is in large part a classist and almost exclusively Caucasian endeavor - and I believe those two factors are not unrelated. As one who runs an interspirituality center, I understand the choices we make around overhead do influence cost - but those are choices. If I choose to derive my primary income from the Center, my costs escalate. If I choose to have a residential center, the number of beds will in large part determine my costs. Having lovely grounds is a beautiful notion, but they too come at a cost both to install and maintain. The higher my costs, the more I have to charge, the fewer people of average means who can attend. This is especially true for those of us in the middle of the country who also have higher travel costs associated with attending a retreat. Many of us, and as a disabled person on limited income that includes me, are quite simply priced out of attending retreat at least in part because every retreat includes another four hundred dollars or more for a plane ticket.

Are American Buddhist Centers imitating the trend of American Christian Churches in becoming Country Clubs rather than Spiritual Centers? There can be no doubt that many certainly are, while other local centers struggle to get by and offer affordable programming to all. The problem is that we are inundated by messages from teachers - especially ones at the Country Club Centers - that retreat is the ONLY way we will make significant progress on the path. It strikes me that message is more than a little self-serving. Others have pointed out that the Buddha didn't run to an exclusive spa-cum-retreat-center to become enlightened. I believe that is an important and excellent point. Perhaps it is our American need to combine vacation with spiritual study that has created a demand for these high end centers. I'm not convinced that's a combination that produces fruit in the real world as much as it produces culture shock when one returns home. Might not the Roman Catholic retreat center model, with comparatively austere accommodations, work better and at lower cost? I believe there is no accident that some Buddhist retreats have used such Centers effectively and at lower cost.

I believe that we have an obligation to ensure that practice opportunities are available to everyone regardless of their economic status. We can do that through contributing to scholarship funds as we are able, but a more significant impact would be made by developing some centers that are affordable to everyone. Let us not forget that the Buddha rejected the caste system of his day. We should exercise care that we are not reinforcing the caste system of our day.

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