Fee for Service Buddhism: A Small Meditation on Money and the Dharma


Two blogs I regularly check out are Notes in Samsara and American (in England) Buddhist Perspective. Through them I also on occasion dip into the blog Speculative Non-Buddhism.

At the moment there’s a bit of a brouhaha they’re all in varying degree caught up with. They’re all critical, again, in varying degree of Buddhist Geeks, which seems to me to be mostly young or younger Dharma practitioners from several different disciplines who have a web based presence as well as sponsoring an annual conference. They’ve been called out upon occasion for having so few people of color, particularly Asian or Asian-American practitioners and teachers, particularly at their conferences. I feel no doubt the color divide among us is a terrible thing and while it is something we are all complicit in, for those coming out of the dominant cultural groupings, healing this breach is mostly our responsibility. So, as the Geeks are pretty high profile, and it seems getting higher profile, this challenge sure looks legitimate to me.

But, there are other issues about them, as well, being aired by Justin, the pseudnonymous Mumon and the team at Speculative. One of the more interesting, I think, have been their challenges to “Integral” influenced Buddhisms, which seem to mark a significant proportion of the Geeks. Personally, I know little of Ken Wilbur, beyond having read two of his earlier books some years ago. I admit to a visceral distrust of systems that answer all questions, and, over the years, my personal red flags have raised around the company Mr Wilber has kept within his warm embrace even when they’ve gone seriously off the rails (notably Franklin Jones & Dennis Merzel), so, I’ve not delved deeply into the system. However, Justin, Mumon and the team have drilled down a bit and offer their perspectives on the shortcomings of the integral system, and what they raise looks helpful to me. And might be worth a further look from you.

However, what brings me to offer a thought or two here comes from a very recent posting from Mumon. He questions a tweet from Justin describing someone connected to the Geeks named Kenneth Folk as a “major” Western Buddhist. As my Dharmic circles don’t extend far beyond the Zen universe, I can’t say I’d ever heard of Mr Folk before. So, I have no dog in the hunt regarding his relevance to the Buddhist world.

In his listings of the man’s shortcomings, Mumon, takes umbrage at Mr Folk offering meditation instruction online for a fee (with a discount coupon).

Mumon’s arguments are several, and, as he points out in the blog posting I cite, he’s covered his concerns at greater length, elsewhere.

Me, I have little interest in fee scales, one of Mumon’s issues, although I have to admit I smiled at learning there was a discount coupon. But I do have views on the idea of fee for service teaching of the Dharma. And that’s the subject of my meditation here…

Mumon is hardly the first Buddhist commentator to raise questions about the ethical appropriateness of charging for teaching Buddhism in one aspect or another. The relevant line for many is a direct connection between “charging money” and “Dharma.” The Dharma is free is the response and charging money is wrong. The strongest specific argument I think is that no one should be turned away from access to the Dharma because of financial constraint.

Me, I see a conundrum. On the one hand the Dharma is a saving thing, succor for the hurt of the world. And those of us who have found healing in the Buddhadharma have some obligation to make it available to others. On the other hand, to draw upon another tradition for an image, the “laborer is worthy of his wages.”

The question for me in this reflection turns on those who bring the Dharma to people, increasingly as the full time focus of their lives, and how they also earn their keep.

The carriers of the Buddhist way have for the most part over the larger part of history been renunciants, who by their rule cannot even touch money. Their support flows out of a complex structure of dana, or free giving. This system was birthed within a cultural context where monastics were supported by the larger community, and even when Buddhism was just one aberrant band among a larger proto-Hindu culture, they could already rely upon support from the larger lay community who had a tradition of supporting spiritual mendicants. In Buddhist cultures this system was expanded and sustained by the belief that gifts to renunicants produced greater positive karma than gifts to anyone else. And for those getting on with their lives and for whom spiritual efforts were mostly left to the professionals, the benefits of supporting the community was, how shall we put it, money in the bank, potentially leading to a better future life.

Each time Buddhism has moved into a new culture there have been shifts and adaptations. Perhaps the most notable until modernity was when Buddhism moved into China, and where monastics moved from being wandering beggars to settling down into communities, often supported by large land grants tilled by serfs (slave could also be used).

Today, as the many schools of Buddhism have come to the West there has been a wild range of ways to deal with the support of teachers of the Buddhist way.

In many ethnic enclaves there have been successful transplanting of East and South Asian monastic communities. And, more power to them, and those who have crossed ethnic barriers to embrace this ancient and noble path. But, there have been other models taking shape, as well. Japan had long since abandoned Vinaya monasticism in favor of an ordination model that increasingly looks like a Western ministry model something akin to Presbyterianism. Here in the West, one, a large Japanese Shin sect has created a church complete with seminary trained ministers. They have had their ups and downs, but I think their story has yet to look toward an end. I look to them with enormous admiration.

My own Zen schools have been struggling with priestly identity pretty much since they’ve arrived on Western soil. As non monastics using monastic terminology they and those they serve have had a hard time finding the right place. Personally, I think looking to the BCA could be helpful. But, what is certain is that story is not done, yet, either.

And, there has arisen within Zen and the larger Dharma community the phenomenon of lay teachers. There have always been lay teachers, but within its Western formations lay teachers have come to the fore in an unprecidented manner.

So, given the complexities of the Japanese ordination models which have produced many Dharma teachers here in the West as well as the significant numbers of lay teachers, we have come up front and ugly, to confront that connection between money and teaching.

Among the options I see, we can

1) scrap the non monastic ordained and lay teacher models.

2) keep these systems amateur (in the most positive use of that term), where the teacher is expected to make her or his living in some way unconnected to the Dharma.

3) revisit the “ethics” of financial support for non monastic teachers.

Frankly, I think the horse has been out of the barn vastly too long for option one.

Option two is what many are doing, myself included. I’m endlessly grateful for having stumbled into a line of work that has, I think, fruitfully, pushed me and challenged me as a Dharma teacher. I think those who have taken on various uniquely Western disciplines as psychologists, social workers, coaches and the various related, also fit into this option two adaptation.

And, I think, as good as it has been for me, and a number of other teachers, it isn’t an ideal model. For one where is the line between a psychological counseling and Buddhist teaching? Or, coaching? Or, the rising discipline of “spiritual direction?” I find that line so movable depending on this or that as to be almost meaningless.

So. Acknowledging it isn’t going to be easy, still, I think we need to go with all deliberation toward option three.

One of the axioms of the Buddha way is seeing through clinging to that which is passing as if it were permanent. For many this has meant abandoning the world. In the Zen way as I’ve learned it and practice it letting go of clinging does not necessarily have to do with retreat from life in the world.

This is in part a response to the various problems that have arisen with too tight a clinging to renunciation as “the” way.

In addition, and I can’t begin to say what is chicken and what is egg, the whole dana scheme has collapsed in the West, where for the most part it has been reduced to another Western concept, tips. I was visiting with a very prominent Insight meditation teacher at a very large center and asked him about how dana is working for them. He admitted how he felt slightly embarrassed about it, but he’s doing well. I think the embarrassment had to do much with the fact, as he also added, that most of his colleagues were struggling to survive.

So, money as one of the grand conundrums of Buddhism come West.

And, of course, it brings with it a whole new set of problems. One or two perhaps illustrated by Mr Folk’s discounted fee schedule.

What I hope for is more open and honest discussions about money and Dharma. I would also hope for some reflection by those who don’t like the idea of “professional” Buddhist teachers, to consider what exactly their problem is, and to articulate it in as open and heartful a way as they can.

I especially hope we tone down the rhetoric as we deal with this difficult issue. The people involved are for the most part devoted to the Dharma and trying to find ways to make a living while living out their commitments, and in service to something deeply loved and cared for.

And, I hope, not use charging a fee for instruction as evidence of someone’s perfidity. Or, at the very least, contextualize the criticism – is really always wrong, or is there an appropriate medium, and what is that medium?

And, of course, for those of us who support revisioning the ways we financially support our Dharma teachers to offer clear thinking on the matter. No facile dismissals in this discussion…

Do this.

And who knows, we might even struggle into something that serves the great way…

For those interested in this subject Mumon has offered some further reflections I found worth a read…

And A Glorious Harvey Milk Day to You!
THOSE DAMNED LEARNING MOMENTS Some Rules of Engagement in Discussing Matters of Race & Other Matters of Inequality in Our Culture
Ezra Bayda on True Contentment
World Turtle Day

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